Friday, April 18, 2014

The Style of the Elf-Friend

In his chapter on the Council of Elrond, Shippey spends most of his effort guiding the reader through the varying styles of the many speakers in Book II chapter ii, exposing how meticulous Tolkien was in intentionally shaping his characters’ speech. He points out that this chapter of LotR features more than twenty speakers (if we include “impacted speakers” quoted but not actually present). I find it curious that although I cannot think of another passage from any work in which a comparable number of characters are all so active in the dialogue, let alone in moving the plot, never when I read this chapter before (and it is one I’ve lingered on more than many others) did I notice anything unusual. I think this is a testament to how seamlessly the chapter is written. One would think that a dialogue in which no one responds in the same manner of speech as the previous speaker would feel very choppy and disconnected (although the total opposite, a dialogue in which the speakers all sound exactly alike, would feel inherently fake); but in Tolkien it is not a distraction but an aid to both understanding and readability, and any device that can do this job without being immediately noticed is well used indeed.

All that said, I want to now take a closer look at a similar concept that was also touched on, briefly, in Shippey’s writing, as well as in our class discussion: the variability of style within a single character’s speech, and what its significance is. Naturally, the preeminent character to examine for this question is Aragorn/Strider; but I will also take a look at some other figures from a list we have previously dealt with in class, namely Frodo and Bilbo, and if I don’t run on too long also Tolkien himself.

We already discussed on Wednesday how a greater range of style indicates a character’s adaptability. Shippey examines this in his exegesis on the Council of Elrond, writing that “The way they [Boromir and Aragorn] talk reminds us, in miniature, that Aragorn is also Strider, and does not need to be on his dignity all the time; but at the same time that Strider is also Aragorn, and can claim just as much, indeed even more authority than Boromir” (Shippey 73). But I want to take a closer look at another example of Aragorn’s speech, also from our assigned reading, that I think will be useful in illustrating the significance of this adaptability: his tale of Beren and Lúthien in Book I chapter xi. In this section Strider (so he is exclusively called in this chapter with the hobbits) first chants the Elvish song in the Common Speech, then gives a brief note on the translation from Elvish, then finally gives a fuller account of the story it tells in plain prose. Here was have an example (one of many) of Aragorn not only varying his style of Westron, but in fact of showing his knowledge of varied languages. It is not specified whether Aragorn himself translated the song from the Elvish, although I think we are to suppose that he did (he notes that it “is hard to render in our Common Speech,” so he at least he is familiar with the translation process); but in any case we see for the first time that he is multilingual, and specifically that he has a close association with the Elves. What is so interesting about this passage, though, is not just Aragorn’s knowledge of Elves; we also get to see Strider interpreting the song for the hobbits, in a style much their own. (Admittedly his prose is still a little high-flown, e.g. “As the stars above the mists of the Northern lands was her loveliness,” and also a little weighty in its content, e.g. “…a King of Elves upon Middle-Earth when the world was young.” But it is, on the whole, a style easily understandable to the hobbits.) Furthermore, the hobbits notice a change in his appearance in this passage: “As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face… His eyes shone, and this voice was rich and deep,” (Book I chapter xi).

What I’m driving at, of course, is the characterization of Aragorn/Strider as an Elf-friend in this passage: his first identification as such in the whole book, though certainly not the last. Elf-friends are a topic we have already dealt with quite a bit, but although we have talked about the adaptability of character necessary for Elf-friends to both journey into the Perilous Realm and to relate their experiences to those who have not journeyed there, we have not yet made mention of the accompanying adaptability of the Elf-friend’s style of speech. To some extent it amounts to the same thing; presumably one can’t fully interact with Elves (although possibly with Faerie itself) without being at least familiar with their style of speech and ideally also able to use that style oneself. But I submit that we can also use this idea to determine, to a high degree of accuracy, a given character’s Elf-friend status based solely (or largely) on their style of speech, even when not talking to or about Elves or Faerie.

