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).

4 thoughts on “Defending Death of the Author: A Reply to Tolkien Lore

  1. I’m of two minds about this. You are right that authors don’t get the final say in the interpretation of their texts, for many reasons. An old literature professor used to say that you shouldn’t believe anything authors say about their work, since they are all, by definition, professional liars. Even leaving willful misdirection aside, authors may not know what they wanted to say, there may be meaning they inserted subconsciously, their memory may be faulty or they may change their mind about what they meant to say; see Ray Bradbury on Fahrenheit 451.

    Moreover, intention isn’t magic. It’s quite possible that the author meant to say x, but the text actually says y, and y cannot be made to say x no matter how hard one tries. If I find a scrap of paper that reads “The sky is blue,” and later its author claims they meant to say that “The sea is blue,” it is still the case that the writing says the former and not the latter. And there’s the whole matter you mentioned of reading as a collaborative experience, where the reader brings their own meaning to the text.

    But I still believe that literature (and art more generally) is primarily a means of communication. Clarity and straightforwardness are not inherent qualities of human communication. In fact, arguably some things can only be relayed in an indirect and abstruse manner—think of Zen koans, Taoist philosophy, or indeed literature. One example of this is art’s ability to convey emotion. I’m fond of how Neil Gaiman’s “There was a girl and her uncle sold her” segment in American Gods expresses this: a story about the transatlantic slave trade is far more effective at arousing emotion than cold statistics.

    Addressing Death of the Author more directly, the problem is that the author’s identity will by necessity affect the meaning of their texts. That’s why literature classes rarely present you said texts in a vacuum, as DotA (what an unfortunate acronym) would suggest you should. A reading of Vergil will only be enhanced by a knowledge of first century BC Roman politics, Milton makes a lot more sense if you are aware of his political and religious sympathies, so much of Joyce’s work leans autobiographical and deals so heavily with turn of the twentieth century Irish society and politics, etc.

    That got long. My apologies!

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    • I think there’s a case for arguing that we can never truly read Virgil the way a Roman would, simply because we are so separated from them in terms of time and culture (that goes double for the Iliad and the Greeks). However, by the same token, we also do not come to, say, Hamlet and Macbeth in the way that Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have…which really means that Death of the Author requires the works themselves to change alongside us. I don’t think our readings of them are inherently less valid.

      As a thought experiment, if we were to suddenly learn about the identity and life of the Beowulf Poet, would we interpret the poem differently in an artistic sense? I am sceptical. It would certainly affect how History looks at the poem, but not as Art.

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  2. Late-Tolkien might seem to support DotA versus intentionality in his own 1966 Foreword to LOTR: “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none.”

    But that is not to say he had no intention in writing it! This intention, it seems to me, is set out in ‘On Fairy-stories’, which received its final polish a couple of years before. Put simply, Tolkien wants you to see God. Essential to this is “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image” (OFS 66). The language is clearly religious. The Image is that of God. (“Expression”, I suspect, recalls the legal maxim ‘expressio unius est exclusio alterius’,the expression of one thing is the exclusion of another; that is, no polytheism.) In my opinion Tolkien’s genius was to embody his purpose in a fiction, a story, which indeed exhibits Secondary Imagination (Coleridge’s term which Tolkien adapted to “sub-creation”). What might look like symbol or allegory is not one-to-one or deterministic, but gives free rein to the reader’s own imagination by (also in Coleridge’s words) the Law of Association.

    DotA presumably disallows ‘On Fairy-stories’ as evidence; score minus one for DotA. In fact the eponymous essay by Roland Barthes says not only that the text is done when it leaves the author’s hand; but also that, consequent on some kind of revolt against dictatorial authors and their lackeys the critics, “the birth of the reader must also be the death of the author”. There is, I suggest, an assumption that the text and the reader both operate in French high culture; where, as elsewhere, the intellectuals are insulated from consequences. Guess I better leave it there.

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  3. “The Lord of the Rings as a story was finished so long ago now that I can take a largely impersonal view of it, and find ‘interpretations’ quite amusing; even those that I might make myself, which are mostly post scriptum: I had very little particular, conscious, intellectual, intention in mind at any point. Except for a few deliberately disparaging reviews – such as that of Vol. II in the New Statesman, in which you and I were both scourged with such terms as ‘pubescent’ and ‘infantilism’ – what appreciative readers have got out of the work or seen in it has seemed fair enough, even
    when I do not agree with it.”

    Letters 163, to W,H. Auden, June 1955.

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