Friday, September 18, 2015

Narrative Authority

Several weeks ago while discussing The Simarillion, we came to the topic of authority within mythology.  Unfortunately we were at the very end of class, and never picked it up again.  In our world there are many different mythologies and religions which fight with one another about who is right and who is wrong.  Every culture has their own version of a creation story.  When Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion, he did it in such a way as to emulate known mythologies and religions.  In general, we accept the creation story in The Silmarillion as the "true" creation of Middle-earth.  But then in class we realized that this story is just the one told by the Elves.  It is entirely possible, and likely, that other races could have their own versions just like different cultures in our own world have different versions.  The question of whether Tolkien intended this to be the "truth" or if it was just one version then arose.
Last semester I had the privilege of taking a course in Native American literature and rhetoric with Dr. N. Scott Momaday.  During one lecture he told a story about a man and his wife sitting in their tepee.  While she was cooking and he was making arrows, he noticed a small hole in the side of their tepee.  Through this hole he was able to see an enemy peering in.  The man immediately strung an arrow and shot the man through the hole.  Dr. Momaday then told us that after telling this story on one occasion, someone asked, "Well how do we know the man outside the tepee was an enemy?  What if he just killed an innocent person?"  To this Dr. Momaday replied, "We know because the author said so, and what the author says goes."
So, returning to Tolkien, what do we do with The Silmarillion? I'm inclined to agree with Dr. Momaday.  Tolkien never told us anything else, despite writing quite extensively after finishing The Silmarillion.  But that's certainly not the only possibilty, and I'd be interested in hearing what everyone else thinks.  Is The Silmarillion Middle-earth's true creation story, or is it just the Elves' version?

5 comments:

Nienna said...

I was also quite interested in the questions posed in class and I am glad to see it up on the blog. Religion and origin stories are fascinating. I think it is important to remember that context and origin do matter. Who is telling the story often tells us much about the story itself. In this way it is important to evaluate who had control of the writing and history of any given mythology. However, I think we must take "The Silmarillion" as Middle-earth's true origin story. The reason being that the text makes no claim to be a true mythology. Rather, it is Tolkien's own sub-creation. Therefore, his word definitely goes because Middle-earth is entirely of his own creation. Therefore, he can write the origin however he sees fit because he created the world. This is the beauty of fiction works. He gets the final say. However, I think it would definitely be interesting if the origin story was written from one of the other race's point of view since Tolkien only gives the story from the Elves viewpoint. Creative project perhaps?

Manwë said...

I also found this question very interesting! I agree that the story presented in the Silmarillion is the actual origin- even though it’s told by the elves there is a general agreement within the people of the Tolkien universe that the stories true- the humans are the only ones that bring up some sort of dispute or disagreement, and they are the ones that had never really had much interaction with the Valar in the first place. It’s a hard question to answer- my gut feeling is that since Tolkien is the author what he says goes, yet if the one were to take the perspective of those within the Tolkien universe, such ideas become muddled. I also liked the idea brought up in class that suggested that the Dwarves would argue with the elves about who was created first and who was better between the two groups- technically the dwarves were first yet not created by Illuvatar yet they still had his blessing but then the elves came to life fist… very interesting ideas! Someone should definitely use this thought process as his or her creative project!

Ulmo said...

I was also interested in this question, and I really took it as the Elves' version of the story when I read it simply because it was from the perspective of the Elves. They are biased towards certain aspects of the creation of Middle-earth so they may stress more heavily some aspects of the creation and smooth over other less flattering aspects. I think that it would be more difficult to read, though, if it was not from the perspective of one of his fictional races. "The Silmarillion" may have had a less realistic feel if it was just from an observer's point of view, and have somewhat of a detached "textbook" feel. In using another race's perspective, Tolkien may not have been able to include the detail which he did. Based on his characters, the Elves are one of the fairest, most knowledgeable of species, and that could have provided Tolkien with the perfect looking glass into the creation of Middle-earth.

Oromë said...

I think that the question of narrative authority in Tolkien's works is somewhat irrelevant. Tolkien's works, including The Silmarillion are works of fiction. Tolkien's creation story may be written in such a way that it resembles mythology, or even a religious text, such as the Bible, but in the end, it serves a completely different purpose. Mythology aims to expose truth by explaining why something is the way it is, while fiction aims to expose truth by exploring human nature and the impact of individual choices. Mythology uses the supernatural to explain the physical and the individual, but fiction attempts to explain the metaphysical and the universal. Therefore, the question of whether or not Tolkien's mythology is reliable completely misses the purpose of the text. The Silmarillion is not a historical document; it is a fantasy. Whether or not The Silmarillion is "the Elves' version" doesn't matter because it is Tolkien's version. .

Vairë said...

I'm almost absolutely sure that this is the definitive version of the creation myth. After all, in other Tolkien tales, the other races seem to know of the Vala and Maia. They mention them by name, humans and dwarves alike. I think that may serve as conclusive proof.