Are You on the Outside Looking In…Or the Inside Looking Out?
Topic: The uses of story-external and story-internal approaches to canon when writing fic.
Author’s Notes: I’ve long been fascinated by these two approaches to canon since learning of them years ago on the Newsgroups rec.arts.books.tolkien and alt.fan.tolkien.
Word Count: 3,501
Are You On the Outside Looking In…or the Inside Looking Out?
‘The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into? ‘
`I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’ (The Two Towers, Chapter VIII, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)
As readers, we are on the outside looking in: we may know or guess at the “kind of tale it is” from clues given to us by the teller of the tale. And as readers, we can also be on the inside looking out, as we identify with the point-of-view characters. Both the outside knowledge and the inside reactions inform our enjoyment of the story. Generally speaking, the first time we read a story, it is the latter reactions that increase our pleasure and anticipation in finding out what happens next. But if we enjoy the story enough to read it a second time or more, it is the knowledge that increases our pleasure: the first time we read a story, we do not know how it turns out. On re-reading we do know the outcome, but enjoy our knowledge, and our anticipation now is in seeing our favorite scenes unfold once more.
Another layer of enjoyment is added to that knowledge if we also engage ourselves in “meta”, examining how the story is put together, and analyzing the author’s development of the story, and in looking at “Story” as an abstract concept.
However, how do these approaches apply when it comes to writing other stories within the canonical milieu? Let us look at each approach first.
Story external is a method of examining a text by examining the author’s possible motives in writing the story, and the historical circumstances around the writing.1
I would go further, saying that story-external is looking at the way the story was constructed in order to fulfill the author’s expectations of what he wishes to achieve in writing that story. We see certain plot devices, points-of-view, descriptions, character developments, styles and tones in terms of what the author is trying to do to advance his goals and themes for the story. We also may notice omissions of things, which may be deliberate or accidental, or due to constraints of time or space or publishing deadlines, or simply due to the author being who he was as a human being of his time and station.
For example, let us examine the episodes of the chapters in The Fellowship of the Ring covering Bree and the journey to Rivendell. The four hobbits arrive, and Merry goes for a walk while Frodo, Sam, and Pippin go into the common room. Frodo meets a mysterious and sinister-looking character called “Strider”, who seems to know a lot more about Frodo’s business than seems good. We gradually learn a little more about him, and along with Frodo begin to at least somewhat trust him, especially when Barliman Butterbur finally produces Gandalf’s letter, but we still do not know very much about him. He proves to be a stern guide, but he protects them as they journey into the Wild following him. The author reveals a few things about him: he’s good in the wilderness, he knows the lore and tales of the Elves and the way to Rivendell, he’s a warrior, he knows a little about healing plants. He’s clearly friends with an Elf named Glorfindel of Elrond’s household. But we do not learn enough to put any of these hints together. Therefore it is a complete and total surprise when we finally learn that he’s also a foster-son of Elrond’s household, a dear friend to Bilbo– and a long-lost King as well! We are never allowed inside his mind for even an instant during this time, lest the surprise be spoiled. This is a deliberate use of omitting information in order to advance the story, and a story-external explanation for Strider’s reticence.
We also see that many things which are found in Middle-earth are there simply because of JRRT’s own likes and dislikes. He liked smoking and beer, and so many of his characters indulge in both. He was fond of his meals, and so he made hobbits creatures who were also very fond of their meals.
“I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated); but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.” 2
One of the things that had a profound effect on his writing, and one which he himself was aware of, was his experience in the First World War. In a poignant passage from one of his letters, addressed to his son Christopher who was himself at war in WWII as a fighter pilot, he had this to say:
“Well, there you are: a hobbit amongst the Urukhai. Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story! I think also that you are suffering from suppressed ‘writing’. That may be my fault. You have had rather too much of me and my peculiar mode of thought and reaction. And as we are so akin it has proved rather powerful. Possibly inhibited you. I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for a start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief. I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of Gnomes. Lots of the early parts of which (and the languages) — discarded or absorbed — were done in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire. It did not make for efficiency and present-mindedness, of course, and I was not a good officer….. 3 [emphasis mine]
Some things were in the stories because of his children. We know, for example, that the character of Tom Bombadil was originally a doll belonging to one of his children.4 And especially in The Hobbit, many of the elements included in the story were there because of his own children’s preferences:
“An important fact people often overlook in discussing The Hobbit is that it was written for a very specific audience, Tolkien’s three sons. While this is widely known as a biographical detail, few take into account the degree to which their likes and dislikes played a part in shaping the story.5
Many things are omitted simply because JRRT either did not have the knowledge to include them, or because he had no interest in them. A lot of readers find it unbelievable that we are shown no economic or industrial underpinnings to his world. But he had an antipathy to modern industry and little interest in showing “trade” within his world.
