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

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

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. … 

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