A foolish consistency

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Something that stands out from Christopher Tolkien’s History of the Lord of the Rings is the effort that J. R. R. Tolkien put into ensuring the consistency of the chronology. The journey to Rivendell was the first big source of trouble, with the movements of the hobbits, Gandalf, and the nine Black Riders to be synchronized. From The Treason of Isengard:

Scheme D [c. August 1939] provides an account of the movements of the individual Riders, who are identified by the letters A to I. It was D who came to Hobbiton on 23 September, the night on which Frodo left, and it was D and E who trailed the hobbits in the Shire, while GHI were on the East Road and F was to the southward. On the 25th, the day that Frodo reached Crickhollow, DEGHI assembled at the Brandywine Bridge; G waited there while H and I passed through Bree on Monday the 26th. On the 27th D and E ‘got into Buckland and looked for Baggins’; on the 28th they ‘located’ him and went to get the help of G. On the night of the 29th DEG crossed the River by the Ferry; and on the same night H and I returned and attacked The Prancing Pony. Pursued by Gandalf from Crickhollow DEG fled to the King. ABCDEFG ‘rode East after Gandalf and the supposed Baggins’ on 1 October; F and G were sent direct to Weathertop, and the other five, together with H and I, rode through Bree at night, throwing down the gates, and from the inn (where Gandalf was) the noise of their passage was heard like a wind. F and G reached Weathertop on the 2nd; Gandalf was pursued North from Weathertop by CDE, while ABFGHI patrolled the East Road.

The story after the breaking of the Fellowship was even more complex, with eventually four parties to be co-ordinated (Frodo & Sam; Gandalf & Pippin; Merry & the Rohirrim; Aragorn, Legolas & Gimli), as well as the phases of the Moon and the weather to be taken into account. Tolkien’s desire for Pippin to watch the full moon rise from the battlements of Minas Tirith required complex adjustments to the calendar (and the idea that the storm that battered Frodo and Sam on the Emyn Muil should later that night pass over Helm’s Deep during the siege had to be abandoned). In this section of the book the geography was still malleable (unlike in The Fellowship of the Ring, where the journey passed over lands which had been fixed in The Hobbit), with each party moving over different parts of the landscape, so that re-arrangement of the major landmarks (for example, to bring Helm’s Deep closer to Isengard, and Minas Tirith to Minas Morgul), together with diversions on the road to Mount Doom, could bring the distances to be covered by each party into line.

Our impulse as readers to imagine a consistent world based on the fragmentary information in a story is so very strong (and in the real world a vital skill) that we don’t always look carefully at its function in fiction. At tvtropes.org they say, “Consistency aids Willing Suspension of Disbelief” in the reader or viewer, but I don’t think that fully explains Tolkien’s need to construct an elaborate schedule for the movements of the Black Riders: the nine Riders are not distinguished in The Fellowship of the Ring, and we don’t really know their powers, so that even the most careful reader would not be able to spot a mistake or a double-counting simply by consulting the published text.

The careful synchronization does allow Tolkien to create powerful dramatic effects by comparing the perils of the dispersed fellowship, as in this passage from The Return of the King:

Out westward in the world it was drawing to noon upon the fourteenth day of March in the Shire-reckoning. And even now Aragorn was leading the black fleet from Pelargir, and Merry was riding with the Rohirrim down the Stonewain Valley, while in Minas Tirith flames were rising and Pippin watched the madness growing in the eyes of Denethor. Yet amid all their cares and fear the thoughts of their friends turned constantly to Frodo and Sam. They were not forgotten. But they were far beyond aid.

I think you could imagine creating the same dramatic effects without the need for such careful accounting, just by being a bit vaguer about dates and lengths of journeys. But Tolkien’s view was that this kind of attention to detail was necessary to overcome the in-built disadvantage of fantasy. From ‘On Fairy Tales’:

Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more subcreative; but at any rate it is found in practice that ‘the inner consistency of reality’ is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of ‘reality’ with more ‘sober’ material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely ‘fanciful’.

It’s also clear from The History of the Lord of the Rings that Tolkien’s pursuit of consistency was one of the drivers of his creativity. His need to figure out “what really happened”1 made him latch onto small inconsistencies in chronology, or gaps in motivation, or a character possessing an item of equipment that had not previously been mentioned2—lacunae that would not worry a writer more pressed by deadlines—and worry at it until everything was satisfactorily explained.

So those are some of the literary effects produced by consistency. They are so well known that I think people take it for granted that consistency is a virtue, and neglect the equally interesting question of whether there are interesting effects to be achieved through inconsistency.

Emerson’s saying, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, is well known, but the rest of the paragraph (from ‘Self-Reliance’) is interesting too:

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

There’s a tendency in science fiction and fantasy for fans to perceive inconsistencies as mistakes simpliciter—to be ignored or smoothed over by fanon, or retconned. But that’s not the only possible reaction.

