Friday, April 18, 2014

A Hobbit Book: The Simplicity of Style

“When fantasy is the real thing,” Ursula K. LeGuin argues, “nothing, after all, is realer.” She could very well have been describing The Lord of the Rings and the world that J.R.R Tolkien so carefully creates in the series. He makes the world feel real through his style, and, in turn, makes us forget that he didn’t just translate the Red Book of Westmarch into English. After reading Lord of the Rings, we’re willing (desperate?) to suspend our disbelief and say that elves, hobbits, wizards and men as Tolkien writes them are real, or at least believable. Tolkien achieves his effect on us by making sure that the fantasy he writes is indeed “the real thing.” Good fantasy, according to Tolkien, has to create a secondary reality that is internally consistent and allows us to draw conclusions about the primary reality that might otherwise be impossible for us to come to. LeGuin agrees. Fantasy’s tie, she argues, “is not with daydream but with dream.” In other words, for fantasy to be effective, it has to take us out of the primary reality completely. The way to accomplish this is through style. Tolkien’s style is simple because he is trying to be the “real thing”—a translated history compiled by people for whom the style would make sense. Thus, the style he writes has to feel natural to the world.
According to LeGuin, style has a “fundamental significance in fantasy” more so than it does in any other genre of writing. She argues that fantasy without style is simply a plot summary. What creates the world is the way the story is written. In class, we discussed critiques of Tolkien’s work that called him “a mix of Wagner and Winnie the Pooh.” To us, of course, these criticisms feel utterly unreasonable. He isn’t being archaic for the sake of being archaic. It’s quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. LeGuin calls his language “an English extraordinary for its simple timelessness.” Unlike much modern fantasy that dresses up modern characters in medieval costumes, Tolkien writes people. He avoids the problems that LeGuin cites as ruining most modern fantasy by not trying to force the reader into a world of “thee” and “thou”. The Winnie-the-Pooh-ish simplicity of his writing makes our mental image of Middle Earth more clear, while his avoidance of most modern slang keeps his writing timeless. Tolkien’s most significant virtue, though, might be the clarity of his prose. There are plenty of confusing things that happen throughout the Fellowship’s journey down south to Mordor to drop the Ring in the cracks of Mount Doom, but the image in Tolkien’s head is always a clear one. He uses archaic language at points, but he uses it selectively and with detailed understanding of the grammar as well as the words behind it.
One of LeGuin’s biggest issues with modern fantasy is its misunderstanding use of archaic language. LeGuin believes that most writers think that putting a bunch of Shakespearean language on modern-seeming characters with some dragons thrown in will make effective fantasy. This is not the case, and Tolkien is one of the most prominent counterpoints. He uses archaic language only at certain selected moments and makes sure that there is a reason for what he is doing. T.A. Shippey provides an example of Tolkein’s effective archaism in “Author of the Century.” He quotes the Council of Elrond and gives us words from the mouth of the half-Elven himself: “‘Only to the north did these tidings come’” and “‘Fruitless did I call the victory of the Last Alliance?’” Elrond’s syntax and choice of words could be accused of archaism, but it is consistently archaic. In spite of Elrond’s word ordering differing from what we’re used to, the meaning is never obscured. Grammatical and linguistic consistency feature throughout and are useful to distinguish Elrond from other characters. Aragorn, on the other hand, can speak in completely colloquial modern English with just a hint of formality in the background to recall his roles as both ranger and ruler. “‘Who can tell?’ said Aragorn. ‘But we will put it to the test one day.’” No “thee”, “thou”, or –est verbs to be found. Instead, Aragorn comes off as an articulate man who is noble and regal in bearing even if he sometimes tries to avoid coming off that way in the world.
An analysis of Tolkien’s style is great and all, but the ultimate question has to be what he’s trying to accomplish with the style that he chooses to use. The critics who don’t appreciate Tolkien’s style are those LeGuin would accuse of seeing the style of a book as “icing on the cake” rather than what it inevitably is—“the entire book.” “If you remove the style,” LeGuin says, “all you have left is the plot.” I’d argue that the plot is not essential to the success of The Lord of the Rings. If Tolkien is truly trying to create etymologies for words in the languages he has made, it is the world that is the ultimate star rather than the characters in the story. That’s the reason Tolkien’s style is so effective. The general simplicity of the writing proves that he has a clear image in his head and lets him communicate that image to us more effectively without using simile or metaphor to try to clarify the image for him. The archaism and the poetry, though, also play their own major roles. LeGuin argues that fantasy worlds have no “borrowed reality of history” and instead rely solely on the creator’s voice to make the world from scratch. The songs and poems are Tolkien’s attempt to rectify that problem. They’re references to an internal culture, religion and value set that backs up the claim that the Red Book of Westmarch is a history. Tolkien uses archaic languages and structures when they make sense in the world he has made, not necessarily when or how they’d make sense in our world. Tolkien doesn’t want his world to be in an overdone style because he’s supposed to be the translator of a work compiled by hobbits—a very straight ahead, clear-spoken people. To me, that’s the beauty of The Lord of the Rings. “The only voice that speaks is the creator’s voice,” LeGuin says. “And every word counts.” In Tolkien’s case, though, his creations have a voice of their own, and when they speak, we listen.

