Saturday, April 16, 2011

How History Contributes to the Aesthetics of Location

One of the things I have always enjoyed most about the Lord of the Rings is the strong, complex, and varied aesthetic flavors that Tolkien manages to give to the different place in Middle Earth. The work Tolkien does to create setting can be broken into two major categories: Description of landscape and creation of (what I will call) place-history.

Tolkien peppers the book description of the rocks, trees, lakes, rivers, and plant life in each place along the journey. Personally, I find these landscape descriptions to be sometimes evocative (the image of the Mallorn in Lorien I found especially engaging) but sometimes dull or cloying. Tolkien’s style of landscape description is very matter of fact and concrete. Focusing on exacting description that convey the geography of the landscape with close attention to specific types of fauna and other concrete details, but eschewing figurative language. When he does try to make his landscape description more poetic it involves far too much “glinting”, “shimmering” and star-metaphors for my taste. I think this passage describing Tol Brandir is representative of his style of landscape description,

“The Summit of Tol Brandir was tipped with gold. Frodo looked eastward and gazed at the tall island. Its sides sprang sheer out of running water. High up above the tall cliffs were steep slopes upon which rees climbed, mounting one head above another; and above them were grey faces of inaccessible rock, crowned by a great spire of stone”(512)

THis discription accuratey conveys the major features fo the landscape but the it is quite straight forward and does not provide any real stylistic uniqueness or figurative language that would bring the passage to life.

When I look at landscape passage in LOTR like the one above in isolation I feel that the scenery is describes with clarity but lacks personality and linguistic beauty. However when I survey my impression of the places described in  LOTR in totality, they are vivid and fantastic, each with its own unique aesthetic flavor. What accounts for this contradiction of impressions? I think the answer is that, unlike many pieces of literature, in LOTR the majority of the aesthetic flavor is not being conveyed by descriptive language. Instead it is the unique history of each land that creates the feeling of each location. I have felt this way about the relationship of history to place in LOTR for a long time but it was always a vague feeling. Shippey’s work in the Road to Middle-Earth has made this feeling easier to articulate. Tol Brandir and Amon Hen gain their combination of ominous beauty and faint melancholy from the fact that they used to be part of Gondor. The ruins of the watchtower on Amon Hen lend the hill a sort of forbidding and forgotten grandeur.

This sort of Aesthetic work is similar to that being done in the poem “The Ruin” where it is the sense of vast stretches of past time and the fading of beauty that gives the ruins poignancy. The extensive use of the past tense in this poem indicates that If the world had just been created anew and the crumbling stones wall existed without history that moment would not have the same coloring.

Tolkien uses a variety of methods to imbue his work with a sense of history. In this class, we have spent time delving into Tolkien’s legendarium and unearthing the prehistory to LOTR. I think it is important to take a moment to step back and remember the experience of reading LOTR  before we had any knowledge of the previous history of Middle Earth beyond the Hobbit (and it seems to me now that the Hobbit is a bit our of place in the history and that Tolkein had to spend time working around his decisions in the Hobbit and forcing them to fit with his aesthetic tastes and larger vision).  In the LOTR this history is alluded to rather than fully explained. Also, a sense of history is encoded in place names and language. The history of Middle Earth as recorded in the Silmarillion and various others poems and writings enters the Lord of the Rings in snatches. Poems, like the one Aragorn’s relates about Beren finding Tinuviel, provide brief glimpses of the larger mythology.  I think that this is actually a more effective mechanism of conveying the feeling of the weight of the past than explaining it directly would be. When we actually travel to new places we rarely get a full explanation of the history of the culture. Instead through language, custom, names, ruins and experience we get a sense of the flavor of the places that is intriguing and sometimes thrilling.

I think this sort of historical work is done by things like Tolkien’s discussion of calendars in the prologue to LOTR. Year 1 of Shire-reckoning is actually year 1600 in the reckoning of the Elves. This fact is presented in the prologue along with a discussion of the coming of the Hobbits to the shire. Thus, even before the first book begins readers are encouraged to comprehend the magnitude of history leading up to this moment in time, and its various evolutions and flavors.  This is similar to how I feel when I travel out of America and realize that other nations had thousands of complex years of history before my ancestors even knew that North America existed.

