As a student, I read metafictional novels such as Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. When I checked the Wikipedia article Metafiction, I found, much to my surprise, that it lists The Lord of the Rings as an example. The Wikipedia article The Lord of the Rings does not explain why this trilogy would be metafiction.

So, can anyone explain why these books would be examples of metafiction?

2 Answers 2


Metafiction is self-conscious about language, literary form, storytelling, and directly or indirectly draw attention to their status as artefacts

(From Wikipedia's description of metafiction.)

I'd say Lord of the Rings fulfills this.

Self consciousness about language:

Tolkien was a philologist. His thing was constructing languages. To begin with, each species or group of people generally has their own distinctive language, which fits in with that species' characteristics, and also follows normal language patterns (i.e., the languages are realistic). A list of languages mentioned LotR (not complete):

  • the Elven languages, such as Quenya
  • the dwarvish language
  • the language of the Rohirrim
  • the common speech, Westron
  • the Black Speech
  • the language(s) of the orcs

And so on and so forth. Further, names also fit in with culture and language - think Ghan-buri-ghan vs. Elrond vs. Nazgul vs. Khazad-dum.

Literary form

The form of Lord of the Rings is that of an epic. It's meant to emulate stories like Beowulf, or the Norse sagas, or the Finnish Kalevala, or the Oedipus cycle. Further, it is presented as such: in the foreword, Tolkien describes translating and transcribing the story he is about to tell from the Red Book of Westmarch.


A not insignificant portion of the Lord of the Rings is tales from the past, or reminiscing of the way things were. Think of the story told in the council of Elrond of how the ring came to be, and how it was passed to Frodo, or the story of Luthien and Beren told in the hollow of Weathertop, or the song sung by Gimli in Moria, or the song sung by Legolas just inside of Lothlorien, or the stories told by the Ents of the Entwives, or the reference of the barrow-wights to the past kings that lay there, or...

The list clearly goes on.

Further, there's some meta references - in the foreword, Tolkien mentions how he got the story, through the Red Book of Westmarch, which was copied and past down, and in LotR it's described how the Red Book was written, first by Bilbo, then Frodo, and finally Sam. There's also the appendices.

Status as artefacts

First, see above about the Red Book of Westmarch and the appendices. Second, things like the image provided, showing the inscription on Balin's tomb in the Chamber of Mazurbal act as "artefacts". He also describes hobbits in the foreword, and the family trees, almost as a historian or an archaeologist might. See also the section on the literary form of the work, and how LotR comes across as a true epic.

Other Notes

It seems that the definition of metafiction can be awfully confusing. Some definitions define metafiction as drawing attention the fictionality of the work - breaking the fourth wall, so to speak. Others define it as presenting the fiction as artefacts. Let me quote a paper on The Lord of the Rings' status as metafiction:

Tolkien also set out to reproduce that singular effect of which he speaks, the effect of the work reaching us as an echo of an echo (of an echo …) from a remote antiquity, expending his art in increasing the distance between the (mostly) Modern English text the reader would be holding in his or her hands and the fictional characters and events of which it told. For this purpose, he integrated his major works of fiction into an intricate metafictional structure, presenting them within their fiction precisely as such echoes of echoes: translations of redactions of ancient works, telling of things even more ancient.

(From The Books of Lost Tales: Tolkien as Metafictionist.)

His work rather clearly fits the second sort of definition, but whether it fits the first sort of definition is debatable. Does The Lord of the Rings draw attention to its status as fiction? I'd argue it draws attention to its status as something other than a normal book; the foreword and the continued references to the Red Book of Westmarch do that.

Perhaps, though, the scenes in LotR where we see Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam writing in the Red Book of Westmarch indicates that this that we are reading is a story, albeit a "true" one. So perhaps this fits the first type of definition?

  • 4
    Maybe I'm misunderstanding the concept of metafiction, but LotR seems to me to be the opposite of metafiction. Never once - even in the appendices and background information, let alone the story itself - does Tolkien show any recognition that the story is fictional. Everything is written under the conceit that this is a real history of real events in a real place. Whereas metafiction (AIUI) is supposed to be fiction that draws attention to its own fictionality.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 9:50
  • Thanks for your answer. However, for LoTR to be metafiction, the books themselves would need to draw attention to the fact that the fictional languages, its literary form (the epic) etc are artefacts. The mere existence of these things in LoTR is insufficient; they need to be "exposed" as artefacts by the story itself. I see no evidence of that in your answer.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 16:12
  • @ChristopheStrobbe does my edit address this a little more? (cc Rand al'Thor)
    – auden
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 18:25
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    @Randal'Thor I thought the same, but the Wikipedia article says "Non-critical metafiction does not criticize or undermine the artificiality or fictionality of a text and can, for example, be used to 'suggest that the story one is reading is authentic'", so in that sense I'd say the "Red Book of the Westmarch" conceit makes Lord of the Rings non-critical metafiction. I guess a smaller-scale example of this sort of metafiction would be the "This story is entirely true" messages that begin episodes of Fargo.
    – Torisuda
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 21:23
  • 1
    I bet there are literary scholars who would disagree, though; it very much seems that "the definition of metafiction can be awfully confusing", as you said.
    – Torisuda
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 23:13

There is one part in particular in The Two Towers where Frodo and Sam are discussing the story as a narrative that strikes me as metafictional in a way different than other comments have mentioned:

“I don’t like anything here at all,” said Frodo, “Step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.”

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventure, as I used to call them.

I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.

Folk just seem to have landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.

We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in. I wonder what sort of tale we fallen into?"

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