Hello all! With the kind permission of LOTR, I’d like to propose turning some attention to a long-overlooked aspect of Tolkien’s works: his prose style.
Specifically - Tolkien's prose style, its effectiveness (or otherwise!); the aesthetic effects of Tolkien’s vocabulary, diction, imagery, and syntax; the evolution or development of his prose style; and the different styles we seen within Tolkien's works. It's an aspect of Tolkien's fiction that has been usually either condemned or ignored, critically – with the exception of Michael Drout's article on "Tolkien's Prose Style and Its Literary and Rhetorical Effects" (2004) and Steve Walker's bookThe Power of Tolkien's Prose: Middle-Earth's Magical Style(2009).With the exception of these recent defenders of Tolkien's prose, critics have generally commented negatively on the writing, and even those who approved of the book usually have had nothing positive to say about the style. Most recently, probably most are familiar with the fact that Tolkien was apparently nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by C.S. Lewis, but dismissed for poor prose! (among other reasons)Anyways - I'd like to take the recent discussion in Ad Lore (Master of Words by Words Mastered)as a jumping-off point and consider, if Tolkien's worksgrew out ofhis indisputably keen interest in language, words, and philology, and if his academic work on language and his fictive endeavours were so closely linked: 1) Why is it that critics have paid so little attention to the one aspect of Tolkien's work that might been seen as mostly closely related to his professional endeavours? 2) Why so many divergent views on Tolkien's style? I know people who have readThe Lord of the Ringsand never noticed the style, and people who read it and found it a huge barrier to 'getting into' the story. Critics have clearly had similarly opposed opinions! and 3) What aspects of Tolkien's style are most compelling/effective? Are there specific instances where it is clear that Tolkien is trying to do something specific with the style of writing at particular points in the narrative? What? Why? How does he use style to both create and describe an incredibly detailed secondary world, and simultaneously invite the reader to use their own imagination and experiences to create their own vision of ME? And what (if any) aspects of Tolkien's style might be seen as problematic?For a quick overview of what Ihavefound on Tolkien’s style:I already mentioned, above, Steve Walker’s bookThe Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-earth’s Magical Style(2009), which is the first book-length treatment of the topic, and deserves a much better and more detailed summary than I can possibly provide in the space of a single paragraph. Very briefly, however, Walker sees Tolkien’s style as purposefully unobtrusive and invitational, encouraging the reader to participate in subcreation; and as purposefully ambiguous, as Tolkien creates a continuum between the magical and the ordinary that allows “faërie to be feasible as fact” (39). Walker looks in detail at how Tolkien animates even the natural world itself: “[r]ecurrent suggestions of anatomical topography, sentient landscape, and animated setting gradually enliven the entire Middle-earth environment” (46); at the rhythm and structure of Tolkien’s narrative; at Tolkien’s use of detail, which so many readers find either exasperating or intensely appealing; and at Tolkien’s use of nonsense, jokes, puns, and “verbal outlandishness” – statements “that literally and deliberately make no sense” (147).Michael Drout’s “Tolkien’s Prose Style and its Literary and Rhetorical Effects” (2004), where Drout looks at two passages in particular fromThe Lord of the Rings– Éowyn’s battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl and Denethor’s death – and argues that Tolkien’s prose isnotmerely“overwrought or archaic”, but “achieves a stylistic consistency and communicative economy that rivals his Modernist contemporaries” (137).In “The Adapted Text: The Lost Poetry of Beleriand” (2004), Gergely Nagy looks specifically atThe Silmarillion, and traces passages withThe Silmarillionthat appear to recreate a “lost poetry of Beleriand” (36) – where Tolkien is drawing on poetic techniques, thereby creating the sense that the prose tales of the Elder Days are in fact adapted from an older poetic tradition. In several cases, Nagy argues, this is in fact not a construction, but the actual history of the text – and he proceeds to show how certain passages inThe Silmarillionwere likely adapted from earlier poetic versions of the tales (such as the Lay of Leithian and The Children of Húrin).Finally, I was able to find one early examination of Tolkien’s style – Deirdre Green’s 1996 article inMythlore: “Tolkien’s Dictionary Poetics: The Influence of theOED’s Defining Style on Tolkien’s Fiction”.With that background, I'll ask as an opening question, I suppose: what would strike you as the defining aspects of Tolkien's style? Does Tolkienhavea clearly defined and recognizable prose style, in the sense that is so often attributed to other writers (Dickens, Joyce, Eliot, etc.), and if yes, what would you see as its principal features?