Friday, January 08, 2010

Roland Boer's Marginalization of Authorial Intent

(Previous post here.)

Roland Boer continues our discussion about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, arguing that we need carefully to distinguish an author's beliefs from the author's literature, for "the two are not coterminous." I should be clear that I never claimed they were, and am fully aware that an end result doesn't always square with what an author intended. Everyone is prone to self-deception. But Tolkien's case is one in which his intent largely matched what flowed from the pen.

Roland also claims that "to focus on an author’s intention is terribly reductionist... and deeply theological". While I agree that authorial intention isn't the end of the story (the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or the reading as the case may be), to marginalize authorial intention is the far worse crime. The claim that studying authorial intent is "theological" is not one that I take remotely seriously, and for more on this, see my review of Jacques Berlinerblau's The Secular Bible. (Berlinerblau claims that trying to uncover an originally intended message of a biblical author is inherently theological, which is baloney. If that's what Roland is suggesting here, then he's equally off-base.)

I believe the charge that Tolkien's work is fascist is essentially without foundation, but let's assume for sake of argument that Roland is right. That still doesn't detract in any way from the excellence of the work as a piece of literature. To appreciate the point let's get Tolkien on a charge that really sticks. What about sexism? I would describe The Lord of the Rings as fairly sexist (though not misogynistic: no misogynist could conceive a hero like Eowyn). The societies of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are based on structural sexism. But this needn't imply an endorsement of sexism, and certainly we as readers are not obligated to accept the sexist world-view to whatever degree it is endorsed by the author. The question of literary value goes way beyond stuff like this, and I'd advise Roland to read Glenn Arberry's Why Literature Matters before he's a month older.

"Reader-response" should really be about respecting authorial intent even when in disagreement. I happen to disagree significantly with some of what Tolkien urges in his wonderful tale, not least about the idea that a cyclically hopeless struggle against evil demonstrates the need for Christianity. But I can at least appreciate why he viewed things this way. I don't need to distort his message by pretending it's not there, nor, alternatively, will I jettison a great story simply because the author's view of certain things doesn't sync with my own.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

I found the juxtaposition jarring between the denigration of authorial intent and the claim that it was an allegory. Isn't the latter a claim about the former?

Blogger George said...

Very well said. I think your comments in response to Mr. Boer have been well reasoned & spot on.

Anonymous roland said...

Oh dear, Loren, now you are assuming I take up a rusty old reader-response method ...


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