Monday, April 11, 2011

It’s intentional

Tolkien’s work is so resonant because it has what he calls an “inner consistency of reality.” We have discussed how this effect is created in Tolkien’s works. We point to the vast quantity of his work within the same world and the painstaking way in which he layers the threads of history within what we call his “legendarium,” but all would be for not were Tolkien’s style not so carefully developed.

What is at stake when a writer uses style? In Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, she claims that the entire premise of the Fantasy genre hinges upon stylistic elements in writing. She characterizes a passage of Tolkien’s as,

“quieter and [with] a less extraordinary English, or rather an English extraordinary for its simple timelessness… It has sobriety, wit and force. It is the language of men of character… its outstanding virtue is its flexibility, its variety. It ranges easily from the commonplace to the stately, and can slide into metrical poetry… everything is direct, concrete, and simple.”
His writing, according to Le Guin, cannot be altered and ripped from its fantasy setting without the annihilation of its meaning. For her, this is a good test of whether or not a writer is writing fantasy, or a modern story cloaked in archaism. Tolkien’s use of archaic styles and syntax is genuine, and, most importantly, intentional. However, Tolkien’s critics attack this aspect of his work in particular. His stylistic acrobatics, the way he can switch “from the common-place to the stately” and “slide into metrical poetry” is identified by critics as a fault in his writing.

Responding to criticism of Theoden’s dialogue in “The Golden Hall”, Tolkien claims that to utilize a modern style would result in, “an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning.” He claims that Theoden would never think in modern idiom, and to write his dialogue in such a way merely to placate those who find archaisms to be somehow less valid or realistic would be to betray the character and realm that he has constructed. Furthermore, Tolkien rebuts criticism of his archaic narration style by claiming that the very acts he is describing, these “heroic scenes” do not occur in our reality at all. Therefore, they cannot be narrated in such a voice. The primacy of a ‘realistic’ mode or style seems to me to be a mistake. The fantasy genre is distinct because it is, by definition, not realistic (at least not in the sense that it reflects our reality faithfully). 

This is not to say that fantasy should not be believable, if anything is to be gleaned about style from what we read of The Notion Club Papers it is that believability is paramount to consistency and immersion: the “inner consistency of reality”. Reality insofar as the writing is cohesive and seems to contain a universe of its own in which the story takes place: a universe that defines the story rather than a story that defines the limits of the universe. Tolkien succeeds in attaining this effect though his use of poetry, the very nature of which seems to bring us closer to the magical and to faery. Every time it is used in The Lord of the Rings we are given a glimpse into the history of Middle Earth, as their own minstrels would tell it. In Tolkien’s writing, the very medium of poetry carries implications. It is the canon of Tolkien’s world. This is why the eagle’s song at the finale of The Return of the King is poetic. Tolkien is adding the victory of the fellowship and the fall of Sauron into the canon, which, as we see in The Lay of Leithian, is recorded in poetry.

From relooking at the chapter The Council of Elrond, it can be seen how Tolkien’s style adds as much to this consistency as the vast legendarium behind it. In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, T.A. Shippey analyses the way in which Tolkien uses style to add depth to his characters. The way in which Tolkien does this is unique, because, rather than simply differentiating between region, (although he does this too) he differentiated between race and even age. Elrond, the oldest of the council has lived since the First Age, and speaks with the most archaisms as a result of this. Differences between Boromir and Aragorn are also evident simply from the way they speak, regardless of content. Aragorn, particularly, is characterized by control. He speaks with a diplomatic nature befitting one who has t raveled to foreign courts, but also with a nobility and graciousness befitting a King. Rather than inconsistency, as some critics would call it, Tolkien is underscoring his sub-created world and its disparate regions and people by creating for them unique speaking styles.

To highlight the intentional nature of his diction and syntax, Tolkien included in the Appendices to The Lord of The Rings a note on translation. He claims that the work is actually written in Westron, the common language of Middle-Earth, and that he has translated it into English for use. Whether or not this is truthful (probably not) is not the point of the note, and does not affect its meaning. It is his way of telling his audience that there is another layer of intentionality to the speech within his writing. To claim that he has translated Banazir Galabasi from Hobbit-tongue to the Enlish Samwise Gamgee is to also claim that all of the words that come out of the mouths of his characters have faced similar mediation by Tolkien and that the English we read is a derivation, crucially tied to and contingent upon the ‘original’ language that was spoken: Westron. Even the Weston that is spoken by the characters varies from region to region and from race to race. We see that all of the words that Tolkien chooses to give his characters are intentional and pregnant with meaning (more of that inner consisteny) and it is only through his style that is both “childish” and “elitist”, “a combination of Wagner and Winnie the Pooh” that he can give every character a unique voice.

-Nicholas Carter


  1. Do you think that telling his critics that every word and name is intentional is the only purpose for Tolkien’s appendix? I would argue that it is not, and that it serves an additional purpose of enriching the novel’s historicity by adding another layer to the framework. If we were to read LotR without reading the appendices, we would read a fantastic novel, to be sure, but we would lose out on the fantastic framing work that the appendices do. In LotR, the narrator has specific styles, but it is always from a third person point of view; the narrator never says “I.” Within LotR’s world there is great internal consistency, yes, but when finished reading it might be easy to box the book away into its own separate world of Faery that does not blur into our world at all.

