Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tolkien the Artist

Our readings for Monday and our class discussion brought to light for us the brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s manipulation of language in The Lord of the Rings and his other writings. Being a professional philologist and a professor of Old English, Tolkien, of course, was well-versed in the mechanics of language but both the selection from Shippey’s Author of the Century and Le Guin’s article “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” unveil his mastery of language as a writer of fantasy, as well. Tolkien shows himself to be very adept in changing tones and in changing modes (from prose to to verse, for example). He recognizes and understands that language reflects and reveals character, an understanding that forces him to consider each word he writes very carefully.

This ability of Tolkien to manipulate language so easily and so broadly allowed him to devise an all-encompassing work that both moments of high tragedy and moments of low comedy. Most people in Tolkien’s readership probably found this mixture to be a joy but on Monday we learned that many critics of Tolkien’s work considered this mixture to be a sign of weakness as a writer of fantasy. Indictments such as “elitist” and “childish” show that there was a wide range of alleged faults and shortcomings of Tolkien’s writing ability, which is a testament to the lack of consistency that many critics felt was a major problem of his writing. I think, however, that this so-called “inconsistency,” this supposed waywardness of Tolkien’s writing, this switching from tragedy to comedy, from high to low, is not a shortcoming of his storytelling but a strength and a major cause of its appeal.

The biggest problem I have with the critics’ condemnation of Tolkien as being inconsistent is that it assumes that art belongs in a particular sphere and that any attempt to extend that sphere or to add to that sphere is an indication of an amateur artist who doesn’t know his place. They claim that there is a specific arena for art and that an artist can only work with the material in that arena. Naturally, this demand significantly narrows the scope of art. I think that Tolkien sensed this limiting factor and actively engaged in an attempt to rebel against that narrowing because, instead of conforming himself and his work to fit the prescribed guidelines that the critics had constructed, he endeavored to create an entire world that dwarfed the restricted confines of the critics’ view of art.

This rebellion of Tolkien, I feel, is an upside of hi9s work and a major reason why his writing is so popular. Furthermore, despite its rejection of the rules of art, his move to create an entire world is not, however, a move that is inartistic on the part of Tolkien. In fact, I think his decision points art in a new direction a process that perhaps parallels the Christian development that Auerbach discusses in his chapter “Adam and Eve” from his Mimesis. In this chapter, he analyzes how in ancient (pre-Christian, that is) literary and art theory, the high and the low were separated from each other. For example, Ancient Greek tragedies and Ancient Greek comedies were two different genres that have no overlap between them. But “in the world of Christianity, on the other hand, the two are merged, especially in Christ’s Incarnation and Passion, which realize and combine sublimitas and humilitas in overwhelming measure” (151). This style reflected in Christianity of the low and the modest in terms of social rank and prestige as being markers of the sublime nature: “it had created an entirely new kind of sublimity, in which the everyday and the low were included, not excluded, so that, in style as in content, it directly connected the lowest and the highest” (154).  At the time of Christianity’s arrival on the scene, pagan critics did not view this development favorably and they were critical of the fact that “the highest truths were contained in writings composed in a language to their minds impossibly uncivilized and in total ignorance of the stylistic categories” (154). But these critics missed the point because the style in the Bible is not a regression to an “uncivilized” literature but actually a progression, a moving forward towards a new style. Also, that the Bible, in terms of interpretation, is not readily accessible, as proven by the fact since its publication scholars and clergymen alike have been arguing over how to interpret the Bible, speaks volumes of the depth of not only the theology but also the style of the writing. Despite the simplicity of that style then, the Bible still remains a complex, intricate work of scripture.

Tolkien himself was Catholic, of course, but I do not feel like I can make the claim that the synthesis of sublimitas and humilitas that Auerbach outlines in his essay had any influence on Tolkien’s own writing. I do feel, however, that Tolkien, as a writer of fantasy, was going for that same effect of a synthesis between the high and low and the syntheses of all the other genres that he combines in his writing. Le Guin, remarking on Tolkien’s style, notes this combination when she argues that in his vocabulary, “everything is direct, concrete and simple” (87). This simplicity, however, does not contain in it a lack of complexity or depth. Le Guin’s earlier comment of “a plain language is the noblest of all” (87) attests to this fact. For this reason, the critics’ attempt to devalue Tolkien as an artist loses out. What they claimed was a schmaltzy mish-mash of mixed up genres and tones is actually a piece of artistry. It is well known that Tolkien was a master philologist and student of language. It is high time, however, that he is granted the credit he deserves as a stylist.



  1. Art and the expectations of the audience are inextricably linked. Is an artist that does not respond to his/her audience a good artist because they rebel? Not really, but it doesn’t make him/her bad either. Before denouncing all of the critics, I think it is important to understand were they are coming from (even if we think they are wrong). There is a tendency in literary criticism to view the novel as the pinnacle of serious literature. Writers of short stories have a hard time getting any respect because the short story form carries little cache. Contemporary poetry also faces a similar shrinking literary cache. Mythic history, of the sort that Tolkien attempts, is a very different form than a novel, is designed to do something very different, and probably lies outside of most critics’ literary world view. So a critic who looks at LotR as a novel (as it was perhaps unfortunately marketed) and who feels a great author is a great novelist, will be understandably disappointed and view Tolkien anything but the greatest author of the century. Tolkien and the critics are, to some extent, talking past each other since they function in different genres.

    To put a folksy spin on it “a great peach cobbler with never win an apple pie contest.”

    So, do the negative critics fully understand/appreciate what Tolkien was trying to accomplish? Probably not. Are they guilty of literary snobbery? Perhaps so. But, that does not necessarily mean that they are wrong in their criticism. Most critics critique modern literature (with a preference for novels) and not legend and myth. The inconsistencies do, by their standards, make LotR a troublesome novel. And before we dump on the whole idea of genre putting arbitrary constraints on literature, consider that Tolkien’s work has created a genre. The LotR is, for some, a litmus test for good fantasy.

    James Joyce was probably a better novelist than Tolkien. Then again, Tolkien did not set out to write a novel when making LotR. Instead of comparing it to a modern novel LotR should be compared to Beowulf, Morte d’Arthur, the Icelandic Eddas, the Iliad, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, few people critique those texts for their relative goodness or badness. They are ancient texts and their value is generally taken for granted by virtue of their survival over the centuries and millennia. Tolkien’s works can’t rest on such longevity to validate its worth in the company of those texts. Perhaps a more appropriate critique can be done in a 1000 years or so.

    -Jason A. Banks

  2. Critics and artists, art and criticism: is it a chicken and egg problem of criteria, or something else? I think that you are right about Tolkien consciously pushing the limits of art. The irony that Auerbach points to in the late antique Christian appreciation of Scripture is that it was the critics (a.k.a. Christian commentators) who were arguing for breaking out of the bounds of previous criticism. Heh. I hadn't thought of this before, but it does put a different light on which (art or criticism) is more likely to redefine the boundaries!