Yet the apparently casual form of the interlace is deceptive; it actually has a very subtle kind of cohesion. No part of the narrative can be removed without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones.Richard C West, ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘.
As I start The Two Towers in my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings I come to the fact that a fellowship of nine — consisting of hobbits, men, wizard, elf and dwarf — which the author has so carefully put together and taken through various vicissitudes, is now scattered almost literally to the four winds.
Why, a third of the way through his epic fantasy, does he deliberately unravel a plait that he has woven together out of various strands, the timelines of our nine individuals? Is it because, as we will soon intuit, he wants to replait these threads into a bigger whole?
An interpretation which has increasingly won favour in recent years — that Tolkien structured his narrative using interlace technique — serves us well enough in considering the apparent splintering of the plotline, and why any dismay felt by the innocent reader only makes sense when seen as part of a bigger plan.
What exactly is interlace? The term derives from French entrelacer, meaning to weave or braid strands or laces (which in French also referred to knots, nooses, or snares). In art history, interlace refers to the complex surface patterns in common use during the Migration Period of Northern Europe, related to labyrinthine Roman designs and later the arabesques of Islamic art. It’s most often associated with the interweave patterns of Celtic and Scandinavian visual arts and Anglo-Saxon work such as that found on illuminated manuscripts or, famously, in the Sutton Hoo artefacts (such as the helmet or the gold belt buckle).
In the sixties the term also started to be applied more widely in literary criticism. French scholars saw entrelacement in the way medieval romans (such as Arthurian romances) interwove different but apparently unrelated episodes into their narratives, only for such episodes to be seen to echo or anticipate themes in other episodes.
This way of explaining what were initially seen as problematic digressions away from the main narrative was then applied to works such as Beowulf, particularly by John Leyerle in 1967 in his paper ‘The Interlace Structure of Beowulf‘:
The themes make a complex, tightly-knotted lacertine interlace that cannot be untied without losing the design and form of the whole. The tension and force of the poem arise from the way the themes cross and juxtapose.John Leyerle, cited in Irving 1989
Beowulf is of course that great poem which, back in 1936 in ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’, Tolkien had interpreted anew to argue that its digressions weren’t flaws. He argued that Beowulf “is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings”:
The whole must have succeeded admirably in creating in the minds of the poet’s contemporaries the illusion of surveying a past, pagan but noble and fraught with a deep significance — a past that itself had depth and reached backward into a dark antiquity of sorrow. This impression of depth is an effect and a justification of the use of episodes and allusions to old tales, mostly darker, more pagan, and desperate than the foreground.J R R Tolkien, ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’
In due course scholars of The Lord of the Rings began to think that, for all Tolkien didn’t characterise Beowulf as interlace, he had either consciously or unconsciously applied interlace technique in composing his great Middle-earth saga to suggest “a past that itself had great depth” — thus justifying “the use of episodes”.
When Tolkien delivered his lecture in 1936 he had already begun to mine a “dark antiquity of sorrow” for what he called his secret vice, which emerged soon enough in The Hobbit (1937). When he began The Lord of the Rings soon after the children’s novel appeared the epic’s on-and-off composition (not completed until 1949) allowed him to develop deeper allusions to Middle-earth’s antiquity as well as to thread its continuing influence in the here-and-now of LOTR‘s narrative.
In The Fellowship of the Ring we learn piecemeal not just the story of the One Ring but also the histories of the other peoples, free or not, of Middle-earth; and not only of peoples but also of individuals such as Strider and Saruman, even the Necromancer himself. As certain individuals depart or rejoin the journey of the four questing hobbits (Books I and II were originally entitled ‘The First Journey’ and ‘The Journey of the Nine Companions’) we learn their backstories or hear of the incidents that befell them when they were away from the main narrative.
Now however, after the breaking of the fellowship at the end of the first published volune, we start to experience the intertwining of various strands in earnest as we alternately follow the near simultaneous adventures of Merry and Pippin, of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, of Gandalf, and of Frodo and Sam. So Book III (‘The Treason of Isengard’) focuses on episodes in Rohan and Gondor, while Book IV (‘The Journey of the Ring-Bearers’) takes us to the wanderings of Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Book V (‘The War of the Ring’) returns us to Rohan and Gondor, while Book VI (‘The End of the Third Age’) deftly interweaves all the separate strands, even adding codicils to the thrust of the main There-and-Back-Again theme.
Noted Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, discussing Beowulf‘s structure and unity, quotes Leyerle on the interlace design of the poem which, Leyerle said, revealed “the meaning of coincidence, the recurrence of human behavior, and the circularity of time, partly through the coincidence, recurrence and circularity of the medium itself;” this therefore implies that “there are no digressions in Beowulf” because everything presented must be part of a tapestry of interwoven relationships.
Richard West characterised much 20th-century fiction as predicated on organic unity, a concept that “calls for a progressive and uncluttered narrative line in which there is a single major theme to which a limited number of other themes may be related so long as they are kept subordinate.” But interlace narratives, especially as instanced by The Lord of the Rings, by contrast have a narrative line that is “digressive and cluttered, dividing our attention among an indefinite number of events, characters, and themes, […] and it is often indifferent to cause and effect relationships.”
Interlace in art may appear uniform but it in fact takes many forms. There may be distinct strands which interweave, or one labyrinthine thread which wraps around itself; there are designs which religiously follow the convention of passing one strand first over then under another, and others which are more lax and therefore more entangled; and there are so-called Celtic knots which are endless, like an Ouroboros worm lacking the head and tail with which it bites itself.
The complexity of the plotting of The Lord of the Rings results from its evolution and refinement over more than a decade; along with interlace, comparisons can just as easily be drawn with the thematic use of idée fixe and leitmotif in classical music, or with the interplay of warp and weft threads in medieval tapestries, or sustained interlace allusions and metaphors by other writers (“We wove a web in childhood,” as Charlotte Brontë wrote).
But what all these artistic endeavours have in common are the capacity to echo what has passed and anticipate what is to come, thereby knitting the whole together in one eternal present.
• Rendel Helms. 1974. Tolkien’s World. Panther / Granada Publishing, 1976: 72-98.
• Edward Burroughs Irving, Jr. 1989. Rereading Beowulf. University of Pennsylvia Press. 1992: 80.
• Thomas A Shippey. 1996. ‘Structure and Unity’ in Robert E Bjork and John D Niles. A Beowulf Handbook. University of Exeter Press, 1998.
• J R R Tolkien. 1983. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. HarperCollinsPublishers, 1997.
• Richard C West, 1975. ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings’ in Jared Lobdell, editor. A Tolkien Compass. Ballantine Books.
Another post in my Talking Tolkien thread for my The Lord of the Rings reread