Cite Your Sources: Because Some Who Wander ARE Lost

Carved into wood, lettering whimsical and loopy, pine trees accenting the bottom, the piece reads:

Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Never have I been so annoyed by a sign that I like in all my life. Aesthetically: beautiful. Quotationally: love quotes. Authorially: big fan of Tolkien. The problem? It’s not a Tolkien quote.

I remembered this as being a quote from a character in The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s not even the narration, so you can’t stretch a point and say it’s basically Tolkien speaking: no, it’s a quote from a character that Tolkien wrote, which is not the same thing as Tolkien saying it. And then I find that it’s not even a quote found anywhere in the book, but a quote from Galadriel in the movie. If anything, this should be ascribed to Peter Jackson or Philippa Boyens or whoever wrote the script. It is misattributed to Tolkien.

Actual footage of me looking for evidence that the above quote is found anywhere in the book.

I have long despised the practice of quoting some narration or dialogue from a book and then simply attributing it to the author without stating the name of the work. I always wanted there to be a clear indication of whether the author actually spoke those words or it was in one of their works. Probably, a few times I was disillusioned by reading a supposed Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain quotation only to find it wasn’t their saying per se, they were the words of a character or narrative voice in one of their works. (And don’t give me speculations about Lord Henry being a self-insert character for Wilde, I’m aware of the theory.)

“But,” you may say, “either way, it’s the author’s words because they wrote the character.”

To which I would then reply, “No.”

The work does not always contain the author

In a world where public figures are rampantly being misquoted and taken out of context, by both sides, either to make them look better or worse, we know that context and sources are important. And if that context is a fictional work, that’s very different from an author saying it in an interview or writing it in an article or essay. Because the first thing you learn in a literature class is not to conflate the author of the work with the narrator, whether that be third or first person. Even worse is quoting someone’s dialogue and skipping two steps of context and ascribing the sentiment directly to the author. The nature of the character that said it makes a lot of difference!

Authors write all sorts of views that they don’t personally ascribe to, they write all sorts of characters that are diametrically opposed to what they themselves believe in, they write all sorts of behaviours that they don’t advocate for—in a word, they write fiction. Neither can you claim that, because the author wrote it, it must have been in them somewhere just waiting to come out, because who’s to say how it got in them: did it really originate in their heart-of-hearts or did they pick it up from somewhere else? That’s not to say the author’s true convictions and those of the work are never legitimately aligned—it’s common for views and personality to leak through, intentionally or not—but you can’t assume. Some fiction writers do work that way, don’t get me wrong; usually with a bit of research, you can establish when they are. 

The author does not always contain the work

Authors also purposely look outside of themselves to craft their stories. They may take things from acquaintances, history, experiences of others, or even make things up out of a seemingly blue sky. Ever heard of “inspiration,” the most commonly blamed instigator of art known to man? It connotes the addition of something to produce an artistic output—it doesn’t originate in the artist, it motivates the artist from the outside. It was once commonly embodied in the form of a muse, physical or intangible, but distinctly separate in identity from the artist. And while this could be viewed as a method for artists to cop out of responsibility for the implications of their work, I don’t think that’s what it is. (Maybe a little bit.) It’s also a little bit real, this external force at work through artists to manifest works in the physical world.

Works take on a life of their own, and they can’t be reduced to being embodied exclusively within the character and personality of their author. There is a point where the text lives, through its perception and integration into vast amounts of individual and collective consciousnesses, completely apart from its originator’s control, intent, or even influence. I don’t advocate for mass executions of authors, figuratively speaking; however, I don’t think they should be equated with or inseparable from their work, and vice versa.


Should we still credit the author? Sure; but why not both? That’s why I like to place the title of the book or work in which my quotes are found first and then the author; others list the author and then the work (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring) which also gets the job done. At the very least, don’t misquote people, don’t ascribe sentiments of random characters within the work to the author of the work, and probably to be safe, always list the name of the work in which your chosen quotation is found.

Now excuse me while I fight the urge to go back and buy that decorative wooden sign with the fake Tolkien quote because it’s so pretty—I could always claim I was being ironic. Can’t hold me to anything I wrote here anyway. The author is not the work, and all that.

Beautiful design and work by a craftsman whose name/business I was not able to find, displayed for sale in a local store.

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