So here I want to explore a series in which discontinuity has, at least for me, a positive effect: the Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance. This is a quasi-Arthurian historical fantasy set on the mythical island of Hybras, peopled with characteristically Vancian sardonic heroes and swaggering villains.

The inconsistencies are mostly minor, but surprisingly numerous, especially between the first and second books in the trilogy. I can perhaps best indicate the flavour by giving a selection of examples.

  1. How many people did the witch Desmei make in her vats?

  2. How long has Valdez been spying for Casmir?

  3. What was the initial reception of Aillas by the people of South Ulfland?

  4. What species of fish swallowed the green pearl?

  5. What was the origin of the placename ‘Twitten’s Corner’, where stands an iron post?

  6. Who made the prophecy about Suldrun’s son?

  7. Who appointed the devils Vus and Vuwas to guard Swer Smod?

  8. What is the name of the mad king of Pomperol?

There are other inconsistencies that are harder to summarize so succintly as these. For example, in Suldrun’s Garden Aillas mounts an expedition to South Ulfland, and he does so again in The Green Pearl in terms that suggest it must be the first such expedition (for example, Aillas meets the merchants of Ys and the barons of the moorlands for the first time). So is it the same expedition described in two ways, or two expeditions that are superficially similar?

You can, of course, try to explain these away (in The Green Pearl it doesn’t say that Desmei made only two people; perhaps ‘Valdez’ was a cover name used by two different spies; in the U.S., turbot can refer to “any of various large flat fishes” [OED]; perhaps Persilian was merely repeating Desmei’s prophecy, or both got it from a common source; and so on) but I think this kind of exercise is rightfully known as fanwank.

There is an extrinsic explanation for these inconsistencies: Vance lost his sight in the 1980s, so that when composing The Green Pearl (published 1985) he must have found it difficult to consult Suldrun’s Garden to resolve issues of detail.

But the effect of reliance on memory is that the trilogy acquires some of the characteristics of a folk tale. Oral retellings gradually diverge, as speakers remember the events in different ways, or elaborate in idiosyncratic ways. This can lead to multiple versions of a story that may later be stitched back together in a way that leaves the inconsistencies outstanding. A well-known instance of this is the Documentary hypothesis for the Book of Genesis, whereby two different creation myths (or divergent versions of the same myth) appear to have been edited into sequence in chapters 1 and 2.

The inconsistencies in the Lyonesse books—and the pairs of episodes that seem to have sprung from the same inspiration, such as the two incursions into Ulfland, the two episodes in which ogres are tricked and killed by children, the two seductions of Shimrod by Melancthe to the benefit of Tamurello, the two negotiations with the fairies of Thripsey Shee, or the similar childhoods of the princesses Suldrun and Madouc—give the books the flavour of tales from Arthurian legend: told, retold and edited.


  1.  Compare with letter number 180 (14th January 1956) from The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien:

    I have long ceased to invent … I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself. Thus, though I knew for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure somewhere far down the Great River, I have no recollection of inventing Ents. I came at last to the point, and wrote the ‘Treebeard’ chapter without any recollection of previous thought: just as it now is.

    The evidence from The History of the Lord of the Rings is that this facility of invention was not by any means a continual achievement; and often only by long struggle was he able to find a satisfactory sequence of events.

  2.  In this passage from The Return of the King, Sam returns the sword Sting that he had taken from Frodo’s unconscious body outside Shelob’s Lair:

    Then Frodo took the small sword that had belonged to Sam, and had been laid at his side in Cirith Ungol. “Sting I gave to you Sam,” he said.

    “No, master! Mr. Bilbo gave it to you, and it goes with his silver coat; he would not wish anyone else to wear it now.”

    Frodo gave way.

    This passage was inserted here because in the first drafts of ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, Frodo had fought a duel with Sharkey (who was at that point not yet identified with Saruman):

    “Very well,” said Frodo, “one to one.” He took off his cloak. Suddenly he shone, a small gallant figure clad in mithril like an elf-prince. Sting was in his hand; but he was not much more than half Sharkey’s stature. Sharkey had a sword, and he drew it, and in a [?fury] hewed double-handed at Frodo. But Frodo using the advantage of his size and [?courage] ran in close holding his cloak as a shield and slashed his leg above the knee. And then as with a groan and a curse the orc-man [?toppled] over him he stabbed upwards, and Sting passed clean through his body.

    This required Frodo to be in possession of Sting, and therefore he must have re-possessed the sword at some time after their rescue from Mordor. Even though nearly seven months of story-time had passed, and no reader could have had any problem imagining how this might have happened, this was the kind of loose end that Tolkien could not allow to go untied.

    Later on, Tolkien’s conception of Frodo’s character on the return to the Shire changed radically, so that “he had not drawn sword, and his chief part had been to prevent the hobbits in their wrath at their losses, from slaying those of their enemies who threw down their weapons.” But the return of Sting at the Field of Cormallen remained.