Broken References in the Epistemic Regime

16 02 2015

Several years ago, I wrote a post in which I ascribed the chief appeal of The Lord of the Rings to the narrative’s “unremarked extension” – a term that I had taken from an essay by Barry Langford. If you have an hour, here is a fabulous lecture by Prof. Michael D.C. Drout in which he makes very similar claims.

He refers to the phenomenon as being one of broken references within the novel’s epistemic regime. He defines the latter term as the informational hierarchy that the text develops, makes use of and presents. Ordinarily, the reader of a novel knows roughly the same amount of information as its characters know. Irony prevails in situations in which the reader is aware of more. In fantasy novels, on the other hand, this hierarchy is reversed: now the characters are in possession of a greater degree of information than the reader is, and the story will typically follow those characters who are most in need of having things explained to them.

Occasionally, however, a reference to something within the world of the text might be “broken”, insofar as it will fail to yield an answer within the confines of the work itself. This may be because it pertains to something that all of the novel’s characters are already familiar with, or to something that those characters who understand it are too reticent to disclose. An example of this from The Lord of the Rings is in the first of the three novels, in which Aragorn declares that Gandalf is surer of finding his way in the dark “than the cats of Queen Berúthiel”.

At the time that The Lord of the Rings was published, neither Queen Berúthiel nor her cats had received mention in any of Tolkien’s work – and nor, for that matter, had a host of other references to names, places and events that either Gandalf, Elrond or Aragorn declined to elaborate upon, or that neither the Hobbits nor Gimli needed to have explained. In remarking upon the quality of a text that features such a large number of broken references, Prof. Drout employs the rather apt metaphor of a ruin. A ruin is, in some respects, “coherent”: it conveys information, and it does so in isolation. And yet in other respects, a ruin is fragmentary: it makes reference to that which had preceded it, and in doing so to its own broken nature.

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