Some of Tolkien’s most interesting and illuminating letters are those in response to readers of The Lord of the Rings, especially those correcting misapprehensions of his intent. Misreadings are, of course, a hazard for all authors, as C.S. Lewis noted when he wrote, “I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.” (Wirt) And Lewis’s work has demonstrated this with the persistent misreading of The Last Battle known as the Problem of Susan.
If this can happen to great authors like Tolkien and Lewis, it can also happen to lesser ones like myself, even if the reader galloping firmly through the wrong gate is the learned and estimable Tom Shippey.
The new issue of Mallorn (Issue 57, Winter 2016) has an article by Shippey titled “The Curious Case of Denethor and the Palantír, Once More.” This is a response to an article with the obviously similar title by Jessica Yates, appearing in Mallorn 47, Spring 2009, itself a critique of an idea on the subject expressed by Shippey on several occasions. Exactly what that idea is I’ll get to in a minute.
In the course of acknowledging that Yates is right and that some of his earlier ideas were incorrect, Shippey brings up my summary of her article in “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies.” He writes,
Jessica nevertheless accepted the central idea, that it was what he saw in the palantír that drove Denethor to suicide. Reviewing Jessica’s piece, however, in Tolkien Studies 9 (2012), 136, David Bratman … dismissed the whole idea that what Denethor saw in the palantír was what caused his suicide as “a (probably mistaken) supposition.” (6)
Shippey then spends some of his valuable time scratching his head over this puzzle. “Bratman gives no reason for this dismissal … I can only guess at why he thinks that.” (6, 8)
I can answer this puzzle for him. Shippey is wasting his time on it. He is the readerly sheep who has turned down the wrong gate. Bratman thinks nothing of the sort. Here’s what Bratman actually wrote:
Yates argues that Sauron did not at first know that Frodo had been captured, or he would have moved to secure the prisoner more quickly. This, in turn, means that, if Denethor saw Frodo’s capture in his palantír – a (probably mistaken) assumption first proposed by Tom Shippey in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century as an explanation for Denethor’s complete despair – therefore Denethor’s use of the palantír would not have been entirely under Sauron’s control.
Perhaps a less mighty brain than Tom Shippey’s might have realized that the “assumption” I’m calling “probably mistaken” is not “Denethor’s complete despair” (still less that it’s what led to his suicide, a reasonable but unsupported extension of the concept), but “Denethor [seeing] Frodo’s capture in his palantír.”
Let me repeat that, so it’s clear: the “(probably mistaken) assumption” is “Denethor [seeing] Frodo’s capture in his palantír.” Not that whatever Denethor saw in the palantír (whether that or something else) was what led to his despair and/or suicide. The word “assumption” refers back to the previous phrase, and only then is it turned into “an explanation for Denethor’s complete despair.”
If Shippey had realized this, he might further have noticed that calling that assumption “probably mistaken” is exactly the argument made by Jessica Yates in the original paper, and which Shippey himself accepts, in a hair-splitting sort of way (“Frodo was not ‘in the hands of Sauron’, only in the hands of the orcs”, 8), in his new paper.
There’s a reason for that. “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies” includes evaluative statements – I’ll get to one below – but it’s not primarily “reviewing” as Shippey called it, if by that he means a la book reviewing. It’s a summation of the year’s work. Everything of mine quoted above – in fact almost the entire paragraph on Yates’ article – is summary of Yates’ argument. Not my own evaluation.
In other words, it’s not David Bratman who thinks Shippey’s original assumption is “probably mistaken.” Those are my words (I’m a paraphraser, not a plagiarist), but the person who’s making that argument is Jessica Yates. Not me. And Shippey acknowledges the force of her argument. So the entire puzzle as to “why [Bratman] thinks that” vanishes in what Douglas Adams would call a puff of logic.
One further note. The part of Shippey’s original comment on me that’s hidden under the ellipses is that I “suggested that ‘the entire discussion may be too mechanistic.'” That part is my opinion. As explained in the full sentence it comes from, it’s an allusion to Yates’ manner of describing Sauron sensing that Denethor was using the Stone: “that Denethor was ‘on line’ or had just ‘logged in’.” (21) Even in inverted commas, the computer terminology strikes me as as telling evidence that we’re treating the palantír too much like a mechanical gadget, a piece of science-fiction technology of a kind alien to Tolkien.
If Tom and Jessica, absorbed in the minute details of the Watergate-investigation-like question of “What did Denethor (or Sauron, or even Gandalf) know and when did he know it?”, query my aversion to treating Tolkien mechanistically, they might consider a debate published some years ago concerning just that issue in regards to Smith of Wootton Major, in which Verlyn Flieger argued against Shippey’s detail-tinkering with the story, that – as Roger Lancelyn Green put it – “to seek for the meaning is to cut open the ball in search of its bounce” [qtd in Letters 388], a view (Green’s, I mean) which Tolkien endorsed. In the case of the palantír, as with questions like why the Eagles didn’t just fly the Ring to Mount Doom, it may not be wise to press sub-creational questions too hard. The little Secondary World may just collapse if picked apart too far. Or, as a greater mind once put it, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
Bratman, David, and Merlin DeTardo. “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2009.” Tolkien Studies 9 (2012): 107-39.
Flieger, Verlyn, and T.A. Shippey. “Allegory versus Bounce: Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 12 (2001): 186-200.
Shippey, Tom. “The Curious Case of Denethor and the Palantír, Once More.” Mallorn 57 (Winter 2016): 6-9.
Wirt, Sherwood Eliot. “C.S. Lewis on Heaven, Earth and Outer Space.” http://www1.cbn.com/narnia/c.-s.-lewis-on-heaven%2C-earth-and-outer-space
Yates, Jessica. “The Curious Case of Denethor and the Palantír.” Mallorn 47 (Spring 2009): 18, 21-25.
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.