Defending Death of the Author: A Reply to Tolkien Lore
It is one of the oddities of the internet that many commentators will take the side of Authorial Intentionalism over Death of the Author. Part of this, I think, is down to J.K. Rowling – and now also the response to J.K. Rowling. When one has creators delivering New Facts about their World via online communication, there arises the temptation to take their word for it. After all, it’s their world, right? And when aforementioned creators engage in… dubious… discourse, there is similarly the question of whether their art is stained by virtue of a flawed creator.
I take a different tack, of course, much preferring to interpret art in accordance with Death of the Author. That has the twofold advantage of (1) being able to stick my fingers in my ears if I encounter an extra-canonical interpretation I don’t like, and (2) not being overly fussed at Authors Behaving Badly. I don’t feel any guilt about listening to Wagner or reading Poe – their screw-ups as people do not alter my appreciation of their art, and since both are long dead, it’s not as if I’m supporting them with cash.
With that out the way, today I thought I would address a YouTube video from Tolkien Lore. The video in question being a defence of Authorial Intentionalism, with regards to J.R.R. Tolkien…
I think the video betrays some misunderstandings here, both in terms of the concept of Death of the Author, and at a wider level, the purpose of art.
First off, Death of the Author is not “anything goes.” It does not mean that if a random person insists “no, Galadriel was a brunette,” that that is a valid interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. It simply means that interpretations of the text are to be based off the actual text itself, and not the author telling us what it means in an interview or letter.
A good reason for this? There are plenty of possible meanings in a piece of creative art that creators did not intend at the time of creation. And (speaking as a writer myself), those textual meanings are not any the less valid, simply because a thought was not in the writer’s conscious mind at a given moment. Once a work is out of the creator’s mind, and circulating among other minds, you are also going to get a slightly different story working its way through each individual reader. My interpretation of Denethor’s character (or even appearance!) is going to be different from Tolkien Lore’s. And I dare say, also different from the interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien himself – but that’s fine, because that is what it means to be a reader.
To illustrate, one can assume, based of biography and a variety of extra-canonical evidence, that Tolkien was not a fan of Karl Marx. If one were to, hypothetically, give The Hobbit a Marxist reading, with the Dwarves as the alienated Proletariat, Smaug as the Bourgeoisie, and so on (complete with the squabble over the Hoard being a Kropotkin-style critique of the Labour Theory of Value), I do not think Tolkien would have personally endorsed such an interpretation.
However, if a reader wishes to attach such a reading to the text – based off actual evidence on the page – then that is not a problem, so far as Death of the Author goes. In arguing against such a Marxist interpretation, it then follows that one should also resort to using the textual evidence from The Hobbit, and not extra-textual material. Tolkien Lore ironically does something similar in criticising the readings of Christians.
It is, however, the wider question of “what is the purpose of art” where I think the video really stumbles. Tolkien Lore argues that fiction is communication of meaning. To which I would suggest that, if so, then a novel is a terrible means of achieving that. Much worse than a straight-forward letter. Hell, Socrates himself realised this over twenty-four centuries ago – it’s why he didn’t write anything down, since he preferred the unambiguous nature of face-to-face discussion.
No, the thing to remember about art is that there is no single Platonic meaning of a text, floating off in the aether, to be hunted down via reason and logic. Even many sentences can radically change meaning, based off context or what the reader does with them. Take, for example:
“Bob cried when he heard Alice was to marry.”
Is Bob weeping because he’s upset, or is he weeping tears of joy? Either interpretation is valid, at least until we are given more information – and if we aren’t, then we will have to be content with Schrödinger’s sentence.
A novel? That’s going to generate rather more than two meanings. It’s going to generate untold numbers of the things, and each meaning will take root in accordance with the mindset of any given reader – which is itself part of the fun. If a text only ever had one correct interpretation, namely that dictated by the Author-God, I dare say the study of literature would become a good deal less interesting. It’s the great achievement of Shakespeare that he was able to produce work that could be re-evaluated from generation to generation, with very different people getting very different things out of it – all without anybody really caring what was going through Billy’s own brain in 1600. I’d like to think that J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary legacy goes down much the same route.
(Oh, and despite what the video might suggest, the question of allegory in Lewis Carroll is much disputed – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Walrus_and_the_Carpenter).