How does the relationship between a text and its intertexts add to our understanding of each?

Intertextuality was termed by Kristeva (1986), who describes it as a way of burrowing from another’s work, thus transforming the way one reads a given text. However, whether this metamorphosis of themes adds to the reader’s interpretation of the texts is questionable. It is therefore essential that one explores intertexuality and the meanings that this creates, through the use of a case study. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien (1991) is an epic piece of fantasy literature that has many influences and in turn, has been a great influence on many texts. Through exploring these influences, one can gain a better understanding of Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality and can also see whether these intertexts add meaning to the reader’s experience with the text.

Worton (1991, p.1) states that, ‘The theory of intertextuality insists that a text… cannot exist as a hermetic or self-sufficient whole’. This therefore means that a text cannot be original, as it is constantly being influenced by the author’s knowledge of the previous texts they may have read. Consequently, to fully understand Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (referred to as LotR from here on), an analysis of the intertextuality present within this text must be undertaken.

Tolkien himself was a professor of English Language and Literature. As a result, he had a vast knowledge of past texts that heavily influenced his work. For instance, the Elven architecture may have been inspired by Morris’ (2012) novel, The Wood Beyond the World, originally published in 1894. In Chapter XI of the book (p.53), Morris describes a, ‘house builded of white marble, carved all about with knots and imagery’. He even describes the pillared porch of the house as such, ‘images betwixt the pillars both of men and beasts’. Tolkien (p.214) himself describes Rivendell as having, ‘dark beams richly carved’, and that the Hall of Fire (p.223) contained a great hearth that was adorned with, ‘carven pillars upon either side.’

By reading these similar descriptions, one can gain a better visual of both the architectures that these men are trying to portray to the reader. As Hanks (2000, p.21) explains, in relation to the human mind itself, ‘referential practices, and those involving deixis, put in play prefabricated cognitive schemata’. In other words, by having read something that has a similar description, one already has a visual image in his\ her mind of that particular theme, e.g. carved pillars. As such, one builds upon these preconceived images to create a more elaborate setting. Therefore, if the reader were to watch the films of the LotR before reading the books, they would clearly see Rivendell as a city made of carved pillars, white statues and situated above a flowing river. Thus, one see’s Morris’ work as an expansion of this preconceived imagery.

This method of building upon one’s pre-imagined fantasy imagery means that the reader can gain a better insight into the world of Tolkien. The landscape becomes more lively and rich due to the building blocks that are already seeded within the mind. This becomes true when other influences are examined, such as Wyke-Smith’s (1995) novel, The Marvellous Land of Snergs, first published in 1927. This is a clear influence on Tolkien’s Hobbit race, due to Wyke-Smith’s (p.7) depiction of the Snerg creatures. He describes them as, ‘a race of people only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength.’ He also states (p.10) that they are, ‘great on feasts, which they have in the open air at long tables… they are sometimes hard up for a reason for a feast, and then the Master of the Household, whose job it is, has to hunt for a reason, such as it being somebody’s birthday’. This is reminiscent of the beginning of LotR, when it is Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, a scene that contained a party in the middle of Hobbiton, one of the highlights being a mighty feast. Hence, the connections between the two novels become more noticeable, to the point of noticing that two of the main characters share a similar name. There is Bilbo in LotR, and Gorbo in the Marvellous Land of the Snergs.

This level of intertextuality creates a query over what one views as original. As Kundu (2008, p.382) states, ‘a basic assumption underlying the concept of intertext… is that no text could be original. The concept envisions the author not as an originator, but as a synthesizer, someone who draws together and orchestrates existing texts.’ Consequently, the timeline of intertextuality seems to stem into a past that has no records. For instance, there is a clear influence on Tolkien’s work from Wagner’s (2010) epic 1876 opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen, translated in English as the Ring of the Nibelung. The story of which is about a range of God’s, heroes and other mythical creatures combating over a magical ring that grants the user domination over the entire world. This is comparable to the One Ring that is the basis for Tolkien’s plot. However, Wagner himself was influenced by a number of different German and Scandinavian myths/ folk tales. One of these being the Völsungasaga, literally translated in English as the Völsunga Saga. It is a prose written in the 13th century and due to Byock’s (1999) English rendition, one can see that it features stories about Gods and heroes fighting mythical creatures. Thus, there are obvious, noticeable links to Wagner’s work.

There is also a relationship between the Völsunga Saga and Tolkien’s LotR. To see this association, one must first utilize Propp’s (1968) theory for character archetypes. He established that there are eight character types; these include the Hero, the Villian, the False Hero and the Donor. They are important when observing intertextuality, as they present further connections based within the plot structures. For example, the donor figure in both the Völsunga Saga and the LotR, share a number of similarities. If one views Odin as the donor character in Völsungasaga, one can see that he is powerful, magical and associated with wisdom and war. If Gandalf were viewed as the donor figure in LotR, he would be linked with the same characteristics. The way that Odin aids the heroes with his magic and wisdom is strikingly similar to the role Gandalf plays within the Fellowship. This therefore adds to one’s understanding of Gandalf, as the reader may interpret that the wizard is a God-like figure. Making his transformation from Gandalf the Grey to the White, more understandable.

