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On looking for bones in the soup

One seeks sources for The Lord of the Rings only with trepidation, since Tolkien was not only a teller of stories, but a scholar of them, and had rather a lot to say about his colleagues' passion for teasing out the components of a tale. He considered it, for example, in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ (1983 [1939], 120; citing Dasent's introductory essay to Asbjørnsen 1859, xviii):

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 with certainty be discovered. But I do not, of course, forbid criticism of the soup as soup.
Indeed, Tolkien excelled himself in expressing the same idea with regard to the hunt for the strata underlying the great Old English poem Beowulf. A man who, despite the comments he made in the Foreword to the 1968 one-volume paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, was very fond of allegories, Tolkien produced his finest in criticism of Beowulf's critics (1983 [1936], 7-8):

I would express the whole industry in yet another allegory. A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did he not restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

However, no scholar as fond of roots as Tolkien could abandon the argument at quite this point. Later in 'On Fairy-Stories', Tolkien suggests the literary justification for a search for the bones of The Lord of the Rings (1983 [1939], 128), in discussing the reasons for the continued popularity of fairy-tales:

For one thing they are now old, and antiquity has an appeal in itself. The beauty and horror of The Juniper Tree (Von dem Machandelbloom), with its exquisite and tragic beginning, the abominable cannibal stew, the gruesome bones, the gay and vengeful bird-spirit coming out of a mist that rose from the tree, has remained with me since childhood; and yet always the chief flavour of that tale lingering in the memory was not beauty or horror, but distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr. Without the stew and the bones--which children are now too often spared in mollified versions of Grimm--that vision would largely have been lost.
Tolkien's fiction-writing is at every turn an act of creating not only stew, but the bones which give it substance, in order to create that sense of 'distance and a great abyss of time'. This depth is not, in The Lord of the Rings, purely the accident of history which it is in the fairy-story: it is a conciously wrought effect, utilising ancient methods of story-telling, but scholarship and literary craft as well. 'Sub-creation', as Tolkien termed the storyteller's art--the act of creation within Creation, the emulation of the divine Creator--involved for him not only the invention of languages, peoples and stories, but also their co-opting from elsewhere. To understand something of where Tolkien's insipirations came from and to see how he used them need not involve pushing over the tower which he built: rather, it is a way of studying its architecture. It may even help us to peep a little higher over the parapet.

We must begin in this with a brief introduction to the kinds of texts and languages Tolkien was using.

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