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Thread: Tolkien's Prose

  1. Almarëa Mordollwen's Avatar
    Spy of Mordor
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    Nov 2010
    Tolkien's Prose
    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?

  2. Dorwiniondil's Avatar
    Old Took
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    Oct 2007
    Just adding a couple more works that discuss Tolkien's style:
    - Brian Rosebury's Tolkien: a cultural phenomenon
    - Ursula Le Guin Rhythmic patterning in The Lord of the Rings (in Meditations on Middle-earth ed. Karen Haber)

    I find Le Guin's analysis on Tolkien's use of rhythm particularly interesting. Those who haven't got "meditations" can read Le Guin's chapter here:

    I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men of the Ancient Houses.

  3. Thank you Almarëa!

    I hope to have a bit more to say later, but at this point I would just like to point out that the Nobel committee didn't find Tolkien's prose ‘poor’.
    What is known (and I still hope to be able to go to Stockholm and see the whole thing for myself) is that the secretary wrote that Tolkien's book was not in any respect “diktning”of the highest quality. The Swedish word diktingdoes indeed refer mainly to style, but the sense is nonetheless broader than just prose style (other possible translations could be ‘writing’ or ‘storytelling’).
    The dismissal comes after a passage that praises Tolkien for his imaginativeness (and possibly other aspects), and should be read more along the lines of ‘despite [these obvious qualities], the result is not in any respect writing of the very highest quality’ — a statement which, in my eyes, is quite a bit from calling it poor in any way.
    See also my article in Mallorn#53.
    Troels Forchhammer, physicist, Denmark
    The love of Faery is the love of love: a relationship toward all things, animate and inanimate, which includes love and respect ...

  4. Rómeran's Avatar
    Captain of Dol Amroth
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    Oct 2004
    Very interesting topic Almarëa! I've had quite a few discussions with friends and alike about Tolkien's prose though I haven't much researched it in any depth. I've heard most people complain that the prose feels "archaic", I think a lot of this comes from vocabulary and phrasing but also sentence structure. I always enjoyed his style of prose, but then again I have always enjoyed the style of Norse mythology and the like, many people, on the other hand, find it harder to understand just like they might find reading Beowulf hard to understand even if it is translated into modern English.

    Perhaps it is that his prose style is more reflective of the past than being "modern" and "new". It seems most celebrated authors (at least since the advent of the Nobel Prize) were praised for having a novel/modern style of writing*. Sort of like movie critics always love dramas and hate comedies. There's really no logical reason for the choice of one over the other. People like Tolkien and Patrick O'Brian never get enough praise for being able to write both with historic tone but still appealing to a modern audience. I think that is a much harder task than writing with a modern style. Then again, I've always thought that writing convincing fantasy (one without plot holes and inconsistencies) is a much harder task than writing fiction set in the real world.
    *This is just from my observation, I claim no authority of the statement being true.
    "The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone's backyard." - John Turkey

  5. Melahny_oftheWoods's Avatar
    Huorn of Fangorn
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    Mar 2014
    I'd just like to say I absolutely LOVE Tolkien's prose style. I have nothing bad to say about it, and I mightily praise him for it. It suits his world and the stories well, it is lovely to read, fits well with all of the poems and songs that are including in the books, and it's just wonderful to read!

    I found it funny that you mentioned some people didn't notice it and others found it a barrier....well, I certainly noticed, and it isn't a barrier in any way! I love it, and I wouldn't want it written in any other form/tone.

    Romeran-you make a good point about the critics. But personally, I can't see why they would find this 'past' rather than 'modern' form of writing to be problematic.... silly critics. *rolls eyes*
    You also make a good point about the Norse Mythology type of style. I suppose some people might not enjoy that type of style, but I am [as well as many people} very attracted to it.

    I think the 'historic tone' as you put it Romeran, is suited to Tolkien's world, seeing as he set it up as being something more than just a fictional series. As we know he created an entire mythical world and stories, and the tone is like a historian telling a long tale. [I also love history]. I don't know how anyone can find anything wrong with this; it's a beautiful style, and it makes the world more vivid and real. Possibly, critics of his style do not have very long attention spans?
    "Through darkness one may come to the light" - Gelmir, Unfinished Tales, ​Tolkien.

  6. Saranna's Avatar
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    Feb 2004
    Almarea, a plea on behalf of us oldies - this is a great topic but I find the mass of information in the opening post physically hard to read. Don't be afraid to space out your text a bit with paragraph breaks, indeed please do.

    May I mention here Martin Simonson's excellent 'The Lord of the Rings and the western narrative tradition.' It's not strictly a study of Tolkien's prose style but it does say a lot that refutes the odd notion that Tolkien couldn't handle prose and therefore used too many different styles. It's published by Walking Tree Publishers.
    Remembering halfir by learning more each day

    Death comes to all
    But great achievements raise a monument
    Which shall endure until the sun grows cold.
    George Fabricius, 'In Praise of Georgius Agricola'


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