Because of the many posthumous publications of JRRT’s early writings and incomplete drafts of JRRT’s work, thanks mostly to the tireless efforts of his son Christopher, and of other Tolkien scholars and editors, those of us who have an interest in the Tolkien legendarium have much more information on his motives, and on his trials in writing his work, than is common with most other writers. It is not difficult for us to tease out many of the story-external explanations of various story elements.
And there is where we who write fanfic in Tolkien’s world are lucky in being able to apply our knowledge of the story-external elements that have been left for us. We have a record of much of his authorial intent, as well as a record of the obstacles that caused him to make changes in the story as he wrote. We can use those story-external elements as springboards for ideas, either in expanding on the story as he wrote it and following in the footsteps of canon, or exploring the side-plots he abandoned due to time or editorial constraints, or in using some of his earlier versions to create an alternate version of the story as he might have written it if he had followed his original ideas.
In addition, information from story-external sources can add depth to other aspects of a story. We are given a good many insights through his letters, for example, on the characters of his stories, particularly Frodo and Sam, but also characters such as Gandalf, Faramir, Denethor, Aragorn, and Galadriel. We are also given some indications of the societies Tolkien created, most particularly the Shire, but also, to a certain extent, Gondor and Númenor. All of this information can be used as we choose in creating our own sub-sub-creations in his world.
Story internal is a term for an explanation of something unusual within a story that doesn’t try to go beyond the text of the story itself to explain what is going on. 6
Again, I feel that this is a somewhat limiting definition. I would say, rather, that it is explaining anything within the story by means of the story itself, using only the circumstances of the story as written to come up with the explanation. We may wonder about why a character is motivated to take certain actions, and we seek to explain those actions using only that which is known within the story as a whole; or we may notice a seeming discrepancy in the plot; we may “know” from story-external sources the reason for the discrepancy, but a story-internal explanation makes use only of the circumstances which the characters who live within the story may know.
For example, let us look at that same part of FotR, in which the hobbits meet Strider in Bree and accompany him to Rivendell. We may well wonder, on re-reading the story, why he did not disclose his friendship with Bilbo to them. Surely letting them know their beloved older cousin was alive and well would have smoothed Strider’s acquaintance with the four, and perhaps increased their trust of him. Leaving aside the fact that of course it would spoil the surprise for the reader (which is an explanation outside the story), why would he fail to tell them this? Since we are never given Strider’s point-of-view at this time, we can speculate on his motives: Did he think that the letter from Gandalf was sufficient information? Did he feel that it was Bilbo’s secret to tell, and not his own? Did he think that it was simply best that Bilbo’s presence in Rivendell should not be spoken of, when there were enemies who might be seeking him? Any or all of these are explanations that can be accounted for with the information that we have from within the story itself, and used to construct our own idea of what his point-of-view and frame of mind may have been.
Using story-internal information in writing gapfillers is also something which can be done. We are not shown in detail what happened in other places in Middle-earth at the time that we are following the members of the Fellowship on their mission; but we are told enough that we can piece together what could have happened in the Shire, in Bree, in Rivendell, or Mirkwood to a certain extent.
One very important use of the story-internal approach is in characterization. By taking note of how a character is shown, however briefly, we are given a number of clues as to his or her personality. JRRT was very skillful in giving vivid personalities to very minor characters who appear and then are gone. It would not be difficult to construct a story around the character of Ioreth, for example, because her personality stands out sharply in the few places we see her! (And, in fact, a number of authors have taken her on very successfully!)
We still know very little about even the major characters, biographically speaking. We are given few details about Frodo’s childhood, for example, save a few dates and the circumstances of his parents’ death and his subsequent adoption by Bilbo. Yet with those few clues, it is possible to construct a plausible childhood background for him, and to portray him as he might have been as a child. The exact details and interpretations of how his circumstances affected him may differ from one writer to the next, but the foundations are there for a remarkably consistent portrayal. The same approaches may be used in constructing a plausible childhood backstory for characters like Elrond or Aragorn.
Then there are those niggling questions of details that are left out, or seeming inconsistencies between one version of a story and another. This latter comes into play especially for those who deal with stories set in the First or Second Ages, since almost all the information we have on those times was published posthumously and so is necessarily incomplete. Authors who primarily write stories set during the time of The Silmarillion often have to make choices based on two (or sometimes more) versions of the same events. These are still things which are internal to the story itself, however, and attempts to reconcile various versions can result in some really intriguing stories!
