The latest from Neal Gibson:
In sticking with my earlier post I will be putting a lot of emphasis on Tolkien’s works during this series on the importance of philosophy in writing. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) I’m taking an entire course on the Philosophy of Tolkien this semester, and 2) Tolkien’s works provide a great source for examining the diverse nature of philosophy within writing and how we, the readers, interact with it.
I have titled this installment in my series ‘Recognizing the Author’s Intent’ because in my school career I have found this to be a particularly lost art. So much of what I learned in my Literature classes during high school focused almost exclusively on how I interpreted the author’s work as opposed to what the author intended to convey with his work, and while this is an important thing to consider, It seems that the author’s intent ought to reveal more about the philosophy of writing in a work than my interpretation would. The author’s intent reveals the author himself, in story format, to the reader, and to apply our own interpretation to their writing is like looking through a pair of polarized sunglasses with another pair of polarized sunglasses. If you turn the glasses just right you can still see roughly what the author saw, but if you aren’t careful you’ll miss the image completely.
So just how can we go about discovering the author’s intent? Well, in some cases it just is not possible because we do not know enough about the author. To follow the previous metaphor, we do not have access to their pair of sunglasses and so we are left entirely with our own interpretation. However, in the case of Tolkien, we have such vast amounts of his works in the writing that have been published by his son that we really can understand much of the intention behind his writings. We can see that behind everything he wrote about Middle Earth lies the central belief that implicit truth is more easily received and believed than explicit truth. To quote my professor, “Middle Earth is Christian in content, but not in chronology.”* That is, there is not a one to one correlation to anything within Christian doctrine in the world of Middle Earth; there is however, an overtly Christian message in its implied truths of the Fall and of Redemption, to name only two that come to mind.
Of course, in everything we read we are going to bring some level of interpretation with us; this is simply inevitable. In most cases our interpretations will match closely with what the author intended; or at least that should be the goal of writing. There is a fine line between implicitly including an idea and masking it beyond recognition. Tolkien was a master of staying close to the line, but even he sometimes crossed it. Before the posthumous publication of the Silmarillion much of what the scholarly world thought of his philosophy was seen to be at least partially wrong and in need of revision in light of the vast amounts of information released within the pages of the Silmarillion. We can see from this example that the key to finding an author’s intent lies in knowing about the author. If you are reading a book by a Hindu you are probably not going to find any implicit Christian or Muslim themes within it. That does not mean that there is nothing that a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew can take from it, but if you stumbled across something that sounds like it could be Christian you should understand that you are interpreting what you are reading to match what you believe. You are twisting your sunglasses until you can see something that you are used to, even if it means also recognizing the differences between yourself and the author.
Interpretation is not a bad thing; do not misunderstand me on this. It is good to critically think and find applications of diverse ideas into your own ideology. I apologize for the nerdiness of the following statement, but to quote Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender, “It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it becomes rigid and stale.”** However it must be done respectfully. To ignore the author’s intent is to place an unrealistic amount of important on our own interpretive powers. As best as possible I would strive to find the line between author’s intent and our own interpretation and to walk that line with intellectual humility.
*Thomas Provenzola, PhD.
**Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 2, Episode 9: “Bitter Work”