Friday, April 18, 2014

Tolkien’s Style: Fluidity between the Humble and the Sublime

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.



  1. Dear AK,
    Thanks for your vigorous defense of Tolkien's style in LoTR as 'one style despite all the variances it contains' against his critics who dislike the perceived mix of styles. I am intrigued by the idea that Tolkien's style - here perhaps using 'style' in more abstract terms than the critics used it - necessitates the "transitions in speech" and "changes" in prose and poetry because Tolkien was aiming at depicting the mix of the sublime and the humble, "the ennoblement of the ignoble." But could not one also say that Tolkien does vary styles for this same purpose? Why is it necessary to maintain it is a unitary style to keep the ennoblement theme?

    Secondly, it is a good point to remember the framing device and point us back to the Red Book! Rather than 'translator' Tolkien "drew" the LoTR account "mainly from the Red Book" (Note on Shire Records, 2nd paragraph). How should we be reading the style of the LoTR with the varying reports and documents of the Red Book in the background? In other words, how might this framing device change our reading of the LoTR's style?
    Thanks for picking up on an alternate viewpoint here.

  2. Continuing on the topic of Tolkien’s interweaving of the low and the high, I’m wondering to what degree this hallmark of a particularly “Christian” style is actually embedded in the way the concept of the elf-friend structures The Lord of the Rings specifically and fantasy and “fairy stories” in general. In “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” LeGuin seems to echo Tolkien’s characterization of the “perilous realm” and the necessity of the elf-friend without explicitly citing it; in explaining what fantasy is, she writes, “Fantasy….is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously” (79). These guides are responsible for conveying their readers to the perilous realm while simultaneously impressing upon them the tenuous, liminal nature of outsiders’ participation in Faërie–a task which in itself seems to necessitate the deliberate foregrounding of the contrast between the earthly and the magical. For both Tolkien and LeGuin, the feeling of disorientation is integral to the experience of fantasy–to recognize that we are no longer in Poughkeepsie and that the inhabitants of the new, perilous realm are both potentially dangerous and “not primarily concerned with us” (“On Fairy Stories” 38). We’ve now discussed the ways in which Tolkien marshals a host of linguistic styles within The Lord of the Rings to convey the depth of its universe and especially to detail the complexity of the hobbits’ interactions with vastly different beings in the perilous realm beyond the Shire. While Auerbach identifies the fusing of the low and the high as characteristic of a specifically Christian style, it seems that this practice (whether done in the same way as Tolkien achieves or no) is in fact elemental to the creation of the kind of fantasy LeGuin argues is worth reading. It is the conflict and communion of the two that makes fantasy compelling, and ultimately “real” (92).