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? 



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I find the "bones" from which the soup is made from of great interest and leads to some most interesting discussions. For example I'm getting ready to start reading several books and articles that discusses the influences and events in Bram Stoker's life that help him craft Dracula.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  3. I prefer the "soup as soup" approach, although the reviewing of the text as it is while also delving into the artist's writing process or personal life can be separated, which you guys do very well.

    I think you discussed this on a Bran Mak Morn episode in response to an S. T. Joshi article that essentially states that the artistic merit of the Howard story in question was worthless due to some anachronisms. You made a good argument for the story just being a great story regardless of its historical accuracy (or lack of) and - in Howard's own words - was one of the author's most proudest literary achievements.

    So, yes, I'm a lover of the behind the scenes of creativity - I love hearing about how authors, filmmakers, musicians and painters work and cobbled together their masterpieces. I love hearing about lost works of art (T. E. Lawrence had to write The Seven Pillars of Wisdom TWICE!) or art that has take years to accomplish. But (as mentioned above) this is a separate interest of mine to the actual appreciation of their output.

    A similar analogy I could make to that in Tolkien's soup quotation is of the real ale drinking scene. A friend introduced me to "proper beer" in the mid-Naughties, but I found the level to which ale drinkers' near obsessive analysis of what they were drinking made them miserable and hateful just spoiled the fun of a night or afternoon in the pub for me. So I bailed out. I still drink ale, but no longer get involved with the politics of it all. I just want to get drunk and roar heartily before climbing that elephant tower.

    Soup as soup, beer as beer. But the processes of making either or a great work of art can be interesting too - just so long as it doesn't spoilt the taste!

  4. "let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate"

    I care little for Tolkien or his soup...Howard would have whooped him in a fist fight. How's that for deep and critical

  5. I'm curious as to why you have have brought up Tolkien's views on allegory, as I'm not sure what bearing that has on the discussion. You fine folk here at the Cromcast have certainly discussed the themes and of Howard's work, but I doubt Howard ever intended for any of his writing to be allegorical. Going by Tolkien's words, Howard's stories abound in "applicability", thematic ties to literature, mythology and history, but none of these serve to give his stories any allegorical purpose in the strictest sense (i.e. George Orwell's Animal Farm).

  6. I absolutely want to see the bones. Art or literature isn't made in a vacuum. Anything produced is a culmination of the artist's or author's prior experience.

    My all-time favorite episode of yours is also my all-time favorite episode of any literary podcast I listen to, and I listen to a number of them. It was the Moon of Skulls, and I specifically liked it so much because your guest was able to provide distinct and specific context of Howard's life experiences being directly reflected in his work. Like his visit to the brothel town shortly before his the 1st racy character he wrote.

    So keep digging up the bones. I want you to crack them open and suck all the marrow out.