Authorial control and world-building: Some thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Catherine Fisher and Umberto Eco

Catherine Butler’s recent blog post about J.K. Rowling’s control over the Harry Potter world and narratives via social media (stemming from her article in The Conversation) got me thinking again about an issue I explored in my book on Tolkien. How do we deal with the author’s authority (forgive the pun!)? And is there (or should there be) such a thing at all?

PottermoreTolkien was notorious at doing in letters, essays, prefaces, and interviews what Rowling is doing now via Twitter and Pottermore: expanding the secondary world, and ‘directing’ or ‘steering’ the way the books are read or ought to be read. In my book, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History, I tackled this issue in the Introduction chapter, trying to navigate between what seemed to me two equally perilous paths: a) Wimsatt and Beardsley’s ‘intentional fallacy’ (using biography and the author’s own views about his/her work as definitive) and b) what Purves has called ‘the fallacy of anonymity’ (in many ways the other extreme, the ‘death of the author’ proposed by Barthes and reinforced by Foucault, urging the text to ‘speak for itself’ and launching reader-response criticism). To quote myself (if I may):

One of the problems of bypassing the author is the rendering of literature as a-historical and self-contained. To state the obvious: every text has an author with a life beyond the text, defined by a specific place and historical circumstances. Literary critics now acknowledge that the author cannot so easily be discarded. Biographical information may not fundamentally alter the way individual readers experience and understand a literary work, nor can it ‘explain’ a text. But the author is still a central, powerful factor in the modern production and consumption of literature. (Fimi, 2008, p. 6)

And, I suppose, this is even more valid for ‘celebrity’ authors such as Tolkien and Rowling, who were/are in the public eye. The debate about these two sides is ongoing, by the way: some of the literary critics who have argued for the ‘return of the author’, or at least that the author is still relevant, include Sean Burke and Roberta Ricci. Catherine Butler had also been working on these questions, and she kindly shared some of her latest thoughts and ideas during an excellent guest talk for the internal research seminar series at Cardiff Met last year.

516gvEF2JxL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Another slightly different by related question I tried to deal with in the introduction to my book is the tensions between ‘authorial interventions’ that contradict each other: e.g. Tolkien’s claim that he disliked fairies as opposed to the proliferation of fairies in his early works (see here); or Tolkien’s vehement rejection of a ‘Celtic’ influences in the draft ‘Silmarillion’, as opposed to the actual evidence in the text itself (see here and here), etc. I actually found particularly useful the idea of a ‘biographical legend’, coined and explored by Russian formalist critic Boris Tomaševskij, according to which authors create a romanticized, distorted, image of their biography as a reference point for literary criticism ultimately controlled by the author. J.K. Rowling’s famous story of the idea for the Harry Potter books falling “fully formed” into her head is a good example of this sort of narrative, reiterated in interviews and biographies (e.g. here). Did the idea really come “fully formed”? Can we really remember accurately that particular moment in time when something pivotal, something that changed our lives, happened, or do we reconstruct this moment from its aftermath? Do we really remember the exact moment we fell in love, came up with that brilliant idea, made a particular choice that affected everything? I am not trying to claim that authors attempt purposefully to deceive – all I am saying is that memory is a tricky thing, an unreliable tool, and that publicity can be very stressful and demanding, while – at the same time – fans hunger for ‘mythical’, romanticised information on authors. The creation of a ‘biographical legend’ is often the result of these forces. (Verlyn Flieger has also brilliantly discussed recently how Tolkien’s statements in his letters should be read within the context of his agenda each time, and depending on each particular addressee).

Catherine Fisher's talk at Cyncoed Library, Cardiff Met, for World Book Day 2016

Catherine Fisher’s talk at Cyncoed Library, Cardiff Met, for World Book Day 2016

But, coming back to authorial control, I also have in mind a very different example that contradicts everything I have just offered above: a couple of weeks ago, my students and I had the pleasure and honour to listen to a talk by award-winning fantasy author Catherine Fisher, former Young People’s Laureate for Wales and best-known from the brilliant Incarceron, and its sequel, Sapphique. Catherine talked about her books, answered questions about inspirations, and reflected upon her own creative practice. The point that stuck with me was Catherine’s willingness to set the text free. She said:

When I write a book it’s alive for me, I think about it all the time, I dream about it, I’m talking to people about ordinary things and my mind is off on a character.  It’s alive. When a book is finished and it’s parcelled and… sent out to the world it’s gone from me, it’s no longer alive in the same way. It’s finished, it’s over, and I tend to think it’s dead. But it’s not because out there what I had thought of is being remade in other people’s minds. And in each person’s mind it’s being remade the same and yet differently, because we’re all so different. And so the book takes on a different sort of life. But the reader is still recreating it. It’s like a multi-branching web which just keeps on branching.  As long as people can get hold of the books and read them…

