Authorial Intent, Fan Writing, and “Asterisk Reality”

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.

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17 Responses to “Authorial Intent, Fan Writing, and “Asterisk Reality””

  1. Independence1776 says:

    I actually did stop to think about that fact, because I didn’t understand how that worked at first, and it’s absolutely fascinating from a worldbuilding standpoint once I figured it out. (I realized that, say, the phrase “May the stars shine upon the hour of our meeting” had a heck of a lot to say about the culture and history of the people saying it. Once you figure out one thing, it leads to others.)

    “Asterisk reality” is an interesting term, and I like how you use it in refards to fic. I just may have to check out the book– I know for a fact the library has it.

    Ah, yes, canon and Tolkien and fandom– sometimes mutually exclusive things.

    One of the more memorable comments that I?ve ever received accused me of writing Another Man?s Cage for my own pleasure.

    I flat out do not understand that. We aren’t writing for pay, in which it’s entirely possible to not do that. Like you, I write for myself first. If I didn’t care about a story, I wouldn’t write it. And the best stories tend to be ones the authors truly care about. (Like Tolkien himself.) But it’s possibly due to fanfic being seen as a gift economy (thank you, metafandom). If it isn’t for someone, or for a “general” audience (no matter how small), it’s just hubris and fantasty and therefore doesn’t count for much. (That’s my reading of it, and may not be accurate. And I think I used waaay too many parenthesis in this paragraph.)

    Or it could be the simple fact that you pointed out that it doesn’t fit into the commentor’s personal canon, or what’s generally accepted as canon. (A literal reading of LaCE brings in some very interesting questions about the whole Elves-die-from-rape thing. But it would get someone who used flamed for not using the common view.)

    I love your last paragraph. Maglor captured my attention since the first time I read the Silm specifically because we don’t know what happened to him, and the fact that out of all the F?anorians, he wanted to reject the Oath. He’s a fascinating, tragic character– and that’s *why* I care about him.

    Wishful thinking is a good thing– it’s fantasy in its simplest form. And fantasy is human nature, for if we didn’t have it, we may never have “harnessed” fire or millions of other things. The simplest question is “What if?”

  2. Ithilwen says:

    I’d love to chime in with some erudite comment, but I’m too gobsmacked by your statement that someone actually chided you for writing your fanfiction for your own pleasure. Did this person think we should be scourging ourselves as we plot out our stories? (Tolkien himself certainly wrote first and foremost for himself, as you mention; we’re just following his example!)

  3. Dawn says:

    Indy and Ithilwen, I don’t know if it will make you feel better or worse about the comment I got on AMC that the author’s primary concern with my apparent “writing for my own pleasure” was because I was a woman. And AMC, this reviewer felt, was clearly written for a woman’s pleasure, i.e., it explored relationships and had fluffy moments between the characters (they were in Aman, in the Days of Bliss, for Pete’s sake!), and, yes, had some handsome male Elves too. But, hey, handsome male Elves is one thing I’m willing to unequivocally agree is canon. 😉

    Anyway, the funny thing about AMC was that, yes, it had all of those things, but it also had a lot of sword-fighting scenes and bawdy songs about big-breasted women and gruesome Orc-making discussions … in other words, the opposite charge could have been levied against me, if I was a man, that I was writing it for men. It wasn’t. But that’s water under the bridge. :)

    Indy, I loved your last paragraph too. I find the fact that imagination and fantasy is often disparaged in our culture to be scary, actually; what is left if we lose our imaginations? I may not agree with JRRT on his spiritual theories of “sub-creation,” but I absolutely agree with his appraisal of it as being not only important but essential to being human.

