Long deliberative chapters in which the concerned characters tell stories, stories within stories, and ancient histories, all for the sake of determining current action, are hardly popular among novels.  I can’t think of a similar case in English prose fiction prior to Tolkien.  Where such chapters do show up is in the midst of epic poetry.  In fact, the long deliberative speeches of heroes are one of the hallmarks of the epic genre:  confer Agamemnon and the Greek lords in the Iliad, or Satan and his devils in Paradise Lost.  The Council of Elrond, I think, is a moment of genre-bending in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien is stretching the boundary of his chosen form to appropriate a device from another form, and the question is whether the appropriation works in a way that makes it justifiable.

Before getting to the nuts and bolts of how this appropriation works within the confines of a romance, I want to glance for a moment at the theoretic justification for it.  Romance and epic are different genres with different ends.  As my Old French teacher insisted repeatedly in class, there is no such thing (or at least there was not, among the medievals) as an epic romance or romance epic.  Epics are about national identity, territory struggles, the place of man in the cosmic order, the hard reality of human life and the meaning of death.  They come with conventions like the invocation of a muse, a beginning in media res, a journey to the underworld, long deliberative speeches, and iambic pentameter.  Romances, on the other hand, are about adventures occurring in places that even the medievals envisioned as long ago and far away, tinged with the strange and the magical.  The pertinent difference can be boiled down to this:  epics are about the forces that made the world to be as it is, and man’s place in that world; romances are about other worlds, or the world as it might have been.

Now perhaps you see the loophole in this distinction.  Suppose that someone set himself the task of writing a romance that took place in far-away place that was nevertheless as completely imagined as possible.  This writer wished to imagine this place so thoroughly that he plotted maps of its geography—not just one map but many, as the geography changed over time.  Moreover, he tried to imagine the history of this world from its creation onward, so he wrote volumes full of the doings of its peoples.  Then he began to tell a story about what happened in this far-away place at a fairly late stage in its history.  At the time of the story’s telling, this imaginary world was already peppered with peoples that had their own histories and territories.  Moreover, the story was concerned with a matter of cosmic proportions:  the victory or defeat of an evil being who wished to enslave the whole imagined world.  Such a story involved a meeting of wise men and heroes to deliberate upon their course of action, and it included at least two journeys to the underworld.  Now, was this writer writing an epic or a romance?

Perhaps you might be tempted to say, both epic and romance.  Or perhaps more of romance than epic.  Or perhaps and epic-like romance or vice versa.  But however that may be, you can see why this writer might justifiably (perhaps unavoidably) seek to include the elements of both genres.  But here he runs afoul of another problem, a practical one:  how thoroughly can he expect the elements of disparate genres to meld with each other in an actual written text? 

This question is the subject matter for my next post.