Now that was liberating and refreshing and – I assume – a difficult thing to do. Catherine Fisher has talked about her books many times and written the occasional essay or blog, but she hasn’t tried to systematically control the way her books ought to be read, in contrast to Tolkien and Rowling. Compare the quotation from Catherine above with Tolkien’s response to the question of whether he approved of postgraduate-level research on The Lord of the Rings:

I do not while I am alive anyhow. I do not know why they should research without any reference to me; after all, I hold the key. (Niekas interview, p. 38)

Why such a marked difference, I wonder? Is it a personality thing, or is there something else going on?

51cMlXqg1lL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_I am, of course, still pondering all of this, hence this blog post, rather than a journal article or essay. But I can’t help but think that the sort of fantasy that Catherine Fisher writes, and the sort of secondary worlds she creates, are fundamentally different from Tolkien’s and Rowling’s. Catherine Fisher’s fantasy is often low/intrusion fantasy, set in our world but permeated by the supernatural. There are portals to otherworlds and some of her books, notably Incarceron and Sapphique, do create another, alternative world (or worlds) but not with the ‘encyclopedic’ detail that Tolkien or Rowling have created theirs. Instead of sustained building, brick by brick and in painstaking detail, one secondary world, Fisher has given us multiple exciting secondary worlds, as well as fascinating magical intrusions in the primary one. The same goes for fantasists such as Alan Garner, whom – tellingly – Catherine quoted in her talk. There’s something obsessive about the way Tolkien and Rowling go about their world-building, while Fisher’s and Garner’s worlds are free-er, more hazy round the edges, leaving room for a different type of engagement by the reader.

Because, at the end of the day, this question is also about different kinds of pleasures from reading (and, I suspect, writing) fantasy. The pleasure of immersion, absorption and saturation (Mark Wolf’s terms) into a richly detailed and layered secondary world (often years or decades in the making) is different from the pleasure of the possibilities of different worlds, sketched in enough detail to support a narrative and characters, but not finished off and polished to the degree of saturation. In a way, the ‘obsessive’ world-building is more akin to historical fiction and the impetus to re-create accurately a particular historical period. So, paradoxically, it’s more related to ‘realism’ than fantasy. Umberto Eco confessed to the same obsessive world-building for his postmodern/historical/detective novel The Name of the Rose:

To tell a story you must first of all construct a world, furnished as much as possible, down to the slightest details… The first year of work on my novel was devoted to the construction of the world. Long registers of all the books that could be found in a medieval library. Lists of names and personal data for many characters, a number of whom were then excluded from the story. In other words, I had to know who the rest of the monks were, those who do not appear in the book. It was not necessary for the reader to know them, but I had to know them. (Eco, 1985, p. 24)

That’s exactly the kind of detail that Rowling has often explained she had created long before the entire Harry Potter series was completed, and which she now offers, one bit at a time, in Pottermore (in lieu of a Harry Potter Encyclopedia). Tolkien’s world-building trivia filled boxes and boxes of manuscripts, many of which were graciously shared with fans and scholars in the History of Middle-earth series, edited posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien.

So is it possible that the question about authorial control in fantasy literature in particular is a matter of the ‘mode’ or sub-genre of fantasy each author uses? I wonder what you think.



‘An Interview with Tolkien’, interview by Resnick, Henry, Niekas, 18 (1967), 37–43.

Burke, Seán (1992) The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Eco, Umberto (1985) Reflections on The Name of the Rose. London: Secker & Warburg.

Fimi, Dimitra  (2008) Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Flieger, Verlyn (2014) ‘But What Did He Really Mean?’, Tolkien Studies, 11, pp. 149-66.

Purves, A. (1993) ‘Issues and Concerns in Multiculturalism and the Literature Curriculum’, in Miller, S.M. and McCaskill, B. (eds), Multicultural Literature and Literacies: Making Space for Difference. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 105–27.

Ricci, Roberta (2003) ‘Morphologies and Functions of Self-criticism in Modern Times: Has the Author Come Back?’, MLN, 118: 1, pp. 116–46.

Tomaševskij, Boris (1995) ‘Literature and Biography’, in Burke, Seán (ed.), Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 81–89.

Wimsatt Jr., W.K. and Beardsley, M.C. (1946) ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, The Sewanee Review, 54, pp. 468–88.

Wolf, Mark J.P.  (2012) Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge.