When does a story end (or begin) and how much control does its creator have over the answer?
Before I even came close to a word written by J.R.R. Tolkien I had created a world for those words. I was ten when I first read The Hobbit; but it was some three or four years earlier that I first examined the bizarre runes and thick-blood-red dragon on the book’s front cover, resting on my Dad’s nightstand, and began to tentatively map out what the image might mean.
For me the story of Bilbo Baggins began, in a very real sense, the day I contemplated that front cover. Though reading the book itself solidified the story, and modified preconceptions – after all, until reading the book I had no idea what a hobbit was – it was the book cover that put the world of Middle Earth in my brain, if immature, hazy and ill-formed. I can still connect what I thought The Hobbit might be (and therefore still was, even when I read it) with the aesthetics of two board games, The Key to the Kingdom and HeroQuest.
And of course, the story of The Hobbit carried on afterward: in re-reading, in discussions with school friends, and in the connections I made between it and other books, films, TV shows, board games, video games and more. I later moved on to the Lord of the Rings, began obsessively playing Magic: The Gathering, and immersing myself in the Final Fantasy video games series, and each mingled with each in strange ways. At the same time, I began pondering what might be contained in Tolkien’s Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales. When I eventually did read them, I had the same experience as with The Hobbit (and all manner of other things), as my ruminations and the texts bled together and formed something that, because it began before the book was even open, will never really finish.
While I considered for a long time the extent to which those early experiences conditioned me, trying to justify them through university study of literature and later as a freelance music writer, it took me much longer to realise that it was the artworks doing the conditioning. To find a link between two songs was not special; to see one narrative in another wasn’t a critical act: it’s built in. A story is always more than a story. It’s the reason that Reddit subforums proliferate with theories – amounting to micronarratives – about possible plotlines and unexplored recesses of our favourite TV shows; why so many people feel that, however definitive the intentions of its author (an example: Sherlock Holmes being killed off only to be brought back), a story is never really finished.
A story endlessly connects with other things, whether by the will of the creator or each member of its audience. Jonathan Lethem has put this more eloquently than me, at least for the creator’s side –
“… consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.”
— and it’s no coincidence that I formed these opinions, as a boy, while reading Tolkien. Speaking for his audience in a letter written just before the third Lord of the Rings book was published, he wrote:
“It is, I suppose, a tribute to the curious effect that a story has, when based on very elaborate and detailed workings, of geography, chronology, and language, that so many should clamour for sheer ‘information’, or ‘lore’.”
And one year later, he continued:
“… while many … demand maps, others wish for geological indications rather than places; many want Elvish grammars, phonologies, and specimens; some want metrics and prosodies…. Musicians want tunes, and musical notation; archaeologists want ce¬ramics and metallurgy; botanists want a more accurate description of the mallorn, of elanor, niphredil, alfirin, mallos, and symbelmynë, historians want more details about the social and political structure of Gondor; general enquirers want information about the Wainriders, the Harad, Dwarvish…”
Authors build those open communication lines into their work; readers – including me but including writers as well – find them and create their own communication lines. You could imagine Shakespeare “demanding” information of Ovid in the way fans wrote to Tolkien; and once I’d read Dante’s Commedia, it was clear (at least in my reading) that Eliot’s Waste Land goes further than drawing influence from the Italian poet, offering up new episodes for exploration in Dante’s (and so Eliot’s) vision of hell.
Just imagine that Dante and Virgil are traveling through the circles of the Inferno, stopping to hear the stories of damned souls, and then they the first speaker in Eliot’s own epic:
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
Perhaps it’s a stretch but for me, most of The Waste Land feels like the voices of life’s lost souls, now speaking to whoever will listen. While the first section continues on to the story of the hyacinth girl and Madame Sosostris with her pack of tarot cards, it closes with the image of the undead crossing London Bridge – a line that Eliot himself, in his published notes, attributes to Dante. The second section, a ‘Game of Chess’, presents the stories of several people to the narrator, in the same way, that Virgil shows Dante around hell in the Inferno; and the voices of other lost souls pepper the remaining three sections, both as direct and reported speech. (Phlebas the Phoenician, subject of the poem’s fourth section, is a famous example: a man who “a fortnight dead /Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell / And the profit and loss”).
