It is an oft-cited fact that JRRT created his stories from the languages of Middle-earth and not the other way around. We fannish folk like this detail, but I suspect that many of us who repeat it with gusto don’t think very much about what it actually means. In fact, I’d never thought much about its meaning either. I’d bought into the popular notion that concocting a story from languages meant building a playground where those languages may be used.
As part of my between-semesters study, I am reading secondary sources about JRRT’s world. It is easy, at times, in fandom (actually, in life), to place myself within an echo chamber of likeminded folks who share many of the same opinions and ideas that I do. Most of my closest fandom friends self-identify as “canon heretics” (as, by the title of this weble, I clearly do as well); if any of them advocate for strict canonical interpretation, they do it outside of my hearing. Yet slapping each other high fives gets old after a while, so I committed part of my break between semesters to reading those secondary sources that have earned acclaim and respect and, presumably, have ideas that are more “mainstream” than mine.
Top of the list, of course, was The Road to Middle-earth by Tom Shippey. Shippey is considered by many as the Tolkien scholar, and part of his appeal comes from the fact that he, too, is a philologist and even held some of the same academic posts as JRRT. If anyone can illuminate what it means to create a universe and write multiple books from a “philological perspective,” then presumably it would be Shippey.
One of Shippey’s theories regarding the construction of Middle-earth concerns “asterisk reality,” which is termed after the philological convention of using an asterisk to identify words that didn’t come from a source but were constructed based on the philologist’s knowledge of and extrapolation from other words and conventions in the language. Shippey maintains that it is this “asterisk reality”–the unknown that lies between two known points–that so enthralled JRRT. He saw stories in words: how they evolved and changed over time in response to happenings in the larger world. The “asterisk reality” attempts to glean those events from language and that–not the ever-popular “playground theory”–explains how JRRT began with a language and evolved a history for Middle-earth.
Perhaps the best-known example of this comes from the Shibboleth of Fëanor, published as an essay in the tenth volume of the History of Middle-earth series, Morgoth’s Ring. JRRT wished to explain how the Noldor came to replace the thorn (Þ) with the s sound. Before this, he had never conceived of the notion of friction between the sons of Finwë, but in explaining how the s began to be used, he delved the history of the House of Finwë and the tensions surrounding the replacement of one of the sounds used in Míriel Þerindë’s name, tension that became outright animosity between the two eldest princes and, eventually, the conflict between Fëanor and Fingolfin that underlies the entire history of the Noldor and without which it is impossible to imagine The Silmarillion. Between the thorn and the s lay this “asterisk reality” and the construction of a story from philological inquiry.
Now asterisk reality might sound familiar. You have known facts at Point A and Point Z and, between them, an infinite body of unknowns. Known Points A and Z might infer what lies between but it’s certainly nothing near to fact. So we start on a path from A and stop when our feet land upon Z. Shippey’s asterisk reality describes creating a story using philology, but it also describes what we know as “fan fiction” and, more specific than that, “gapfillers.”
So we are, essentially, practitioners of asterisk reality. The discussion of “canon” as it relates to Tolkien-inspired fiction also concerns this asterisk reality, perhaps even more so than the “facts” that bracket it. We all know that Maedhros was hung by his wrist from Thangorodrim; canon debates tend to center on how long he hung there and how he was kept alive and whether it’s possible that Fingon rescued him because they were lovers and not just cousins and friends. But all of these things are asterisk realities, so–however sound our conjecture and the evidence upon which it is based–a single definitive solution is impossible.
In The Road to Middle-earth, Shippey discusses JRRT’s work with early manuscripts in an attempt to demonstrate the existence of an “unconquered” (i.e., not French-influenced) version of the English language in the 12th century. JRRT’s conclusions about the land in which such works were created and the scribes that penned them involved, at times, “a streak of wishful thinking,” in Shippey’s words. “The ghosts would be gentleman, scholars, Englishmen too. Tolkien felt at home with them,” Shippey writes before going on to say, “This sentiment may have been misguided: if we really had the ‘lays’ on which Beowulf was based, we might not think much of them, and if we had to deal with the scribes of Ancrene Wisse, we might find them difficult people” (pg. 41).
The notion of “canon,” as defined by the community in which we write, often seems to impose a sterility upon the texts with which we work. Canon is made up of facts, and if it cannot be appended with a clear citation, then it is not “canon.” To allow conjecture to flourish too much by combining “facts” from the text is acceptable to some, but it is not canon, and the prevailing attitude in the Tolkien-writing community is that such liberties demand explanation from the author (usually in the form of volumes of author’s notes), lest her or his conjectures be mistaken as uninformed and treated as such. But add a dose of the author’s “wishful thinking” and, suddenly, we’ve veered over the line for many people. One of the more memorable comments that I’ve ever received accused me of writing Another Man’s Cage for my own pleasure. Well, yes, as an author, shouldn’t I find pleasure in what I am writing? It is a story, a piece of fiction, not an instruction manual for a newfangled doohickey; if you remove my emotions, as the author, from the story, then what is left? “Canon,” I suppose, which amounts to a bare retelling of The Silmarillion or, in the case of AMC, not much at all. Yet I sometimes feel that this is what some Tolkien-writers feel is adherence to canon, with the expectation of apologies from authors who let too much of themselves show in how they work off of bare texts. They haven’t remained “clinical” enough. They’ve erred. They are often accused of allowing their own nefarious whims trump the “intent” that informed what JRRT placed upon the page. To some, this even amounts to insult against the author whose works we all admire, in one way or another.
Yet, as Shippey demonstrated in the quoted passage above, the very author whose intent we are supposed to descry was himself working in a field that not only relied heavily on hypothesis based on small and seemingly unrelated textual “facts” but allowed his own “wishful thinking” to touch upon the conclusions of his work. So, when I am fulfilling his great dream of having other hands and minds complete his stories, then I am supposed to believe that he would have wished me never to allow myself and my own “wishful thinking” to enter into that task? What, then, I would ask, is the purpose of what we do? Surely, the end result does not take us much beyond what JRRT himself accomplished in his lifetime, and I have a hard time believing that his “intent” ever included a wish for his work to stagnate so.
In describing what inspired Tolkien, both as an author and as a philologist, Shippey writes, “One sees that the thing which attracted Tolkien most was darkness: the blank spaces, much bigger than most people realise, on the literary and historical map …” (38). When I first read that line, I couldn’t help but to think that most of the fans I know who write stories based on JRRT’s books would use very similar words to describe why they do what they do. It is not so much the stories on the page as the unwritten spaces between them; the sense of a deep history behind each character and event, hinted at by JRRT and palpable to us, his readers and fans, that compel us to live part of our lives in Middle-earth. In constructing our stories to bridge the gap between fact, between canon, we rely on informed conjecture, yes, but also a healthy dose of our own wishful thinking, much as JRRT himself has done.