Our class discussion on Wednesday led to some interesting conclusions about stylistic choices in the writing of a fantasy novel. I found myself constantly returning to the idea that Tolkien differentiated the language and speech characters based on their respective races. While class and social standing played a role in that process, I think Tolkien’s aim for creating unique manners of speech for each character was to mimic the role of language in our primary reality, as a window into the character’s past, personality and identity. Elrond, as we discussed, speaks in a more archaic version of the Common Tongue because there is a cultural variation in different modes of speech that allow the reader to separate him from others. Bilbo, though still speaking the same language, does with less of the formality and archaism that we associate with Elrond. As in our primary reality, it is only natural to assume that speech will transition from one manner to another when there are different races of individuals with different histories in the same room. Elrond was alive during and remembers the battle of the Second Age while Bilbo, though old by Hobbit standards, recounts tales of stories from fifty years prior. That is exactly where Tolkien’s genius lies. He does not jump from one style to another at all. His style is constant, but nuanced.
Stylistic aspects also encompass the usage of poetry and prose and Tolkien, as in the case of language, is masterful in his transition between and use of both methods. In discussion, we compared the different forms of poetry recited by different characters in the Lord of the Rings. Take, for example, the story of Beren and Luthien in the Lays of Leithian with its almost lyrical quality and rhythm. Compare it to the same story told by Aragorn two ages later (Third Age) to the four hobbits. There is a loss of some of the lyricism that existed in the stories of the Lays yet Aragorn, when reciting the poem, seems to harken back to the time of the poem’s origin. The following prose works to root the reader back into the present. For me, the transitions between poetry and prose change meaning when regarding the speaker, just as the manner of speech does. Tolkien is, in essence a philologist and his use of verbal “fossils” in connecting his legendarium, not only within itself but also to our primary reality, is what roots his fantasy in the realm of sub-creation. We observe the same pattern in Aragorn’s’ poem and the Lays and it is almost as if these poems serve as a window to past ages. Why, then are they there? Why not just stick to the varied prose that he uses frequently in other parts of the Lord of the Rings?
Tolkien’s critics, however, claimed that the changes in his language were polar and drastic, much like a transition from “Wagner to Winnie the Pooh” and, as we concluded in class, this is absolutely true. I suppose their ideal would be closer to a standard of purely modern English or a completely archaic use of the English by all the characters. Alternatively, others, like Rosebury say that much of Tolkien’s earlier work is austere in light of the benevolence of the Lord of the Rings. I think that these ideals are centered to either a formulaic view of writing in the twentieth century or a preconceived notion that fantasy writing necessarily has to be removed in its style from our own primary reality which I absolutely do not agree with. Tolkien emphasized in his paper “On Fairy Stories” that fantasy and Faerie have to be rooted in realism for it be a complete removal from, as LeGuin describes it, Poughkeepsie to Elfland, rather than just being a modern RV in a national park of fantasy. Unlike many other forms of fantasy writing, there is no “fake” motive and method behind Tolkien’s style which is what, I believe, makes it so absorbing.
Although, LeGuin details, “fake feeling; fake grammar” is a mistake that many fantasy writers make in their pursuit of Faerie. She lauds Eddison because while his use of archaism appears to be “aritificial, it is never faked” and at the same time ascribes Tolkien’s success to the “variety” of his writing. How is it that both styles can be equated to quality fantasy writing without questioning, on some level, which one is better? That was something I thought about extensively when reading through the rest of LeGuin’s essay and remembered our discussion about the effectiveness of Tolkien’s style and why it is considered one style, despite all the variances it contains within itself, even within the span of a single chapter like the Council of Elrond, as referenced above.
The reason, I believe, is rooted in the fact that Tolkien treated Lord of the Rings as a translation of the Red Book of Westmarch. So, in essence, Tolkien is putting himself firmly in the shoes of the Elffriend as the author (and translator) of this book. This explains why Tolkien is so adamant about the Dutch translation retaining the same nomenclature. The languages that he has translated remain in the names and the changing manners of speech. They represent Tolkien working as a translator to parse the context of the conversations, whether in terms of respect and formality or in terms of the interaction between different cultures. Tolkien, through his precise choice and analysis of each character’s manner of speech stays true to the thought world and context of each character. This is precisely why Tolkien states that “Middle Earth is not a Christian-world” in response to the seeming lack of religion referenced by the characters in the Lord of the Rings. While we know that in the larger legendarium, there are the Ainur and Eru Illuvatar, someone like Theoden, living in Rohan in the Third Age, has no such context and thus has his speech and thoughts appropriately modified to suit his circumstances.
This idea, I think, connects very well to the motif of the sublime versus the humble. Tolkien, though not writing a Christian novel, took these transitions in speech, changes prose and poetry and archaism to more modern speech, from the Bible. Tolkien himself states that the he cherishes the idea of the “ennoblement of the ignoble” which is something he worked to bring forth in his translation of their speech and interactions. This is clearly evidenced in this combination of lyrical poetry and decidedly less noble prose, and in the same manner both Bilbo and Elrond interacting in the same council. I think that this, coupled with his philological motives as a writer, is what defines Tolkien’s style. It is this combination of antithetical ideas and beings that not only justifies Tolkien’s style developing in the manner that it did but also explains why it captured the level of interest that it has. It is complexly simple in its conception and execution and I think that is why its appeal is so extensive.