The Waste Land, with its fragmented allusions, references, and implicit quotations, doesn’t thirst for myth like the Lord of the Rings does but the Waste Land is a prime example of the necessary cross-pollination of art. In its own indiscernible, high modernist way, it’s a beautiful example of the “Isn’t there more..?” compulsion that seeps into discussions of Game of Thrones, or endless arguments about what would happen next at the closing of The Sopranos, or my own childhood connections between board games, card games, book covers, and their books.
Once I started looking, those connections were always there. While Eliot transforms the information he gets from his influences, he is looking to “continue the story” of Dante in the same way that Virgil’s Aeneid continues (and tries to better through retelling) the story of the Iliad and Odyssey, or in the way that over centuries, stories of King Arthur’s court proliferated and competed with one another for authority. If the Aeneid picks up where the Iliad left off, swerving the camera away from the Greeks and instead looking at the fall of Troy from a soon-to-be-Roman Trojan hero, then Eliot’s poem retells Dante’s wanderings in the Inferno but acid-dripped; barely connected, hard to fathom, without clear subjects or a sense of place. The connection between the Commedia and The Waste Land isn’t explicit like the connection between the Iliad, Aeneid, Odyssey but the connection is there, bubbling, in the same way that a musical phrase might recall another without coming from substantially similar songs.
People much smarter than me have written about the importance of those connections to modernist literature, from Pound’s Cantos to Joyce’s condensed history of English literature through a survey of its styles, which makes up the fourteenth chapter of Ulysses. But for me, from very early on, it was clear that everything I read connected with something else; sometimes because it was intended, and sometimes because I wanted it to be.
I don’t make that statement because I think it’s original, or because I read differently from others. I’m a casual reader, with increasingly less time on my hands for reading. I make it because, when I look back on those early discoveries – the presence of The Hobbit on my Dad’s nightstand, and how that story began; or my wonderings about the Silmarillion, based on nothing other than conjecture as I finished The Lord of the Rings – I remember how odd I found it when it became clear to me that, legally speaking, stories belonged to people.
There isn’t space here to discuss the way copyright law has changed in the last 100 years or more – for that, better to read Lawrence Lessig for starters – but it’s important to say that, at this point in history, we have authors whose work is blocked by law from being worked on by others, even after their deaths; even, indeed, when the author himself admits that his readers always want more, as Tolkien did.. In other words: the natural connections between works of art, made explicit by succeeding producers, is being closed like a plant yanked from the ground and being allowed to dry up.
Though authorship as a symbol of authority is hardly new I do think we have come to a point in which the rights of that author, economically, socially, and morally, are considered to be stronger than at any point in our history. As an adult, I understand, rationally, why this is the case; the child in me finds it completely strange.
As much as Tolkien presumably liked the idea of world building, and of connections between works, successors to him in his own universe aren’t given the freedom that Virgil had, when reading Homer; that Eliot had when reading Dante. While fan fiction set in the Tolkien legendarium abounds, the term itself denotes its own inferiority and (as with all fan fiction websites) is replete with statements claiming no infringement on the works and ideas of JRR Tolkien.
The child in me, now it can use fancy adult words, says: well, if no infringement can be made then what kind of legend is it? When Kirol Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer was translated into English in 2010, it was already clear that it would never see a commercial release. Despite being a considered, thoughtful book telling part of the Lord of the Rings story in a new way – not unlike the relationship the Aeneid has with the Iliad and Odyssey – it remains on the fringes. This is a shame because The Last Ringbearer is exactly the sort of story the Tolkien legendarium needs. Telling the story of an orc company following Frodo’s successful toppling of Sauron and Mount Doom, it looks at much of Tolkien’s philosophy in a completely different way: painting Gandalf and the Elves as reactionaries, deconstructing Tolkien’s distrust of industrialisation; arguing that the Lord of the Rings is an unreliable account of events. While I haven’t found “fan fiction” that matches The Last Ringbearer for quality, I believe – admittedly as a point of faith – that it exists.
Of course, there will be work that is of poor quality. But if The Last Ringbearer is considered a form of fan fiction, then the Aeneid is too — and I can reasonably assume that people think it’s not. Though 100 bad stories might exist for every equivalent to The Last Ringbearer, that trade is worth it, because something in us is always looking for more. Our basest stories exist in a pool in our minds, a pool that we each and all step into. We accept this in the works of antiquity; we appreciate it in works of academic bent; we should embrace it in “low” art as well.
Something in me, and I think us, craves that freedom to explore. I want to satisfy that craving as I did as a child, looking at the book cover of The Hobbit; and I hope for all of us to be able to satisfy that craving as we did in the past.