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  • Clinamen, Tessera, and the Anxiety of Influence:Swerving from and Completing George MacDonald
  • Josh Long (bio)

In 1973, the year J.R.R. Tolkien passed away, Harold Bloom released his seminal work The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Although Bloom's book has had a profound effect on the topic of literary influence, his theory has received minimal attention within the field of Tolkien studies. Faye Ringel takes a Bloomian approach in her article "Women Fantasists: In the Shadow of the Ring," though, ultimately, her article focuses primarily on those whom Tolkien influenced. Diana Glyer also considers The Anxiety of Influence in the final chapter of her book-length study The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community; however, she is more interested in expanding the notion of literary influence rather than evaluating how Tolkien's fiction fits into Bloom's paradigm. This article serves to demonstrate that Bloom's theory is relevant to both Tolkien's creative journey in general and Smith of Wootton Major in particular.

In The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom develops six revisionary ratios—ways in which one poet influences another. I am only interested in the first two—clinamen and tessera. The former might be best described as a corrective swerve, a turning away from a precursor poet in attempt to correct what he did wrong; the latter is antithetical completion, which occurs when a poet retains a precursor's terms but means them in a different way (Bloom 14).

These revisionary ratios are performed by a poet as a means "to clear imaginative space for" himself (Bloom 5). As the modern writer (post Enlightenment) seeks to achieve literary greatness, he inevitably becomes anxious over influence and, consequently, reacts to his literary precursor. Through a revisionary movement in his own text, the writer is able to create something original and thus pacify his fear of indebtedness. At the heart of Bloom's theory is this idea: "The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist" (30, emphasis in original). In Smith, Tolkien sought to correctively swerve from and antithetically complete MacDonald's The Golden Key.

The Unfinished Preface to The Golden Key

When Tolkien began Smith in late 1964, he was not intending to [End Page 127] write a story about Faërie. In fact, he was not even initially trying to tell a tale; the story arose almost accidentally.1 It began with a simple request from a publisher. Pantheon Books of New York inquired on 2 September 1964 whether Tolkien would write a preface to a new edition of George MacDonald's The Golden Key. Tolkien responded to their query on 7 September: "I should like to write a short preface to a separate edition of The Golden Key. I am not as warm an admirer of George MacDonald as C. S. Lewis was; but I do think well of this story of his" (Letters 351). Though Tolkien had supervised a B.Litt. thesis on MacDonald in 1934 and may have reread him in 1938 or 1939 while working on "On Fairy-stories," he had almost certainly not read MacDonald for nearly three decades..2 Therefore, when he accepted the request from Pantheon books to write a preface to The Golden Key, he was basing his decision largely on the fact that he had praised the story in "On Fairy-stories." In actuality, he only had vague memories of what it was really like.

After rereading The Golden Key, Tolkien discovered that he did not like it at all. According to Carpenter, Tolkien claimed that it was "ill-written, incoherent, and bad, in spite of a few memorable passages" (quoted in Biography 244). Elsewhere, he stated that "re-reading G[eorge] M[acDonald] critically filled me with distaste" (Smith 69).3 In spite of these misgivings, he persisted in trying to write a preface:

A fairy tale is a tale about that world, a glimpse of it; if you...


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