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.