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Finally Reading Tolkien

October 4, 2013

Considering that I am a student in the English department at Carnegie Mellon University, you may find it surprising that I have never read anything by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It’s one of those inexplicable pop cultural blind spots of mine, right up there with me never seeing the original Star Wars films.  I don’t have anything against reading Tolkien; I’ve just never gotten around to it.

I plan on fixing that.  Why now?  Well…

The Impetus

On October 3rd, I attended a lecture from Michael D. C. Drout, an English professor from Wheaton College, entitled “How to Read J. R. R. Tolkien”.  Drout’s lecture packed in a lot of information, but I took away two general points about reading Tolkien’s work:

  1. Tolkien’s works are structured in a manner which gives the reader a cognitive learning experience.
  2. Tolkien’s works should be approached as a philologist would approach a medieval text such as Beowulf.

Since I know nothing about philology, I will restrict this post to that first point.  How does Drout argue that Tolkien’s work provides for a cognitive learning experience?

First, Drout argues that Tolkien’s works make use of a particular epistemic regime which I would describe as the inverse of dramatic irony.  Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters don’t (e.g., the audience knows that Juliet is under a sleeping potion, but most of the characters believe she’s dead).  In Tolkien’s work, the opposite is true: the characters know more than the reader.

According to Drout, Tolkien illustrates this knowledge gap by including “broken references”.  Characters allude to people and events which the reader cannot possibly know about.  Within the world of Tolkien’s works, these references would be considered common knowledge, which is why they go unexplained.  But to the reader, they carry little meaning.  (Broken references also tie into Drout’s second point, but I’m steering clear of that.)

So, where does this leave the reader?  Here Drout proposes what he calls the “least knowledge character” hypothesis, or LKC.  In the majority of The Lord of the Rings, the story is told from the perspective of the scene’s least knowledgeable character.  While the LKC knows more about the world than the reader, he or she will have much to learn about it.  This makes the LKC an effective audience surrogate.

By focusing on the LKC in this particular epistemic regime, the reader is positioned to learn along with the LKC, which is ultimately makes Tolkien’s work a cognitive learning experience.

So, you may be asking: What does this have to do with me reading Tolkien?

The Experiment

Well, I think the above is an interesting way to look at the structure of an author’s works.  So I’m going to experiment with it.

While Drout’s talk focused almost exclusively on The Lord of the Rings, I’m going to try to apply this structure (inverse dramatic irony + LKC hypothesis) to The Hobbit.  Considering that the lecture was called “How to Read J. R. R. Tolkien”, I would assume that it applies across his works, but I can’t be sure.

Why The Hobbit?  Because it’s shorter, and I’d like to present my findings in a timely manner.  I’ll be juggling 4 or 5 books in the coming weeks, so shorter is definitely better.

This actually an unusual way for me to approach a book.  Normally, I like to go in blind, and then find frameworks through which to view it.  But I’m all for varying my approach.  Also, considering I’ve heard the lecture, I really can’t go in blind anymore.

I’ve got some questions I’d like to answer with this investigation:

  1. Does The Hobbit conform to the structure which Drout sees in The Lord of the Rings?
  2. If yes to #1, does that structure add to the experience of reading the book?
  3. If yes to #2, what about that structure adds to the experience?
  4. Regardless of #1, 2 and 3: do I actually enjoy the book?

When I’ve finished The Hobbit and have collected my thoughts, I’ll make another post about it.  I’ll be excited to share my findings!


From → Literature

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