  4. Independence1776 says:

    Worse. How the heck does it being “for women by a woman” make it bad or something to be concerned about? Something to do with the underlying cultural assumption that women have to put themselves last? *has a headache now*

    It is scary, for multiple, hard-to-explain, visceral reasons. I don’t want to live in a world where I have nothing but reality. Where’s the joy in that? Where’s the wonderment of curiosity and discovery? Where’s the sense that if we could just change *one* thing, our lives– if not the world– would be better? And I’m still trying to figure out a way to paraphrase a few paragraphs from “On Fairy-Stories”, because it addresses this problem, but the best thing to do is honestly quote the entire passage (the last three paragraphs before ‘Recovery, Escape, Consolation’). And I suspect that’s what you were referring to as well.

  5. Ithilwen says:

    So, when men write for men’s pleasure, it’s fine – but when a woman does the same thing, it’s a problem? *rolls eyes*

    (Why do I suspect the comment was written by a woman as well?)

  6. Dawn says:

    I thought that might get you both riled up a bit. (Instigator? Me?? Nevah! 😉 )

    Indy: I definitely think there is an assumption that “women’s entertainment” is inferior. I think movies are a perfect example of this: Blow-em-up action movies get teased, yes, but never with the vitriol that “chick flicks” are scorned and ultimately dismissed. And I say this as someone who likes neither genre.

    I found it bothersome that if I wrote about war and strife, I was in the clear, but if I wrote about familial relationships, then I was “wasting my talents,” to paraphrase what my lovely reviewer told me. And, from a canonical perspective, in the Years of the Trees before the strife between Feanor and Fingolfin even really heated up, it’s hard not to write an at-times fluffy family drama. (And, really, I don’t even think AMC is fluffy; in fact, it’s pretty darned dark in places, but I digress.)

    And, yes, that’s the part in “Fairy Stories” that I was talking about as well. :) I love how JRRT defends the idea that fantasy is inferior because it is “escape.” If one was imprisoned against one’s will in dismal surroundings, he says, we’d call that person a hero for wanting to escape … or at least would expect that the person would aim for something greater than dwelling on the awful conditions of the prison. I suppose our disdain of fantasy is started at a young age. We don’t “grow up” till we give up our imaginary friends and fairy tales. (Well, I never grew up, I guess, because I still have both! :D)

    Ithilwen: I never figured out the gender of the commenter. The name was gender-neutral, and the person never gave me any clues in our rather lengthy conversations about AMC. I share in your suspicions, though!

  7. Independence1776 says:

    but if I wrote about familial relationships

    Isn’t the underlying background of the Silm a family story? If Feanor’s sons weren’t so loyal, they wouldn’t have sworn the Oath. Feanor wouldn’t have been upset about/jealous of his half-brothers. And what about Fingon and Maedhros? And I think I’ll stop– I’m preaching to the choir.

    Then I haven’t grown up either! 😀

  8. Dawn says:

    Of course it is! And its heart, the Silm is all about dysfunctional families, imo. If the Finwions lived in today’s modern world, they’d probably have a reality TV show! 😀

  9. Independence1776 says:

    *bursts out laughing* And that would be one show I’d actually watch. (And I have a tendency to call them the Insane House of Finwe.) I wonder what the Valinoran tabloids were like? 😛

  10. Dawn says:

    Have you ever read Whitewave’s The Dark Foe Wears Feanaro? I think it’d be something like that! 😀

  11. Rhapsody says:

    Coming late to the party, but I just turned on my desktop and saw this in my feeds. Asterisk writing, connecting the dots, I never thought of that, but that is how I do write most of my stuff, I just take this and that, research, research, research and while doing so I am making the connection between the dots, yet when I write Maglor (hi Indy), the way I go about it will be different from how I choose to connect the dots.

    I love that freedom, especially when writing shorter fiction. Give it a twist, here and there.

    What a wonderful blog and we both know you wrote AMC for my pleasure (j/k) 😀

  12. Independence1776 says:

    *laughs* I’d forgotten about that! I’ll agree with your assesment.

  13. Dawn says:

    Thank you, Rhapsody! :)

    I totally agree; I think that’s why I related so much to Shippey’s theories on how JRRT constructed his books. To me, this is what makes writing Tolkien-based fiction such fun.