 I was highly interested in Tom Shippey’s discussion of names in The Road to Middle Earth.  Shippey shows how the names Tolkien assigned to locations and landmarked were carefully chosen to create a sense of cultural and ethnic history. Tolkien tried to create a world that was, in the words of Shippey, “worn down like ours, by time and by process of lands and languages and people”(109). However, some of Tolkien’s methods for crafting a sense of history are not likely to be within the logical comprehension of the average reader. For example the names “Bree” and “Chetwoode” are chose for a “faintly Celtic Style to make subliminally the point the Hobbits were immigrants too, and that their land had had a history before them.”(109) explains Shippey. I think that the most interesting word in this quotation from HME is the word “subliminally.” The vast majority of readers has little training in linguistic history and therefore would not be able to explicitly recognize the Celtic origins of the names. However it can be supposed that many readers might have encountered Celtic names in a context that they know to be Celtic and therefore developed an ear for recognizing the linguistic flavor of Celtic even if they do this “subliminally”. If recognizing Celtic names is a stretch of the readers ability to subconsciously understand,  then Tolkien pushes this theory of subliminal understanding to its extremes. For, example in the “Farewell to Lorien” chapter readers are given an entire song in Elvish. The appendices makes pronunciation clear however, readers have no semantic understanding of what is being said. Does Tolkien expect readers to understand the flavor of the words being related simply from the pure sounds of the Elvish?

I think that looking at Tolkien’s complex construction of history (even going down to levels the most readers cant comprehend) is interesting contrasted against the simplicity of his style of landscape description.  Maybe this contradiction can help explain why some critics find his both “elitist” and “childish”. His play with language and history takes place on an exceedingly sophisticated level where his descriptions are not as stylistically complex or ornate are we are used to seeing.



  1. While I agree with your overarching point, I disagree with your opinion of Tolkien’s description of landscapes as simple or lacking “linguistic beauty.” When I read the same passage you posted, I am struck by how much descriptive power he has been able to into a few words. The mountain was tipped with gold, trees climb over one another, again and again until reaching a great spire of stone; I find this to be almost the perfect amount of figurative language; anymore and it tips into the “shimmering” nonsense you yourself dislike. I find that there is a stylistic uniqueness to the passage; Tolkien could have written, “The sun hit the top of the mountain, and it rose out of the water. There were trees lining it, then only grey rock, which rose to a point.” This is also an accurate description of the mountain, but it certainly lacks a certain stylistic oomph. I agree that the historical context and fullness of Middle Earth augments its realness, but I don’t think that this is too the exclusion of Tolkien’s written descriptions. The contradiction you sense is a personal preference; I don’t feel that it is solely the history of each land that contributes to Tolkien’s aesthetic, but rather the history along with his writing style. While his is certainly not the most ornate in terms of descriptions, I don’t think it’s as simple as you believe. I think critics cries of his work being childish, are due to its subject matter.

    Alexis C.

  2. You touch on several important themes here surrounding the problem of history and place. I particularly like your point about the relationship between Tolkien's descriptions of places and the way in which they depend upon his evocation of history: indeed, he rarely describes the landscape in as much detail as one might like, and yet it springs to life because he gives it a life, a history, as if to say, "These are not just beautiful rocks; they are rocks that have witnessed great things over time!"


  3. I so agree with your reading of place descriptions: they can seem very bland and repetitive, especially since they are written in the same style and emphasize the same things. But yes, I do think that they get their character not from the language with which Tolkien describes them, but the history with which he imbues them. We see this not just in Lord of the Rings, but even with Farmer Giles. The names of the locations in England forever will be associated with the comical history of Farmer Giles and the Dragon.

    I think that this is really the genesis for Lord of the Rings: remember the pictures that Professor Fulton showed us in class and the similarities many of them bore to the descriptions of places within the Lord of the Rings world? Tolkien himself seemed to generate stories because he thirsted to know the back-story to these places. It also reminds me of the “exercise” that is described in the Notion Club Papers of “going backwards” in time by looking at an object or place. I thought it was completely weird at first, when we talked about it in class (and I confess it still is a bit), but I think your post nicely summarizes why Tolkien – or his characters – would desire to create the history for a place.