Which is which?
Some might wonder: with so many sources of information, how do we know which are parts of the story, and which are not?
First of all, let us agree with Samwise7, that all of the story of Arda is one long story. This means that a fanfic writer can construct a story-internal explanation of something that happens in LotR using information from The Silm; for even though they are completely different books, they are all part of the story of Arda.
But The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Húrin are all obviously stories with a beginning, middle, and end. What about those bits and pieces of unpublished, or even rejected, stories which are found in Unfinished Tales or The Book of Lost Tales or The History of Middle-earth or The History of The Hobbit?
If it is part of a narrative, and has characters in it, it is story. This would include those stories that were not originally published in JRRT’s lifetime, and those portions of the story that were ultimately rejected. They may or may not agree with the other versions, but they can be used in the same way to construct story-internal explanations that may be alternative interpretations of what “really happened” (within that context).
And there is some non-narrative material that can still be considered as “story” because the material was supposedly composed by the characters who lived within the story. This would include the various Appendices at the end of LotR (purportedly compiled partly by Meriadoc Brandybuck, and partly by Faramir’s grandson Barahir), as well as such things as “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” in Morgoth’s Ring or “The Teachings of Pengolod” in Peoples of Middle-earth or the early Hobbit Family Trees from that same volume, which would supposedly have been the work of hobbits. If it is allegedly “primary material” from Arda, then it may be considered story-internal.
Story-external could be such sources as JRRT’s Letters, any material in which he spoke of his creative process in the first person, biographical material, and editorial interpolations by those who compiled his material posthumously, such as his son Christopher, his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, or the editor of The History of the Hobbit, John Rateliff.
It can also be historical knowledge of JRRT’s life and times, social and scientific knowledge of the era, or other factors, whether social or psychological that may have affected his writing of the story.
How can these approaches be applied to writing fan fiction?
Using the story-internal approach seems to be obvious to most of us. We ask ourselves a question about the story, and try to think of a way in which it can be answered that fits within the parameters of canon.
Why did Elros choose to be mortal? Why did his brother choose the life of the Eldar?
Why was Túrin’s closest childhood friend a lame servant?
Why are Frodo’s best friends so much younger than he?
What made King Argeleb
II grant the Shire to the hobbits?
How did Éowyn feel when she first realized that Wormtongue lusted after her?
All of the above could be (or have been) turned into stories in which the elements that explain them would all make sense to the characters within the story, and would also make sense if told to another character who lives in Middle-earth.
However, we can also use story-external questions to create fan fiction.
Some are rather obvious. There is an entire sub-genre of AU stories in which JRRT himself plays a role. Often he is dropped into his world, or meets an Elf or other inhabitant of Middle-earth, or his finding of “The Red Book of Westmarch” is shown as an actual happening. Most such stories make use of biographical or autobiographical information about his life at the time the story takes place.
But there are other ways to use story-external information.
For example, we know that at one time the character of “Strider” was not a Man, but a hobbit named “Trotter”. Someone could write a story in which that remained true.
We know that at the time JRRT wrote The Hobbit, Bilbo’s Ring was not a particularly powerful or evil artifact, but simply a useful trinket. In fact, that is the way it still was in The Hobbit’s first edition. A story could be written based on that version of The Hobbit.
We also know many of the literary antecedents of Tolkien’s mythology, how it was influenced by such diverse elements as the Finnish Kalevala, Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, the Welsh language, and Catholic theology. We can draw upon those same mythologies to find new stories for his world.
Or we can examine some of the circumstances of JRRT’s life to draw psychological conclusions about his characters. We know, for example, that he strongly identified with Faramir ,8 and so using his own feelings and beliefs about such subjects as war, politics, and fidelity, we can find motivations for stories written in Faramir’s point-of-view.
We can use story-external elements of history, sociology, and science to give fictional answers to questions like: How did hobbits come to have mantel clocks and umbrellas? Why was Dorwinion wine so potent? How did lembas work? Why did the creatures of Morgoth, such as trolls and orcs have black blood?
While any single fan fiction story may be more influenced by the story-internal or the story-external approach, they are not by any means mutually exclusive, but complement one another and help to give greater depth to our sub-creations of his sub-creations. But both approaches work best when we are aware of what we are doing, and how we are doing it.
2 Letter #213, to Deborah Webster 25 October 1958
3 Letter #66, to Christopher Tolkien, 6 May 1944
4 Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, p. 162
5 The History of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: Part One, Mr. Baggins edited by John D. Rateliff, p. 253-254
7 The Two Towers Chapter VIII, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”
8 Letter #108 to ‘Mr. Thompson’ 14 January 1958