    Reading your post, the connect-the-dots idea made me think of the analogy of constellations of stars. If we all stand together in my backyard, we’ll all be looking up at the same stars, but we’ll all draw the lines in different ways and come up with different constellations, even though we’re using the same stars as starting points. To me, that is one of the things I love most about this fandom. It really does demonstrate how creative we are as a species to start with the same books and each come to see them in her own way.

    I probably did construct some of the later chapters of AMC with you in mind, so you are right about that! 😀

  14. Ithilwen says:

    It’s really hard to see how JRRT could have constructed something as large and complex as the Ardaverse without using “asterisk writing”. I hear authors of novels say all the time that their characters surprised them by doing/saying unexpected things – and a single novel is tiny next to the Ardaverse. Fortuitous serendipity would have to play a role in its construction. You can only wonder what other ‘facts’ about Arda’s history he would have come up with had he chosen different questions to think about!

  15. So, this is what you do instead of commenting on my weble! Well, I can see what you consider important..herumph! (LOL)

    OK, I am a comment junkie, as a friend has repeatedly said, and you used to be my best commenter. I guess your idea that Summer would give you more time for certain things was over hopeful.

    Ah well, at least I now have posted/commented on your Weble!

  16. Dawn says:

    Ithilwen: Yes! This happens to me all the time that my characters get other ideas in their heads than what I have in mine. I find it fun to let the story take its own shape, if slightly nerve-wracking. I had it beaten into my head that the “correct” way to write was to make detailed outlines and have everything planned before setting pen to paper. Well, JRRT went with the flow for LotR, and I think he was mildly successful with that. 😉

    Tristan: Yay! You’ve commented on my weble! 😀 Believe it or not, I was going to catch up on your weble last night … but my home Internet is down! I am writing this from Panera Bread. I think Bobby and I brought a mischievous fairy with us from Ireland; everything that could go wrong this week, so far, has.

    But, on a positive note, I am mostly caught up with stuff that happened while we were on vacation, so I should be back and commenting soon. Fairy permitting! :)

  17. Bobby says:

    If you really get into Tolkein’s non-Middle Earth works, I think the principle of asterisk reality really shines through. In many ways his treatment of historical literary sources such as the Kalevala, the Norse sagas, and the Arthurian cycle speaks volumes to the place of fan fiction in filling in gaps that are littered throughout JRRT’s Middle Earth stories.

    Tolkein was clearly drawn to ancient literature precisely because of the deep, dark unknowns that are inherently part of works that are in many cases over 1,000 years old. If you look at the Eddas, for instance, the lacunas alone serve as fertile grounds for imaginative bridge-building, which is precisely what makes these works so fascinating in the first place. Everything is not laid out before your eyes, one has to stop, think, and let the words on the page and the ideas that they convey roll around in your head a bit before the narrative makes any kind of sense. In performing this exercise, gap-filling isn’t just a passing fancy, it is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the work and perhaps more importantly, the vast history that lies somewhere behind it.

    This exercise is precisely what Tolkien found to be so fascinating about medieval literature. It presented a puzzle of sorts that led him to attempt to figure out how to weld together the litany of tales that comprise the Sigurd story, or how to create a story of Kullervo that wasn’t as convoluted as the original.

    In essence, he filled the gap in these ancient tales that he knew and loved, and knowing how he liked to imitate some of the aspects of these stories that he loved almost to the point of obsession, I do wonder if some of his writing is intentionally vague so that the reader can perform some gap filling of their own. The natural extension of that is, of course, fanfiction that teases out the details, and allows the story to be told from part A seamlessly through part z. Since Tolkien took it upon himself to fill in what he found missing in works he admired, I think that it is only natural for fans of Middle Earth to figure out their own puzzles and committing these thoughts to paper. In many ways, I think I would even go so far as to say that he would encourage such an exercise.

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