Friday, April 18, 2014

To Make a Soul: Tolkien and Variations of Speech in the Lord of the Rings

         According to Ursula Le Guin, if a novel doesn’t have style, all that is left is a synopsis of the plot (or, to use her example, “a recipe without a cake”). Style is what characterizes both the novel and the author itself. As creator of the Legendarium, Tolkien could have chosen to affect any style he wanted, and the reader would be none the wiser. What I’m primarily interested in, following Wednesday’s discussion, is why Tolkien chose to consciously forsake creating his own consistent style when writing the Lord of the Rings, and instead why he decided to use style as a tool to create realistic and distinct characters. Further, I’m also interested in what consequences these decisions had upon the story. Every aspect of Tolkien’s writing is heavily considered and conscious; understanding his intentions are key to understanding the Lord of the Rings.
Le Guin’s characterization of Tolkien’s writing style as journalism is consistent with the way that he meant for The Lord of the Rings to be read. In Appendix F, he stated that he did not write the Lord of the Rings himself; he simply translated The Red Book of Westmarch from Westron to English. Tolkien altering the text in any way or inserting his own stylistic tendencies would invalidate his role as translator and observer and ruin the façade he had created. He intentionally suppressed his own personality and stylistic tendencies in order to allow the culture and behavior of his characters to shine through. As we discussed in class, it’s not that Tolkien could only write in plain, journalistic styles of speech – the poetry scattered throughout the Lord of the Rings and in the Tom Bombadil reading is evidence of his ability to wear many stylistic caps. His choosing to write plainly was a conscious decision. Instead of making the bulk of the text heavily styled, he instead chose to insert stylistic variations into the dialogue, speech, and tone of the different characters.
While other fantasy authors use archaisms and style to distinguish themselves, Tolkien used variations in style as a tool to distinguish his characters. Through word-choice, syntax, and tone, Tolkien managed to convey thousands of years of culture, nationality, and personality through the speech of his characters. He used style to create genuine-feeling identity. This is no small feat, indeed. Tolkien calls these “human touches” in his letter to W.H. Auden, and these small, deliberate touches are what elevate his style beyond the norm.
Shippey delved into Tolkien’s differentiation in characters’ speech in his close analysis of Book II, Chapter 2: “The Council of Elrond.” Like many others in the class, I was struck by how I didn’t notice the variations in the speech between characters the first few times I read The Lord of the Rings. (Although, to be fair, I was mostly distracted by Tolkien’s poetry and other more exciting chapters; I remembered this one being particularly boring to my nine-year-old self.) The beauty of these variations is that they are barely noticeable to the reader; one notices the character and the speaker himself, not the speech. Tolkien uses syntax and archaisms to imply aspects of the characters’ personality and culture without coming directly out and stating these facts. Elrond’s age and sagacity are implied through his archaic word order; the stubbornness of the dwarves is communicated through Gloin’s oblique statements; Saruman’s duplicity can be felt through his politically minded, abstract manners of speech. Tolkien even went to far as to consider the tone and cadence with which the Rohirrim would speak C.S.; it being their second language, he imagined it would be much slower and more deliberate. These considerations not only support the reality of the world that Tolkien has created; they also support Tolkien’s claim that he is only acting as translator. Without these variations and style, the chapter on the Council could have devolved into a mere listing of concerns, a cake without the frosting or sugar.
Each character consistently speaks like the most genuine version of themselves. Their individual tendencies and archaisms never sound forced or inauthentic. The result of this authenticity is that the reader readily accepts the reality and existence of the speaker. (The readers' acceptance, then, also supports Tolkien's claim that this is a work that he found and that he is just acting as translator.) Tolkien's commitment and consistency are his greatest strengths. While there are distinct variations in speech and tone between characters, each character’s own speech is consistent throughout the entirety of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien himself acknowledged this in his letter to Terrence Tiller. When responding to the notion of accents with the characters, he stated that he “…paid great attention to such linguistic differentiation as was possible: in diction, idiom, and so on…” (p. 254). Critics seem to get stuck on the distinctions between characters and call these variations “a lack of consistency” without fully realizing that it is the consistency in the variations that makes Tolkien’s writing so realistic. Shippey noted this, stating “…Elrond’s archaism is consistent, achieved not just by vocabulary (the first resort of the amateur medievalist), but also by grammar” (p. 76). The consistency creates identity and reality.
          Le Guin says, “The greatness of soul shows when a man speaks” (p. 83). This was Tolkien’s mission in creating differentiating styles and tones: to open wide the pages and bare the souls of his key characters. He did not make stylistic choices just for flourish and show; he made them purposefully and distinctly, in order to flesh out and create a background and culture for each of his characters. He did it to create souls, to create the impression that these characters had histories and pasts that extended far beyond his translation of The Red Book of Westmarch; I would argue that he succeeded.
-- K.G.


