Monday, April 11, 2005

Proposal for Derrick

Walter Padgett
English 600
Dr. Derrick
April 11, 2005

Formal Topic Proposal for Research Project

Proclaimed “Author of the Century” by one fervent critic, J. R. R. Tolkien is reputed to have created a mythology through his invention of new languages. “To me a name comes first and the story follows,” he once said while explaining the process of his creation of Middle-earth, “the invention of languages is the foundation. The stories were made rather to provide a world for the language than the reverse.” (Grotta 99)
A professional philologist, Tolkien spent his life acquiring an extensive knowledge of the ancient languages of Western Europe, including Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. Scholars of his work have traced the sources of many of the stories he wrote to the sagas and legends that survive in the ancient literature he studied. But in what way does his retelling of the traditional stories and folk tales that he found in them relate to the languages he invented? Were the mythologies connected to the ancient cultures of Scandinavia and Western Europe translated into Tolkien’s work? If so, it would seem incorrect to assert that Tolkien created a mythology, because those mythologies would have already existed. Did the effect of his invented languages somehow appropriate the essence of these myths into his literary creation?
There are many theories of myth. How have proponents claiming that Tolkien created a mythology theorized myth? How do divergent theories of myth conflict with assertions that a mythology exists in the literature written by Tolkien? Is it correct, for example, to suggest that Milton created a mythology in his writing of Paradise Lost? Did Robert E. Howard create a mythology in his Conan novels? How does Tolkien’s Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Silmarillion categorically differ from these and other such works in order to satisfy the dominant theory of myth accepted by Tolkien scholars like Tom Shippey and Jane Chance?
How would the noted authority on comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, answer this question in a way which explains his reported indifference to Tolkien’s works, and his dismissal of them as a fad? Are we to imagine that Campbell must not have noticed Tolkien, or might there be a reason connected to Campbell’s theory of myth? How does Northrop Frye’s theory of myth fit? What about Claude Levi-Strauss?
There are many potential subjects to explore within the context of the mythological status of Tolkien’s work. I am particularly interested in an exploration of Tolkien’s created languages, Elvish in particular, but also his other languages for other creatures in his Middle-earth. As a philologist, Tolkien was an expert in how languages change over time, because he had traced the development of Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle English, and Gothic forms into modern English. As noted by Daniel Grotta above, Tolkien’s assertion was that the stories he wrote grew out of the languages he invented. Scholars like Chance and Shippey, who claim that Tolkien created a mythology, stress this aspect of his creative process in their theories of myth. It is this curious link between language and mythology that I want to explore. My previous studies related to ideology suggest a similar link between language and the production of meaning, truth and the organization of values in social groups. By considering Tolkien’s relationship between language and mythology as a contribution to the scholarship as well as to the creative realm will help me to a fuller understanding ideology. But any overt concern with ideology goes beyond the scope of my proposal for this research project.
The primary focus of the paper I want to produce for the ENG 600 course concerns the relationship between language and mythology in Tolkien’s works. Tolkien’s contribution to literary theory, in so far as demonstrating the relationship between language and mythology, mainly arose out of his invention of Elvish languages and the congruent creation, or perhaps even ‘discovery’ of the tales chronicling the development of their cultures and civilizations. But the actual real-world proof of this relationship exists in comparing the development of the ancient languages that Tolkien studied with the traditional tales, folklore and mythology connected to the cultures of the peoples who spoke them. Tolkien understood this relationship quite well, and he successfully applied it to the languages and mythology he created, in the writing of, or rather re-writing (and hence-forth re-creating) of these same traditional tales, folk stories and myths according to the linguistic matrix established in his invented languages, resulting in new and quite distinct cultural flavors for the races and peoples of Middle-earth.
Most people at some time in their life become curious about the larger questions of life, such as, ‘Who am I? What am I? Where am I from? What am I doing here in this world? And, why?’ I’m really curious about the possibility of designing a Humanities course around myth and Tolkien because I want to share some insights that come from my own enthusiastic immersion in his works. I have found that these insights continue to relate to a larger philosophy of life. Many of the most important humanistic-philosophical issues get addressed in a study of Tolkien. He thought they are important for a variety of reasons, and I think it is good for people to learn how Tolkien treated them. It is rewarding to me personally to engage in learning-centered discourses that address these questions as they arise in the metacontext surrounding Tolkien’s work. The philosophical and theological sensibilities expressed in Tolkien’s work are important to me because they can provide a valuable common ground for others to participate in the discussions which invariably arise around them, often concerning personal and public morality, as well as many other subjects of concern to those who practice in the humanistic disciplines. It is important to me that I am involved in this activity during my life. It is fulfilling to me. It’s what I want to do professionally.
In addition to the goal of gaining a better understanding of the relationship between language and meaning through researching this subject, I hope to learn and be able to demonstrate the skills of a scholar, in terms both of researching and writing. My efforts will involve the coherent documentation of the process outlined in the course for researching the information and criticism relevant to my topic in a number of different places and in a systematic way. I plan to look for good source material in several journals and other periodicals, dictionaries, directories and encyclopedias. I plan to look up key search terms in the Library of Congress subject headings, such as Tolkien and mythology, theories of mythology, mythology and language, and others as they may arise. When I have found good terms, I will query online databases such as WorldCat with these search terms. I made some important contacts through networking with scholars I met at a Tolkien Convention at Marquette University last October. I plan to contact them and other noted experts on Tolkien and mythology in order to find out more about Joseph Campbell’s reported indifference to Tolkien, for example.
There is a very healthy, even vibrant, ongoing scholarly discourse related to my topic. Tolkien enthusiasts in every corner of the world celebrate his literary legacy in every imaginable way. Music has been composed and performed, movies have been made, cartographers have created detailed maps of Middle-earth, and scholars in every discipline continue to produce textual analysis, criticism and philosophy all as an effect of being inspired by his work.
The momentous triple release of Peter Jackson’s film, The Lord of the Rings, starting in January of 2001, precipitated a gush of books and articles about Tolkien and his literary creation of Middle-earth at various levels of sophistication, and many of these appear to lack much depth or value. But a steady stream of rather serious scholarship concerned with Tolkien continues to appear, much of it in annual journals and bi-monthly periodicals published by Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts. The academic community of Tolkien scholarship is who I will be thinking of as an audience for the written work produced by this project. Those participating in the ongoing discourse would appreciate the new work that my investigation of the proposed topic can provide.


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