J.R.R. Tolkien, Sub-Creation, and Theories of Authorship

By Saxton, Benjamin | Mythlore, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

J.R.R. Tolkien, Sub-Creation, and Theories of Authorship


Saxton, Benjamin, Mythlore


Even a brief glance at the author of the Lord of the Rings reveals a man who constantly questioned his role as a creator, interpreter, and delegator of texts. J.R.R. Tolkien's well-known essay "On Fairy-Stories" and excerpts from his Letters outline the ways in which the author as "sub-creator" imagines and creates secondary worlds of fiction. Tolkien also provided instances in his own fiction--especially in "Leaf by Niggle," early sections of The Silmarillion, and The Lord of the Rings--that function as metacommentaries on the process of authoring texts. In part because he is regarded as a fantasist, however, far removed from the realm of literary theory, and also because Tolkien has been described (and self-described) as a writer who consciously eschewed modern literary conventions, there have been few attempts to situate Tolkien's understanding of "sub-creation" in relation to contemporary theories of authorship. (1) Many of these theories, of which Roland Barthes's essay "The Death of the Author" presents a primary example, assume that a single, indivisible meaning resides with the author's presence. Once there is a final separation between the author and the text, meaning is no longer circumscribed and one may freely revel in what Barthes calls the indeterminacies or "pleasures" of the text. An important question to consider, however, is whether the increased (or endless) interpretive freedom that Barthes desires necessitates the permanent removal (or "death") of the author. Although he has rarely been invoked in contemporary debates on authorship, Tolkien was deeply concerned with the delicate balance between authors, authority, and interpretive freedom. In this essay I suggest that Tolkien's views on the relationship between the author and God, on "sub creation," and on the historical character of language all present an alternative to Barthes's zero-sum game in which either the author or the reader can survive.

The Death and Return of the Author

How does Tolkien's understanding of authorship anticipate, parallel, and ultimately depart from approaches that call for the removal of the author? To answer this question it will be helpful to begin with "The Death of the Author," Barthes's stimulating essay that redefined the terms in which the author could be accepted or rejected in contemporary (post-1970) discourse. Like Tolkien himself, Barthes grounds his conception of the author in an analogy between the author and the divine. He points out that, throughout history, the image of literature has been "tyrannically centered" on the author, who "still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, [and] magazines" (143). Yet Barthes is not content to define the author as mere celebrity or royalty: he must elevate the author to divine status. From the essay's title, which alludes to Nietzsche's earlier pronouncement of the death of God, to the "Author-God" whom he invokes, Barthes is at pains to establish an ongoing analogy that draws upon the attributes of the divine. As Sean Burke explains, for Barthes, "The author is to his text as God [...] is to his world: the unitary cause, source and master to whom the chain of textual effects must be traced, and in whom they find their genesis, meaning, goal and justification" (23). Just as the natural theologian searches for traces of God in nature or from design, so too is the text the site from which evidence of the author (and hence the text's meaning) can be found.

The responsibility of the reader-critic, in this view, is to work backwards from the evidence to the source, collecting the fragmented dispersions of meaning within a text and moving, referentially, to the ultimate meaning that inheres with the Author-God. The presence of the author has crucial implications when it comes to the possibility of apprehending meaning:

   To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to
   furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

J.R.R. Tolkien, Sub-Creation, and Theories of Authorship
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?