  1. Hi KG,
    I’m glad that you didn’t notice the style variation when you first read Tolkien. I actually thought Tolkien’s dialogue was very dry and somewhat boring when I read it prior to this class. Le Guin discusses how many novice writers fail when writing fantasy because of their style, how they fake archaism, misuses words, and use too much ichor. I think that as a reader, I fell into some similar traps as novice writers. I failed to understand the intentionality of Tolkien’s style. Rereading the text however, it is much easier to notice the variation in character due to style—I think especially in the poetry. Le Guin however declares that style is most visible in dialogue. I’m curious what the impact of style not in dialogue and how that affects his story. We discussed in class that since the Lord of the Rings is a translation, then Tolkien tries to stay true to how the words are used and how characters would have talked. He has to capture the character and culture of each character in their syntax and mannerisms of speaking. However, how does his straightforward prose also develop his style? If the Red Book of Westmarch was written by Hobbits, can the style of prose be connected to the dialogue of the Hobbits?

  2. Dear KG,
    Thanks for a clear discussion of why Tolkien may have decided–and I think it is the right track to see it as an authorial decision–to adopt stylistic variance to bring out his characters. But I worry that this appears too much like summary of the texts and discussion. Be sure to foreground your own contribution to the topics at hand lest it get overshadowed and missed.

    I do like your attention to Tolkien’s framing device in compiling and translating from the Red Book. As you pointed out, he gave deep consideration to each character’s voice, speech, and names, but, as I think you implied, in his Prologue and Appendix tries to tuck that artistic attention aside as if he had only ‘Englished’ the styles and names. I wonder. Is this framing device necessary, do you think? Could the styles have held up (perhaps with an omniscient narrator) without the framing device of the Red Book?


  3. Some of my best friends denote Tolkien’s writing style and the evident density of The Lord of the Rings’ text as the primary reasons why they were unable to be drawn into Tolkien’s realm. In fact, a number of them--echoing many of the sentiments shared by Tolkien’s critics--question how works like The Hobbit could have been intended for children to read when many adults find them unbearable blocks of text. Conversely, I--and many others--have never Tolkien’s writing style to be an issue. Keeping that in mind, I wonder what potential implications writing style may have on the efficacy of creating secondary realities that are able to draw the spectator into another realm. Writing style that is similar to the way in which we communicate may be a potential means of making a secondary reality more grounded in a primary reality and discourse that we already know. If so, this would be in line with the already evident emphasis Tolkien places on the importance of language. Maybe it is for this reason that many people feel detached from the way Tolkien writes, as they are unable to relate to the word choice or manner of speaking of many of the characters. Maybe this is also why many people still find Tolkien’s writing to be enchanting, as it is as timeless and the stories.

    - Megan Porter

  4. Le Guin and Shippey's writings on Tolkien's writing style and characterization in The Lord of the Rings were two of my favorite readings in the course. Le Guin's account of bad medieval fantasy writing is dead on, and Shippey's comments on the speech of different characters in LOTR drew my attention to the wonderful differences and distinctions between them. As a philologist and etymologist, concerned with the history of language, of course Tolkien would have paid great attention to the language of his characters, and it is part of what makes these characters so alive and real. After all, their people, land, and language all have histories in LOTR. In answer to Robert, I think the different styles of the characters would have held up without the framing device of the Red Book. As Le Guin pointed out, great authors enliven their characters by giving them different speech, as they are different people after all. With an omnipresent narrator, there can still be different styles of speech for different characters. What the framing device of the Red Book adds is history to the story that Tolkien is telling. He tells us the source of the story, as if he is just a translator, therefore also validating the existence of these stories outside of himself so that they are not just his creation.


  5. I think it's a very that Tolkien's writing style is so quick to attract some and force others away. I'm so thrilled to have taken this class and encountered the readings we were assigned, because I think it has helped me immensely both as a reader and a writer. I sometimes feel annoyed when I'm reading and all the characters feel indistinguishable- they're all too clearly flowing from the author in some way or another, and they're representative of a single voice. Tolkien does an incredible job of distinguishing between each character speaking, making each unique, and I think the stylistic techniques he use are incredible (and something many writers fail to imitate, perhaps because it's so natural and I at least was not aware of it even when I was reading it). I greatly appreciate Le Guin's analysis of bad fantasy writing and language, although I also wonder about it on some level. Yes- there's something very beautiful about archaic and timeless language, but I also think there's something to be said for very plain speech in writing. I like the sense of communication and interaction that comes from reading a fantasy written without elevated style. Lord of the Rings can feel very, very distant at times. Tolkien does a wonderful job using language, but not every author is a philologist. I still think stories written with very plain language can be worth telling, and perhaps better and easier to connect with in some situations.