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  • Tolkien and Bakhtin on Authorship, Literary Freedom, and Alterity
  • Benjamin Saxton (bio)

What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?” [Sam] said. “I wish I could hear it told! Do you think they’ll say: Now comes the story of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom? And then everyone will hush, like we did, when in Rivendell they told us the tale of Beren One-hand and the Great Jewel. I wish I could hear it! And I wonder how it will go on after our part.”

(RK, VI, iv, 228–29)

Sam’s narrative, which he imagines amidst danger and despair, indicates the vital place of stories and creative collaboration in Middle-earth. For Tolkien, the act of narration becomes a metaphor for living in the world. Listening to other voices and expressing one’s own are major considerations of his fiction. But despite many insightful treatments of fate and freedom in his mythology,1 critics have rarely focused on Tolkien’s presentation of literary freedom or, more broadly, how his theory of sub-creation can be situated among contemporary views of authorship.2 This essay is principally concerned with the role of creative relationships in Middle-earth: the way in which authors (including Tolkien himself) enable or restrict the agency of their characters or their fellow narrators. Artistic creativity, when shared, becomes a liberating and life-enriching partnership; when denied, it becomes a harsh, suffocating kind of discourse.

I read Tolkien alongside the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, whose provocative discussion of author-hero relations can illuminate Tolkien’s own exploration of authorship and alterity. I begin by discussing how they both conceive of the author as a figure who shares narrative responsibilities with his characters. Next, I briefly discuss the ways in which this collaborative approach to authorship departs from contemporary critical views that call for the removal (or “death”) of the author. Finally, I consider how Bakhtin’s understanding of alterity appears in the character-character (or self-other) relationships in The Lord of the Rings. A second purpose of this essay, then, is to show that the similarities between Tolkien and Bakhtin are more extensive than has been previously recognized.3 While their views are certainly not identical—indeed, I will suggest that there are important differences between them—both writers emphasize what might be called an ethics of creativity: choosing to talk with others or to shut them out, deciding to craft shared stories or domineering monologues. [End Page 167]

Variations of Authorial Freedom and Control

Bakhtin’s account of author-hero relations is intimately tied to his broader theory of dialogics. For Bakhtin, an individual is never a single, isolated person in full possession of his or her speech, but rather a person among persons whose voice gains meaning only with others: “Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree” (Problems 293). Each spoken utterance, as a result, “is accompanied by a sideways glance at another person” (Problems 32). A single word—“precious” comes to mind—gains its meaning in the space between speakers as diverse as Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, Pippin, Isildur, Gandalf, the narrator, and Tolkien himself.

Even if life is irreducibly dialogic, this does not prevent us from defining each other and the world monologically—that is, as the condition in which “another person remains wholly and merely an object of consciousness, and not another consciousness” (Problems 293). Monologic discourse shuts out the voice of the other, turning him or her into a lifeless object rather than a living subject. With very few exceptions, Bakhtin argues, this condition has characterized the history of the Western novel. Just as we are tempted to close out voices prematurely in order to exert a measure of control over the world, so too have authors imposed artificial unities in their work. The monologic author, standing outside the novel as an omnipotent judge, knows everything about his characters and can evaluate, contrast, and juxtapose them as he pleases. “An internal connection, a connection between consciousnesses,” as a result, is completely absent (Problems 69). “The characters,” Bakhtin...


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pp. 167-183
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