06 February 2016

War of the Ghosts -- A Guest Post By Simon Cook

War of the Ghosts

F. C. Bartlett
At the March 1920 meeting of the Folk-Lore Society, all three papers were delivered by Cambridge men. A.C. Haddon gave the presidential address, W.H.R. Rivers discussed the conception of ‘soul-substance’ in New Guinea and Melanesia, and F.C. Bartlett reported on ‘Some Experiments in the Reproduction of Folk-Stories’.

Does this have anything to do with Tolkien? 

It depends how you look at things; which is really what I want to talk about in this post. Tolkien studies are full of ‘influences’ – as highlighted in the recent flurry of discussion over the state of Tolkien scholarship. Personally, I don’t get ‘influence’, a seemingly occultist notion of action at a distance. No doubt the confusion is subjective.

Another perspective draws upon notions like context and conversation. These are my preferred terms of art, reflecting my training as an intellectual historian. I’ll illustrate how they work by first discussing Bartlett and his 1920 paper, and then pointing to its possible significance for how we think about Tolkien.

Anthropology at Cambridge was established in the wake of a university expedition to Torres Straits in 1898. Returning from the expedition, Haddon and Rivers joined forces with more traditional scholars, notably the classical archaeologist William Ridgeway and the Anglo-Saxonist H.M. Chadwick, to establish a new faculty of anthropology. Ridgeway and Chadwick were working on a novel approach to early European history, which combined archaeology with the study of old literature, such as the Iliad and Beowulf. Haddon and Rivers introduced to this approach the folktales of contemporary ‘primitives’. Bartlett’s 1920 paper was a contribution to an emerging account of the relationship between story and society in history.

Bartlett was a psychologist. His paper on the reproduction of Folk Stories discussed an experiment in which members of his university read a Chinook folk tale, ‘The War of the Ghosts’, and, after varying intervals of time, reproduced it. Reproduction, Bartlett showed, was actually reconstruction: over successive retellings familiar elements were substituted for unfamiliar and the plot structure changed to remove (seemingly) inexplicable connections. As such, Bartlett’s paper contributed to the study of cultural diffusion by way of a psychological experiment on memory.

So what does this tell us? If we approach Bartlett’s paper in terms of influence, pretty much nothing. Tolkien may possibly have read the paper, but probably did not; and even if he did, any direct connection we might establish would probably sit all too easily between the trivial and the vacuous.

Approaching Bartlett’s paper in terms of context is another matter. To begin with, we see immediately that disciplinary divisions were not then what they are now. Under the broad umbrella of ‘anthropology’ we find a sustained interaction between students of Classical and Old English literature, archaeologists, experimental psychologists, and practitioners of a new participant-observer method of ethnological fieldwork. This was not an exercise in what today is called ‘inter-disciplinary studies’; rather, it reflects the fact that before the 1930s the borders between scholarly disciplines had not yet ossified.

Subsequent closing of the borders between academic disciplines has fostered a distorted image of the recent intellectual past. If you search for Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts’ on the internet you will find many accounts by modern psychologists of a celebrated chapter in the history of their discipline. Unless you open up the original report of the experiment in Folk-Lore, however, you would never guess that this psychological experiment was designed to illuminate the processes of cultural diffusion.

Something similar has happened to Tolkien, whose intellectual context is very largely missing from modern Tolkien studies. Verlyn Flieger is better than most, and has correctly identified the discussions of the Folk-Lore Society as important background to Tolkien’s 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’. Yet even Flieger presents these discussions as focused simply on explaining the unpalatable elements of ancient stories. This is to project the concerns of a modern discipline (English) onto a past in which such narrow and restricted focus would have seemed an inexplicable voluntary myopia. The Folk-Lore Society brought to the table a wide range of interconnected contemporary debates, ranging over issues of comparative religion, racial ethnology, social history, and much else besides.

The context of intellectual debate was different back then. Disciplinary divisions counted for less, and the scholarly mind roamed over a much larger intellectual terrain. Scholars from a wide variety of specialized fields were engaged in the same or similar conversations.

Reading Bartlett can tell us something about the nature of these conversations, which form a vital (yet passed over) context of Tolkien’s thought. Of course, Tolkien was not part of this Cambridge project, nor were his methods, interests, or conclusions aligned with theirs. Yet his were responses to similar questions, and it is easy to locate ground shared by Cambridge psychologist and Oxford philologist.

Consider the ‘Origins’ section in ‘On Fairy Stories’, where Tolkien introduces his notion of individual sub-creation, alludes to the debate over diffusion, and then introduces his metaphor of the Cauldron of Story. The Cauldron presents an image of diffusion at work, with invented elements of fantasy blending with elements of stories significant parts of which have been forgotten. It is the fact that we forget elements of the old stories that allows invented elements of fantasy to be blended into them to make fairy stories.

Whether or not Tolkien was ‘influenced’ by Bartlett is largely irrelevant. The point is that the two men were both participants in a wide-ranging and ongoing conversation. Their work, or at least parts of it, emerged from a shared intellectual context. Bartlett was particularly arrested by the distortions introduced by memory, Tolkien was concerned especially with forgetting. But reading their texts together reveals a wider scholarly community grappling with the relationship of memory and story in history.

One could go further (much further), had we but world enough and time. Suffice it here to point out that while Bartlett’s most famous book was entitled Remembering (1932), Tolkien’s Elves, with their immortal memories and seemingly perfect recall, can be viewed (in addition to many other things) as an intensive and prolonged thought-experiment on what human memory might aspire to, yet palpably is not.

Again, I suggest no influence of Bartlett’s psychology of memory upon Tolkien’s Elves. What I do suggest is that reading Tolkien in context reveals much about the kind of questions that stand behind his writing, just as Tolkien’s highly idiosyncratic answers illuminate the intellectual and cultural concerns of the twentieth century far more than is usually suspected.

Whatever the present state of Tolkien studies might be, it leaves much to be desired from the point of view of the intellectual historian. I submit that, alongside established methods, the cultivation of a contextualist reading of the history of ideas has the potential to transform our understanding of what Tolkien was about.

Some bibliographical references

On the recent ‘state of Tolkien studies’ debates, my favourite contribution, which contains links to others, is ‘Tolkien Criticism Unbound’.

Bartlett’s 1920 paper (as also those of Haddon and Rivers) can be accessed here, via the (wonderful) archive.org (make sure to turn to the second half of the volume).

Flieger has written about the Folk-Lore Society in several places. See for example the first chapter of her Interrupted Music (Kent State University Press, 2005).

You can no doubt access Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ without need of biographical reference from me.

Those who wish to read more on Bartlett and Cambridge anthropology in the first decades of the twentieth century can soon turn to two papers available on my Academia.edu page: ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’, forthcoming in History of European Ideas, and (with Tiziana Foresti) ‘War of the Ghosts: Marshall, Veblen, and Bartlett’, forthcoming in History of Political Economy.


Another excellent piece of work by Simon Cook that I would recommend to readers is the monograph, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology, Thank you for agreeing to publish your post here first, Simon. 

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