I turn back now to the Council of Elrond, of which Shippey has so much to say. The easy fluctuation between Aragorn’s high and dignified style (matching Boromir) and Strider’s low, common style (telling of his life among unwitting men and hobbits) has already been noted, and corresponds nicely, I think, to the fluctuation between the two roles of an Elf-Friend. What can be said of the other characters present? Taking Shippey’s cues about each character’s style: we first have Elrond, who of course is himself one of the fair folk, and whose style is consistently archaic and formal (Shippey 70). Though an Elf cannot be eligible for Elf-friend status by nature, Elrond’s linguistic style alone would also preclude his classification as such because of its invariability. Boromir’s language is described by Shippey as “relatively Elrondian…,” but “…shows no sign of knowing anyone of Butterbur’s social status” (Shippey 72-3); since there is no indication that he could communicate extraordinary experiences to ordinary folk, he too cannot be an Elf-Friend. Bilbo’s speech, not discussed at length by Shippey, is on the whole rather bumbling and characteristic of a hobbit; he interrupts to ask about lunch, and grandiosely offers to accept a task clearly not meant for him; in short, he is a kind of comic relief in this serious scene (LotR, Book II chapter ii). But in the middle of the council he suddenly pops in with the poem he has written about the Dúnadan, and though he himself calls it “not very good” I think it feels much more Elvish than hobbitish—certainly quite different from Sam’s hobbit rhymes. Though his style when he addresses Elrond is not much higher than normal, we see from this poem—again, not addressed to an Elf or even about Faerie, but rather about a mortal man—enough variation from his usual style to confirm his status as Elf-Friend. Suffice it to say that Frodo falls into the same category as Bilbo here, though his higher style is little exhibited outside of his contact with Elves (such as Gildor in Book I chapter iii).

Zooming out, the ability of Tolkien to create so many layers of style in his rich array of characters is a perfect correlation to the variation of some of those same characters (most especially Aragorn/Strider, who shows the greatest variation). This supports the idea of Tolkien himself as the ultimate Elf-Friend, put forth by Flieger in The Footsteps of Aelfwine.

--David Jaffe


  1. After reading your post it has become clear to me that, of course, Aragorn/Stride is an Elf-friend. His relationship and history with the Elves and Faerie are obvious indications of his privileged role, but you have pointed out a subtler characteristic in his speech. As we have found in our discussions on the matter, Elf-friends gain a beautiful and elevated style of speaking once they come in contact with Faerie. Gaining the skill to create beautiful things does not only consist in crafts, but as we saw in Smith of Wooten Major, Elf-friends’ voices become enchanting. Aragorn’s high speech that he uses to portray his dignity and position are at once reflective of the Elves he is close with and therefore also of his position as mediator between Faerie and the primary world.

    However, there is more to say about Aragorn as an Elf-friend because beauty and dignity are not his only lingual advantages. For Aragorn is also Strider, and as you have mentioned, Strider must not assert his rank and power as consistently as Boromir feels obligated. In doing so, though, Aragorn does not lose his role as an Elf-friend, for his responsibility as an Elf-friend is not only to create beautiful speech, but to also fulfill the other responsibility of his role as mediator between two worlds. Tolkien has given Aragorn/Strider the ability to speak in two forms: high and low. By doing so he has assigned Aragorn/Strider the task of both valuing the high beauty of Faerie and effectively sharing the world with people of lower styles. The role of Elf-friend is twofold because it is not enough to speak in elevated language; the Elf-friend must create beautiful speech while making it accessible to all varieties of people. Tolkien, I believe, has revealed characteristics of Aragorn/Strider through his device of style but also through communication. Aragorn's/Strider's role as an Elf-friend becomes clear through the language he uses in communicating to hobbits, Elves, dwarves, and others all at once. It is a skill of style but also a skill of a mediator.

    - K. Beach

  2. Dear David,

    Thanks for your argument on Aragorn/Strider as Elf-friend. I think your use of Shippey’s close reading here is helpful, but you nicely do not leave us where Shippey left off but with your own contribution, you connect it back to the idea of the Elf-friend. This is well done.

    I think you are quite right to see the Elf-friend as essentially a translator–someone conversant in an alien community’s language who can bring accounts back to a more homely language (that is, to us). This insight nicely dove-tails with the earlier discussion, and points out the many different levels and kinds of Elf-friends. Aragorn’s multilevel translation of the Beren and Luthien tale nicely exhibits this.
    But, is Aragorn not at a distance from us? His words are only reported by Frodo (&c) and he never returns to tell his tales in, say, the Shire. Does this make him an ‘ultimate Elf-friend’ but a kind of ‘abstract’ or ‘intermediate’ Elf-friend?