Thursday, March 9, 2017

Howard & Tolkien. Biography & Criticism.

Greetings, Cromrades!

Josh here. I have some thoughts to share and questions to ask, regarding various approaches to literary criticism. Recently, a friend recommended the podcast "There and Back Again" which is an excellent critical exploration of Tolkien's works. In the first episode, host Alastair briefly touches on Tolkien's biography, and leaps into an interesting discussion about two works that provide some basis on Tolkien's approach to discussing literature, his seminal essay "On Fairy Stories" and the wonderful poem "Mythopoeia". One quote in particular from "On Fairy Stories" seems pertinent for literary criticism.
"So with regard to fairy stories, I feel that it is more interesting, and also in its way more difficult, to consider what they are, what they have become for us, and what values the long alchemic processes of time have produced in them. In Dasent's words I would say: “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” Though, oddly enough, Dasent by “the soup” meant a mishmash of bogus pre-history founded on the early surmises of Comparative Philology; and by “desire to see the bones” he meant a demand to see the workings and the proofs that led to these theories. By “the soup” I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by “the bones” its sources or material—even when (by rare luck) those can be with certainty discovered. But I do not, of course, forbid criticism of the soup as soup."
 J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories"

Tolkien's approach to literary criticism is to avoid seeing "the bones", apparently referring to biographic information about the author, though criticism of the "soup as soup", or levied at the writing itself is okay. Tolkien also dislikes allegory. 
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 

Now, those of you who have been following the show know that our approach to discussing Howard's stories relies at least in part on Howard's biography. Indeed, early 20th century Texas looms large in Howard's works. Moreover, in the Afterword of "Blood & Thunder", Howard scholar and biographer Mark Finn says:
"One cannot write about Robert E. Howard without writing about Texas in some way. This is inevitable, and particularly so when discussing any aspect of Howard's personal history. To ignore the presence of the Lone Star State in Robert E. Howard's life and writing invites, at the very least, a few wrong-headed conclusions, and at the worst, abject character assassination."
Mark Finn, "Blood & Thunder, The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard 

Arguably, one gets a greater sense of the depth and breadth of meaning in stories such as "Beyond the Black River" with some knowledge of the Texas history that inspired them. Knowing that Howard had complex views on the nature of civilization and its relationship with a more barbaric human condition provides an additional layer of richness to his stories. Though, by placing Howard's bibliography in context of his biography, are we not explicitly studying the bones from which the soup of his stories were made? Is there some quality that Howard's stories possess that makes them conducive for biographical discussion? Should we follow the words of Tolkien, and consider the stories on their own, or as Tolkien put it, consider the "the soup as soup"?

What do you think?