Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Natural Theology and the Wonder of Words

“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.



  1. After reading Farmer Giles of Ham this evening, I found that your ideas regarding an expanded conception of style in Tolkien’s creation coincide with some of my own. I especially enjoyed your placement of Tolkien’s perceived “lack of style” in relation to the perfection of his work within its own secondary reality via the concept of natural theology. Though he draws from historical sources and philological research, Tolkien is without doubt the creator of his world – as we have discovered, the very style he uses (as in Le Guin’s article) is his world. In this sense, his imagination is the source and identity of the pantheism that imbues Tolkien’s secondary reality.

    Seeing as Tolkien, or for that matter any creator of a cohesive fictional sub-reality, emerges as a god-like creative figure within that world, what struck me from the start about many of Tolkien’s works is their essential humility. The “higher” diction of The Silmarillion aside for the moment, much of Tolkien’s narrative style is indeed childish, although obviously not owing to his ineptitude. In Farmer Giles, The Hobbit, and many parts of The Lord of the Rings (such as the oft-discussed poetry), I experienced a similar realization to yours: the function of the stories is simply to be stories, and good ones at that. Rather than seeking to show off to contemporaries using story as a mere vehicle or tool toward that end, Tolkien adopts the humble position of conveyor of folklore, albeit lore with its origins in his own imagination. More precisely, Tolkien’s style conveys his humility in the primary reality he shared with his family and friends, but at the same time demonstrates his rightful despotism in the world he created.

    While I deeply wish your closing sentiment could be simply realized, and the wonder inherent in Tolkien’s world could be conveyed by natural theology into the primary reality, I fear our world may lack the necessary cohesion, despite (or perhaps because of) our best efforts. It is interesting to note that while science may appear to dilute the sense of wonder we may receive from looking at the natural world, the denizens of Middle Earth experience wonder and a sense of mythic purpose despite exacting understanding of their world’s processes. Gandalf for instance, though a spirit in possession of deep truths regarding his universe, never comes across as the jaded scientist. And perhaps this is reason to take heart.

    -Philip R.

    (sorry about that deletion - I forgot something)

  2. Wonderful! Yes, every word, every noun, every adjective and verb in Tolkien counts, every one is deliberately chosen--as any attempt to rewrite his prose in a more "descriptive" style (a la some of the writers who are typically praised for their style) will show. I particularly like your observation about the way Tolkien's style contributes to his theology as an exercise in awakening wonder; I think this expresses very well what Tolkien described as "recovery".


  3. Tolkien does have an eye for the kind detail that fills up a world. His attention to plants and arms strike me as consonant with his statements about adjectives: they serve to transform objects from the mundane. They not only open possibilities (which we’ve mostly been emphasizing); they also reveal something about the integrity of the object itself. One thing our readings did was show not only the variety of Tolkien’s stylistic choices, but also that, since we don’t generally notice this variety (poetry aside), there is probably something uniting them, a simplicity indeed, but also a directness that characterizes the most important communications. (This is kind of what happened, some scholars argue, in the Homeric epics: a variety of poetic meters can be detected beneath the uniform meter of the hexameter.) I think it works for Tolkien (leaving Westron aside) because people are saying important things, and matters of life and death are on the line. Sermo humilis may be an easier ground to start from in such a communication, because it focuses on the importance of the message, not on the status of speaker or actors (which is what it would do in classical rhetoric). Wonder may arise from nature thus described, without aesthetic or moral reactions deferred, but wonder at nature has also taken a variety of forms. Wonder at nature outside us is one thing; wonder at nature in which culture looks like nature (note your examples: plants and arms) is another. If we do experience wonder in Tolkien, then maybe wonder is closely linked to the order of words?
    JT (in place of CJ)

  4. The names sometimes carry a power a power in and of themselves such a when Frodo calls Gollum by his real name, but more often names simply impart meaning because of the story behind them. Anduril is a sword, finely crafted, but not magical as such. But it is important beside of the story it carries. The Mirrormere or Kheled-zâram was not just a pool. It was special not because it was magical, but because Durin the Deathless first saw his crown of stars.

    In this way, one can say that Tolkien’s part of style is non-linear since he so often goes off on asides about things and history long past, and then returns to the story. This is especially so in Moria, Lothlorien, and generally alluded to in the treatment of Rohan. He does it often enough that even when a name is not given a story, it is assumed that a story is there. For example, in one paragraph about Helm’s Deep we get Helm’s Gate, Hornburg, Deeping stream, Hornrock, Helm’s Dike, and Westfold Dale. Even without the full stories behind the names, we get the sense that this place, nearly every rock and door, is steeped in meaning and history. We understand that for the men of Rohan, the place was pregnant with all kinds of meaning AND now they are about to add to the story themselves. Otherwise mundane objects like swords, gates, mountain peaks, fields, etc are imbued with a kind of personality and a life through the attachment of stories. Each thing has a name, and so a history, thus it is unique and like no other.

    As for the decorative aspects of style, rather than structural, Isaac Asimov was also criticized for his minimalist, unadorned writing. Some have acknowledged that such plainness is in itself a respectable style rather than emblematic of a lack of artfulness. Some people want crisp word play, some think it gets in the way. Tolkien does both at times.

    -Jason A Banks