Radical Interpretation

First off, I would never buy a t-shirt like this. I don’t think jokes belong on t-shirts. If something is going to be on your body to be read over and over and over again by everyone you meet, it should be something weightier than a snarky one-liner. Nevertheless, this particular snarky one-liner is a good lead-in to this blog entry.

I do correct grammar on-the-fly in my head. I don’t do it any more when people are speaking to me, but if I’m reading an academic paper, especially one that hasn’t been written or proofread by a native English speaker, I often used to find myself getting upset with awkward phrasings and missing words. Now instead I will read the sentence, correct any particularly displeasing issues in a sort of pre-conscious part of my mind, and then and only then let myself really start to parse the sentence.

It recently occurred to me that I could apply a similar tactic to larger issues. For instance, as any literary scholar will tell you, a work of fiction is a cooperative endeavor between author and reader. The author’s statements provide a skeleton that the reader fleshes out with his or her own experiences and understanding. Two different readers can often get very different understandings of the same book, especially if it’s a good book, or the Good Book, for a famous example.

The world is already littered with different interpretations of the Bible, so I’ll discuss something else here. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” comes to mind. “The Hobbit” is a story of an entire race of lazy, middle-class short folks who don’t like to wear shoes, one of whom happens to go on an adventure. At many points in his adventure, our hobbit friend runs into various different beings: dwarves, elves, eagles nothing at all like the eagles we know, “wizards,” which I suspect may be a species unto themselves, and men, all of whom have their own goals and intentions and are mostly just trying to make their way in life, being neither stalwart servants of good nor nasty, hideous embodiments of evil.

Our hobbit, Bilbo, also meets some other beings who the omniscient narrator himself describes as “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted …[creatures that] make no beautiful things.” This he says of the entire race of goblins.

Never trust a goblin. They’re wicked and bad-hearted and make no beautiful things.

Not one goblin can be kind or good, just as no goblin can ever make anything that is, in some abstract absolute sense, beautiful. Needless to say, I don’t like to imagine a world in my head based on racist blanket statements.

So, what can I, as the reader, do? I suppose I could stop reading, but altogether I’m relatively happy with “The Hobbit,” so I won’t do that. Instead I will draw upon my ability as the reader to interpret the story as I like. My interpretation of this story is that the “omniscient” narrator is in fact a human speaking many years later to us, the readers. This narrator is a flawed narrator, who relates the story according to his human biases, being raised by other humans whose ancestors no doubt went to war with these very same goblins. Since the goblins are no longer around to defend themselves, it makes perfect sense that they would become exaggerated and vilified in the many retellings of the story over so many years.

If you’re thinking right now that there’s no way J.R.R. Tolkien meant for his story to be taken as being told by an unreliable narrator, then you’re right. However, I might reiterate that as a reader, I can make whatever interpretation I want. If you find you’re reading something that makes you upset, remember that no author can force you to believe something you don’t want to. Let your imagination run free!

If you’re intrigued by the idea of alternative interpretations of J.R.R Tolkien’s work, you may like to read the English translation of “The Last Ringbearer” that tells the entire story of the Lord of the Rings from Sauron’s side. This is an even more radical interpretation than mine of “the Hobbit.” It goes so far as to claim that orcs aren’t a different race at all, just a slur that Tolkien uses to describe foreigners. I haven’t given it a read myself just yet, but it’s freely available online, so if you get to it before me, let me know what you thought!

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4 thoughts on “Radical Interpretation”

  1. I very much like this idea of the goblins not being so bad, just the narrator being flawed. This idea of a flawed narrator really helps me with the description of certain characters as beautiful or ugly in stories, since I don’t believe in a Platonic ideal of beauty and want to yell at narrators that such an ideal is destructive.

  2. Sam, I like your post but I must respectfully disagree with you here.
    First, reinterpretation makes for great writing, as Wicked and other reinterpretations have proven. However, I think you’re in a dangerous area if you say to yourself as a reader that you will believe whatever you want about someone else’s tale. This is not the same as what literary scholars will tell you. Literary scholars (some of them, anyway) would say that there is an intellectual transaction in which the reader plays an important role. I would add that the role of the reader is not so important that he can just disregard what he doesn’t like. To a hypothetical example, can I just assume that you wrote this blog entry with a polka-dot fish dancing on your head? The idea is entertaining, and I have the right to it as reader, don’t I?
    The reader will visualize a story as he will, but I personally I don’t think the reader is entitled to project anything he wants to onto a story.

  3. Let me just add one more thing, that is less ridiculous than a dancing cuttlefish. I think your method of reading is valid, but I prefer to try to discern the world of the story as close as possible to the way the author intended it. This makes it easier for me to give praise or criticism to the author when I’ve read the whole story.

  4. Of course you are free to interpret the book how ever you like, however in Tolkien’s world maybe goblins really are all horrible creatures. In my head goblins are like kind of like skunks, kind of cute, kind of ugly, willing to eat insects and roadkill, probably quite stinky. I can be open to the idea that somewhere in some alternate universe saying goblins are bad is like saying fish don’t ride bikes.

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