This religious symbolic metamorphosis has clear connections to Christianity and the Bible. One may view the return of Gandalf as a subtext for the second coming of Christ. To expand on this further, if the Balrog were to resemble the devil (Lucifer) then the defeat of such would lead to the resurrection of Christ à la Gandalf. Another character that has a biblical presence is that of Galadriel. Tolkien’s portrayal of the character could be seen as a traditional depiction of an angel. He describes her (p.345) as, ‘very tall… the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful… clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold… no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight’. The language used in this passage has great religious properties. For instance, her husband is referred to as the Lord, which creates an interpretation that the figure is Christ like. Her appearance is white, with golden hair. She is fair in skin, it’s as if Tolkien could be describing an angel from Heaven itself. The fact that he states that she is dressed ‘wholly’ in white also has similar connotations with the word holy. So one may construe that she in fact holy in presence. The Bible also refers to stars as Angels, hence the line about her eyes exclaiming that they are as, ‘keen as lances in the starlight’, seems to reference the Bible in a sub-textual way.

This interpretation of Tolkien’s world may be viewed as being part of the reader’s mind. That he or she is placing his or her own beliefs into Tolkien’s work and as such are receiving a different reading. On the other hand, Tolkien himself had mixed thoughts on what his work signified. As Purtill (2003, p.3) reveals, at one point Tolkien explains that his work is, ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision.’ Yet he also depicts his novels as being a tale about, ‘Death and the desire for deathlessness.’ Consequently, if the author himself has multiple interpretations of his own work, it is understandable that the reader can discover new meanings. This allows for a more diverse perception of the themes, symbolism and intertextual references found with the LotR.

Therefore, once one has an idea of the elements that are sub-textually present within the LotR, one can gain a better insight into the works that followed after. For instance, if Rowling’s (2010) Harry Potter is examined and connected intertextually with Tolkien’s world, new interpretations can be created within one or the other, or both. The scene in which Dumbledore dies illustrates this point. Firstly, the death is similar to that of Gandalf when he fights the Balrog. Both fall from a great height. This self-sacrifice is for the well being of their friends/ companions. The theme of altruism can be seen as a religious factor, due to Christ’s sacrifice to save mankind. Dumbledore’s death in particular resembles this Christian belief. Coincidentally, both characters return to the heroes in order to fulfill their donor role once more. Again, this has a similar bearing to Christ’s resurrection, where one may see Jesus as a donor figure to mankind.

The Harry Potter books are an example of other religious sub-contexts that can be intertextually linked back to the LotR. As Armstrong (2011) states, ‘Rowling’s novels promote important Christian themes, starting with immortality’. He clarifies on this subject by describing how it is Voldemort’s desire to prolong life, whereas the heroes are fighting to preserve their lives. If one then intertextually attaches these values to Tolkien’s work, one can see that it shares the same significance as Rowling’s world. Sauron is obviously trying to extend his life, through the use of the Ring, whereas the Fellowship are fighting to sustain life within Middle Earth. This again adds to the understanding one gains from the novels, and also builds upon the religious themes found in both.

The subtext ideas in LotR extend into the settings and mental visuals that are created from reading Tolkien’s depictions. His description of the Shire for example, is based upon the British countryside. This can be derived from two factors. The first is that the geographical location of the Shire is similar to that of England, if one were to look at a European map. The second is from the movie, directed by Peter Jackson (2001), upon which the audience can see the green rolling hills, watermills and farming life. It has a similar appearance to the paintings of John Constable who constantly illustrated country life within his work. His piece called ‘The Hay Wain’ (1821) could easily be seen as a portrayal of Hobbiton within Tolkien’s world. Another painter that may have had some influence on the geography of Middle Earth is John Martin. His work often shows fire, ash, dark mountains and have a overbearing red colour scheme. The painting called, ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ (1853), could be seen as a representation of Mordor. Thus, if one looks at Tolkien’s life and connects it to his fascination with these contrasting sceneries, one may presume that he may be trying to reflect upon his time within the army. World War 1 changed Britain from a land of safety, into a nation full of fear and desolation. The peaceful setting of The Shire may be a representation of the idyllic, unaware Britain in which Tolkien grew up. Whereas, Mordor could be viewed as Tolkien projecting the fear, hate and death that he experienced during the time he spent fighting in the War.

Through understanding these subtextual ideas, the reader begins to learn more about the author, the meanings behind their work and thus gains a fuller experience within future texts. Many, post-LotR texts have big intertexual links to Tolkein’s original novels. Books, such as Stewart’s (2011) Muddle Earth, makes apparent references to Middle Earth. Stewart writes of places called, ‘Mount Boom’ and ‘Musty Mountains’, which are alterations of ‘Mount Doom’ and the ‘Misty Mountains’. The main heroes of the contrasting worlds have similar characteristics. They are both reluctant heroes, who want to return home. The book generally references Middle Earth a lot, and it is not alone. The success of Tolkien’s work can be seen in all types of media. From music, such as Led Zeppelin’s tracks, labeled as the ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. To art, such as the work of John Howe and Alan Lee, who’s paintings helped with the creation of the sets within the motion picture films. Even comedy has obvious connections to Tolkien’s text, as seen in the South Park episode, ‘The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers’. These referential intertextual bonds, give readers a sense of reward for their knowledge of this fantasy classic, and ensure the preservation of Tolkien’s world.

Allen (2012, p.1) states that, ‘works of literature… are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature.’ This is clear to see in LotR, which is heavily influenced by a number of different texts. Tolkien’s work itself has been an influence on many texts that have followed after. These multiple intertextual links, allows the reader to understand more of the individual text. Through connecting the meanings, subtexts and visuals, one can gain a fuller, richer experience of the text. Which in turn, will enhance future readings of similar works. As such, through the shaping of inspirations, themes and intertexual bridges, new meanings can be discovered by the audience and author alike.