Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sublimis and Humilis; Aragorn and Strider

Admittedly, Tolkien's literary style was lost on me the first and second times I read through the Lord of the Rings. In fact, when I was younger the chapter The Council of Elrond was one of my least favorite chapters to read for all of the reasons Shippey pointed out may be problematic. It is fifteen thousand words long with a wide array of new characters being introduced who would only become very important later on in the story. However, after realizing that Tolkien meticulously constructed each word in each character's dialog I have come to appreciate the nuances that make his work so masterful.

Being a literary novice, I thought that the only requirement for achieving an antiquated style was using copious amounts of 'thou's, 'thine', etc. Tolkien strongly refutes this idea in his drafted but unsent letter to Hugh Brogan outlining the careful use of both word choice and sentence structure. He refuses to use phrases such as “Nay, though (n')wost not thine own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall . . .” Instead, his style is much more carefully thought out and omits phrases like “I should sleep sounder in my grave” and words such as helmet, instead using helm, simply because they would not be consistent with the world that he had created. Looking back at The Council of Elrond, major differences are noticed between each character's speech. As Shippey notes, Elrond's style of archaism is achieved with a combination of both vocabulary and grammar. In the sentence “Only to the North did these tidings come,” Elrond is antiquated by both the use of 'tidings' and by the inversion of the subject and verb which adds to his character by emphasizing the fact that Elrond came from an entirely different age.

One of the most interesting characters in this chapter, and the entire novel, is Aragorn. His manner of speech changes directly with the situation and represents the dual nature of Aragorn and Strider. Around the hobbits, Strider is able to relate with their manner of speech and can talk very colloquially. His noble lineage is never suspected when he is hanging around the Prancing Pony and even the bartender Butterbur asks what kind of beer the King would like even though he has served Aragorn many times before. However, when presented with a formal situation, Aragorn can quickly switch to a more appropriate style of speech. This is shown when Aragorn is speaking directly to Boromir in what appears to be an attempt to impress the Steward-to-be of Gondor. Aragorn also uses the contrast of high and low speech to great effect when Boromir conveys doubt in the return of the House of Elendil saying “Mayhap the Sword-that-was-Broken may still stem the tide – if the hand that wields it has inherited not an heirloom only, but the sinews of the Kings of Men” and Aragorn simply replies nonchalantly “Who can tell? . . But we will put it to the test one day.”

This contrast between high and low speech seen in Aragorn closely parallels the 'Christian' style discussed by Auerbach's Mimesis. As Auerbach writes, “in antique theory, the sublime and elevated style was called sermo gravis or sublimis; the low style was sermo remissus or humilis.” These two styles were previously kept strictly separated. However, in the world of Christianity, the two are merged in an “overwhelming measure.” This point is emphasized throughout the scripture and can be seen, for example, when Christ chooses fisherman instead of nobles to be his first disciples. Part of the greatness of the scriptures, according to Auerbach, is the creation of an entirely new kind of sublimity which included the everyday and the low. This is also seen in the birth of Christ to a carpenter and his wife; a marriage of the divine and the ordinary. Christ represented the continuation of the broken line of kings descending from David in order to reunite the people. Similarly, Aragorn is the heir of Isildur who will reunite the race of men in Middle Earth but lives a very unassuming lifestyle. Though Tolkien stresses that The Lord of the Rings is not allegorical and I am trying not to overly equate Jesus and Aragorn, it is evident that elements of Tolkien's Catholic upbringing or simply his knowledge of the "Christian" style are present in the ways in which the heroes are characterized. The entire story itself is a juxtaposition of an elaborate backdrop of mythology and the heroism of the halfling.

One of the only criticisms that annoyed Tolkien was the assertion that there was no religion present in the story. Religion, in fact, is everywhere. Tolkien represents this not only with his creation stories but also with his style. The high and the low are merged both in style and context in order to create the world of Middle Earth. As one student pointed out in class, perhaps all of the criticism claiming Tolkien was a combination both Wagner and Winnie the Pooh was entirely valid and Tolkien is simply holding up a mirror to our own reality which includes both the archaic and childish. It is also possible that Tolkien drew inspiration from the “Christian” style and the way in which it glorifies both the high and the low and wished to represent this with the heroes in his own stories. It should be noted that Aragorn is not the only character to exemplify these ideas as many of the other main characters also have many of these traits. He was chosen mainly because he was the first character that came to mind when thinking about these ideas.

 - BFW


  1. Very nicely observed on Tolkien's use of "high" and "low" style in his characterization of Aragorn! Now that you are sensitized to this juxtaposition, it will be interesting to see how you notice it playing out at other levels in the story. You are right to caution that Aragorn is not meant in any way to be Christ, and yet, as a king, he bears a resemblance to Christ, what Auerbach might call a "figure" of Christ: historically real himself (at least, in Tolkien's view!), but also pointing to the historical reality of Christ.


  2. A very interesting parallel you draw between humilis-sublimis and Strider-Aragorn. I wonder if Auerbach would have approved. The tasks of heroism and of kingship often fall to unlikely individuals, all the way back to Zeus who also had a somewhat concealed childhood. As you suggest, the perhaps unexpected combination of styles means that what is being communicated is really important - as if it is a condition of genuine speech to be unconfined in the gamut of language. I don’t know if it’s peculiarly Christian, but Christianity did, I think, give embodiment to literary forms exhibiting it that Greco-Roman antiquity did not. I wonder too, in connection to your Jesus-Aragorn parallel, if we should also be open to the idea that Jesus is also characterized in a specific way. As was pointed out in class on Wednesday, the Gospel truth is not the historical truth. It may be the case that Tolkien discovered a logic of story-telling that is consonant with the logic discovered by the builders of the Christian sacred story. Tolkien will equally withdraw from Christian thought (e.g., on resurrection of the body) if it’s not appropriate to his natural theology.