    But by reading the appendices, specifically F, the appendix on language, and even more specifically the section on Translation, the reader learns that the narrator of this book is not simply a teller of tales, but a reteller of tales, and one who has labored to translate the entire work from an unknown language (Westron) into something recognizable to the reader (English). By addressing the reader directly in explaining his translation choices, the narrator, once a simple voice contained only within the story, and within Middle Earth, moves out of the book and into our own world, and in doing so pulls the reader directly into the story. Since we are now holding in our hands a physical copy of a translation of what was once recorded as history, we are able to join Sam in the realization (and wonder) that the stories we had only heard of in legends are part of our own history. By framing the appendix in such a way, the narrator removes a degree of separation from the story, blurring our world with Middle Earth. The work that this appendix does is important to our previous discussions of the intended historicity of the novel, and the role of elf-friends; here Tolkien even more explicitly becomes a guide between worlds. It is much more than a flag claiming that all his names were intentional.


  2. Very nice synopsis of the main elements of our class discussion. I would have liked, however, to hear more about whether there were points at which you disagreed or had questions!


  3. Hello Nick!
    I am curious what you think about the layers of translation. If we assume Tolkien got his hands on the actual Red Book, then many of his passages are translated from Elvish to Westron to English. How do you think the meaning is changed through all of these translations? I am also wondering about the elements of his stories that are meant to be handed down, like the Man in the Moon song. If it is in fact a version of Hey Diddle Diddle, then it must have survived through the fourth age of Middle Earth, that weird dark age period where everything vanished and no one knows what happened, and then a couple more thousand years of history. This, theoretically, would involve translation from Westron to whatever was spoken in the dark ages to Old English to Middle English to Modern English. Miraculously, the Westron version, when translated directly into English, bears a striking similarity to the Modern English version that evolved over the course of several millennia. I mean, there is a cat with a fiddle and a cow jumping over the moon in both. This seems a might improbable to me. At some point someone probably translated the Westron incorrectly and then the Dark Age got worse and so on. It’s like playing the telephone game with billions of people throughout history. Someone should have gotten something wrong. How do you think Tolkien would explain that? How would you explain it?


  4. Who was his intended audience? We know that Tolkien was careful and that he spent quite a lot of time with these stories. So, it should be safe to assume that most of what we find in The Lord of the Rings is meant to be there for one reason or another. Are these intentional elements meant for everyone or just his academic peers? Believe it or not, many recreational readers will not read prefaces and multiple appendices to immerse themselves into the academic linguistic maneuvers that Tolkien employs to establish the translation issues between hobbit, Westron, and English and to explain some of the differences in style. However, if his target audience was fellow faculty in British universities and literary critics would not he, in anticipation of their reading preferences, cater to their expectations of style for a text marketed as a novel? However, if his intended audience was that narrow, it would not match with the sweeping ambitions that he had for his legendarium. Ultimately, one must determine how much the author must be clear about what he intends to say and how much the reader (especially one who is not an avid fan) is responsible for decoding what the author intended to do and why he did it that way.

    What some critics might object to is less the style differences in the dialogue from one character to the next (which really ought to be done anyway) and more the differences in narrative style. On hand you have the insertion of “hey diddle diddle” and later Tolkien waxes epic with the muster of Rohan. The first chapters have a rather folksy and even comical narrative style in the shire in contrast with the heavier almost brooding character of the narration later. Some that can be attributed to subject and mood, but the Hobbit I think is more stylistically consistent with its narration through it comic and dramatic moments. An author could excuse such variations because the narrator changes from one chapter to the next. Indeed the case could be made for LotR because no single author of the so-called Redbook of Westmarch could have been witness to all of the events described, therefore there had to have been either multiple authors and/or multiple sources. However, Tolkien does not really do this. While it is alluded to that Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam all had hand in writing the book, there are no overt markers to denote a shift in the narrator and I would be hard pressed to identify specific narrative style markers that would identify a change in author or source material. Then again, maybe it was all lost in second and third translations.

    -Jason A Banks

  5. The subject of this post (and that day's class discussion) certainly added another layer of substance for me to enjoy/appreciate in Tolkien's work. I definitely think that *How* a character speaks is just as, if not more, important than simply the content of what they are saying, and this is something that not all authors can accomplish as effectively as Tolkien (especially considering the variety in ages/races/relationships among his characters). The attention Tolkien paid to the manner of speech for his characters is just another reason his readers find them to be so "real."
    And let's be honest -- there's nothing worse than unrealistic characters with inappropriate voices. I once tried reading a mystery novel in which every character (regardless of age, gender, occupation, etc.) sounded like a frumpy middle-aged woman. I assume the author was frumpy and middle-aged.

    In terms of the intended audience(s) and appendices...I don't think we can rule out that Tolkien was writing the appendices mostly for his own amusement, which he claimed was his reason for many things in various letters. I'm doubtful that he only had in mind his academic pals -- the tone of the appendices is not especially 'academic,' and sometimes, like in "Note on Shire Records," it's downright tongue-in-cheek.

    - Jen Th.

  6. I agree with you that recognizing Tolkien’s intentionality is crucial to understanding his works. For me, the deliberate variety in the different styles of speech for different characters not only adds another layer of reality, but it also makes me respect Tolkien as a writer even more. Think of how much work it must have taken for him to be able to achieve just the right sort of language for all those characters that he created! With Tolkien, even the supposedly popular speech of hobbits becomes, in fact, a very develop and sophisticated form of language.

    I thought that your point about poetry being the canon of Middle-Earth was rather interesting. It highlights the fact that whether Tolkien was writing in prose or poetry, he was doing so intentionally. The instances in which he resorts to poetry are completely different from the instances in which he sticks to prose. You give a good example with the eagle song at the end of The Return of the King. Using poetry in this particular instance does lend the situation a more mythological and epic feel, making it more akin to something like the Lay of Leithian. Of course, going back to the style issue, Tolkien does include poems of various sorts and their purposes are of course different: an elf-poem and a hobbit-poem possess completely different functions than each other in the story.