The most interesting part (to me) of the UNC class instructions that I mentioned recently was the suggestion of two ways to create a good paper topic: Patterns and Problems. I like them both, but I think patterns are better suited to natures born litterati, not me. I’ll talk about patterns, “the recurrence of certain kinds of imagery or events,” here. Problem-topics come next.
Some patterns are easy to find: they’re the things that jump out at me. They were noticeable because the author painted them red so I’d see them. Example: In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction, a character’s height is strongly related to his or her authority.
Aragorn was the tallest of the Company, but Boromir, little less in height…” LotR, II,iii.
Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord…” LotR, II,vii
I’m not even going to look it up — I know someone smarter than me has already written a paper on that. Re-plowing that ground would be OK for under-grad work. The objective here is to do something original. Finding and explicating these patterns is mostly a matter of careful reading to make sure I got all the references. This would be useful for a reading group, so everybody’s up to speed, but it is not useful for adding new understanding.
Prof. Olsen frequently talks about patterns as topics that are good for a potential paper. However, like any good teacher, he always leaves the critical element for the student to find. In this case, that is the answer to the “So what?” problem. A pattern by itself can’t give you that.
I’m not trying to avoid patterns entirely, of course. They’re ideal as supporting evidence within a larger topic. Here’s a great example: Tom Hillman, in an essay about Gollum’s near brush with repentance, observes that that there was only one time in LotR that the narrator says “Sméagol” instead of “Gollum”, which reinforces the idea that Gollum really was close to redemption in that instant. JRRT constructed a subtle pattern, and then broke it to draw attention. This kind of subtlety is the mark of a real master. I never even noticed that, until Tom pointed it out. (Bravo!)