“The Fellowship is scattered. Some are bracing hopelessly for war against the ancient evil of Sauron. Some are contending with the treachery of the wizard Saruman. Only Frodo and Sam are left to take the accursed Ring of Power to be destroyed in Mordor—the dark Kingdom where Sauron is supreme. Their guide is Gollum, deceitful and lust filled, slave to the corruption of the Ring.”
Thus reads the back of my copy of The Two Towers, purchased in an airport bookstore on the way home for the spring break. When I read over it, I thought to myself that it was ironic that, based on the back-of-the-book blurb alone, I never would have picked it up. When presented in this way, the story that drives my favorite book seems rather stupid, to put it mildly. The names seem ridiculous, the story rather redundant, and nothing except the header “The Greatest Fantasy Epic of Our Time” blazoned across the top hints at the world of pure awesomeness—in the deepest sense of the word—of the world that lay within.
I would not have known what to say had the woman sitting next to me on my flight, having glanced at the reverse of my book and dismissed it outright, asked me why I loved it so much. I suppose that I would have said something about Tolkien as a world builder, as one who created new lands for me to explore. I would not have said anything about Tolkien as a stylist, because frankly, I have always thought Tolkien to be a poor stylist. However, reading Ursula Le Guin’s essay on style made me realize that style is a term more broad and nuanced than I had ever conceived it to be. When Tolkien’s style is taken away, when all that is left is the synopsis of the story, when there is no world to lose oneself in, when everything that about Gollum is reduced to deceit and lust—that is when the work ceases to be the magnificent work of art that I love.
Above, I claimed that a more rigorous reading of Tolkien made me realize that my conception of style lacked both breadth and nuance. While these may seem to be opposed, they tie into my newfound appreciation of what makes up an author’s style. Not being much of a literary theorist, I had always assumed that style meant something like ‘high style,’ or ‘stylish,’ rather than just being the way in which an author puts his words together to make sentences and his sentences together to make magic. My idea of style has since expanded in breadth, to encompass all the words in a text, but also in nuanced, as a realized that there were more ways to be stylish than just being overwrought. Tolkien for me then almost didn’t have a style; his prose, which is so boring in its regularity and precision, seemed style-less. Being style-less in the way that I viewed it, however, was not a sign of some failure on Tolkien’s part. In fact, the opposite was true.
What I had always considered ‘stylish’ was in fact mere ostentation, the elegant flowers of Shakespeare or the tangled hedge of Kant. The ‘lack of style’ is Tolkien was the effect of his creation’s perfection: with no word out of place, with every word perfectly describing the thing that I was seeing, the words flew by without notice. There was none of the grandiloquence that I expected in a work with great style, and so my reaction was to write off there being any style at all. This mistake made me misunderstand the purpose of Tolkien’s language, viewing it less as an integral part of the world building that I loved so much and rather, due to its seeming simplicity, as a hindrance to truly visualizing that world.
With that overlong introduction to my views on Tolkien’s style, I will now try to say something about what makes that style what it is and why it is important. To me, the way that Tolkien seems to us English is as a sort of asterix-language, in the same way that the world he creates is an asterix-world. This would be the way that these people must have spoken English, because it is an ideal type of English. Every word is chosen specifically to mean precisely what Tolkien means, and by using these simple descriptive words instead of the ‘stylistic’ rhetoric that I would have naively expected from a master stylist, he leaves the words the power to show their own beauty.
The most telling examples of this exactitude come, at least for me, when Tolkien talks about plants and arms. For Tolkien, there are no simple plants. Every one has a life, a rhythm, and a name. The individuality with which he picks them out makes the world seem that much more vivid, to make it seem much more real than it would have had Tolkien, like some other writers, instead just relied on a description of a ‘green and white plant with flowers that look like this’ (or something else). By naming every plant—even with names that I’ve never seen and am frankly too lazy to look up mid march through the wild—it gives a sense of realism. The same thing is found in the descriptions of weapons and armor. When Imrahil finds Eowyn on the Pelennor fields, he sees her breath on his vambrace and knows that she is alive. Tolkien could have saved any non-Warhammer players (who should know about the famed ‘Vambraces of Defense’ available to the High Elves) a trip to the dictionary by merely mentioning Imrahil’s ‘wrist armor.’ But that would lose the magic of the vambrace, that word that so perfectly picks out the thing that it is.
Anyway, enough of my rambling—what is the point to all this style? I feel we have touched on the answer in class many times, but bears repeating in a new light based on Tolkien’s claim that his work is filled with natural theology. Often it seems that our world we live in has lost its sheen. Another book that I am reading right now, Lorraine Daston’s Wonders and the Order of Nature, argues persuasively that a hallmark of our age is the loss of our ability to experience true wonder. The science and technology of our world has made it ontologically impossible for us to believe in wonders. However, in their discussion of how wonder has fallen from favor, they discuss the type of wonder that they consider the wonder of natural theologians. This made me think about what natural theology entails, and what it could mean for the substance of the Lord of the Rings—that is, its style—to be infused with natural theology.
The natural theology that imbues Tolkien’s world is tied up with a sense that the ordinary things around us can be objects and causes of wonder. This type of wonder, which stretches back to natural theologians finding evidence for God’s majesty in the simplest leaves and plants, only works when we truly take the time to think about each instantiation of God’s power in the world. By making us focus on every plant, every type of weapon, very hill and every name, Tolkien shows us the true skill that it takes to create, and reminds us that this level of beauty exists within our own primary reality as well. When we contemplate all the names of all the things in the world, we cannot but help appreciate them more.