“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.