--Micah Sperling


  1. While overall all I agree with your view on the importance of style and the importance of the world he has created to the success of LoTR, I take issue with the statement, “I’d argue that the plot is not essential to the success of The Lord of the Rings…it is the world that is the ultimate star rather than the characters in the story”. While the intricacies and depth of his world are important to creating such a remarkable text, his characters are at least equally important if only for their place and role in that world. However, I believe that the characters’ most important purpose is adding the quality of story to the languages that Tolkien created this world and history for. Tolkien believed that the element of story was essential in order to have a successful living language – hence why languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek have remained studied for so many years after they had stopped being spoken. Because characters can add the element of story to the world, something that the world would fail to provide for itself, I would argue that that in turn makes the characters and their stories (which I feel one would deem the plot) vital for the success of the LoTR.


  2. You've clearly read your Shippey and LeGuin! This is a lovely summary of the salient points raised by each. I particularly like this observation from your concluding paragraph, in which you ponder the purpose of Tolkien's particular style: "Tolkien uses archaic languages and structures when they make sense in the world he has made," which I agree is necessary to support the "internal culture" of Middle-earth.

    While I am in complete sympathy with the idea that Tolkien's writing and world building are the "stars," I am trying to imagine them at the cost of story--do you think that the plot is incidental to Tolkien's world building? How would we know how Dwarves speak in contrast to Men or Elves, if not for the council at Rivendell? How would we experience Aragorn's romantic and noble language as different from that of Strider, if not for the necessities of his journey? I agree that there are authors we read for their facility with language rather than the interest of their stories--but is Tolkien one of them, for you?


  3. I really agreed with your comment at the bottom of the first paragraph, that Tolkien's style of simple writing helps the reader relate to the world, and that a simple translation of a fantasy world is superior to one with unnecessary flourishes, such as "thee" and "thou." One of the many reasons the characters of the Lord of the Rings are so likeable is because they are relatable and don’t intimidate the reader. However, later on you stated that Tolkien’s style of writing proves that he has a clear image in his head of a world he is trying to translate to us, the readers, and this is where I have to disagree. Tolkien himself wrote in his letters that the ideas for characters, such as Ents and Hobbits, “came to him,” and he ran with his ideas, researching etymologies and creating these characters along the way. I’d argue that while Tolkien was skilled in translating his ideas on to paper and creating a fantasy world that we could understand, some of his ideas were accidental and required a lot of research after they were thought up, so they were never so clear, even to him. None of the names and characters were random in the end due to the intense investigation by Tolkien on his own imaginative creations.

  4. On the subject of suspension of disbelief and the movement into a secondary reality: First, you point out that we are willing (desperate?) to suspend our disbelief, but is that not, in itself contrary to the actual suspension of disbelief? If one were to actually suspend disbelief, that person could not desire to suspend disbelief as the desire implies that the person has an understanding that there is a “normal” belief that needs suspending. The believer has already suspended belief and does not wish to suspend belief, as he or she does not understand that there is a question of disbelief which must be suspended. I would question whether pursuing the suspension of belief is, in itself a necessarily fruitless venture, as it is almost certainly assured that belief will not be completely suspended. Second, you talk about how, “good fantasy, according to Tolkien, has to create a secondary reality that is internally consistent and allows us to draw conclusions about the primary reality that might otherwise be impossible for us to come to,” and also about how, “for fantasy to be effective, it has to take us out of the primary reality completely.” I’m not sure that these two concepts can coexist, because the fundamental notion of relevance is that it distinguishes between two things and says that one is not the other, but that one is relevant to the workings of the other. I’m not sure how much we can be taken out of the primary reality, but still pursue relevance.
    When you argue that the plot and characters are not necessary for the Lord of the Rings to be great, but that LOTR is based on a conception of a world with, “internal culture, religion and value set that backs up the claim that the Red Book of Westmarch is a history,” I think that you are ignoring the basis of language. Tolkien, himself, stated that the only languages that survive are those which are developed around a set of stories and mythoses. To provide these for England was the ostensible aim of his project and the Lord of the Rings is a story. The world is only as good as the story that it holds because the story distinctly shapes the glimpses of the story that we get. In LOTR, we do not get much about Beren and Luthian or Turin Turambar, who are ultimately much more important to the languages than the story of Lord of the Rings is. As Tolkien says in his introduction to the second edition of LOTR, “I now wanted to try my hand at writing a really stupendously long narrative and to see whether I had sufficient art, cunning, or material to make a really long narrative which would hold the average reader right through.” The story is incredibly important for Tolkien, as stories are the lifeblood of not only languages, but also worlds, histories, and everything else. The mythos of LOTR is a story that is developed by stories. Middle Earth is not the hero, but the stories that comprise it are.
    --Elliot Mertz

  5. I am a firm believer that the best writing (and speaking for that matter) is the style of writing that is understandable to the most people. After all, the purpose of writing is to communicate an idea. And if the audience is unable to understand the idea because the writing is too complicated, then the writer has failed. I think his simplicity of style coupled with the depth and nuance found in his writing allows his ideas and his stories to be best communicated to a broad audience. Complicated language is, I think, why so many high school students dread Shakespeare when they read it as he originally wrote it. It’s not accessible to them. Once they understand it, they may find the ideas that Shakespeare was trying to convey very beautiful, but unfortunately the style in which he wrote is often a blockade. Shakespeare’s writing was at least more accessible in his own time, and I suppose on one sad day, so many years will have passed that Tolkien’s writing will seem archaic and high school students will dread having to read him. But for now, he really is quite an accessible author and I find it quite impressive that he is able to manage that while simultaneously adding so much depth to his writing.
    - N. Lurquin