In thinking about the various points raised during our class discussion on Wednesday, I find that I’m drawn more and more to the idea of translation as a means of understanding many of these questions about both the style employed by Tolkien in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. I would also say the style is linked quite closely the nature of Tolkien’s writings as a primary historical narrative rather than a novel.
The open conceit of the LotR is that Tolkien, having found an extant manuscript of the Red Book of Westmarch*, translated it into English, and through him these works were published as at least The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, perhaps as well as The Silmarillion, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil depending on what material theoretically existed in the Red Book. As anyone who has had the pleasure of working with an ancient language such as Latin (as in my experience), Greek, or Sanskrit would know, translation is not a science but rather an art or a craft. While there may be direct translations of words – something not always guaranteed – this alone does not serve to convey accurately the feeling or character of the text, and in rendering those sentiments properly in a new language, the translator shows his skill.
An old Latin teacher of mine used to call the language which our first efforts at translating Ovid or Cicero took ‘translationese’, and she would tell us that proper translation is a two-step process. The first step anyone can do, but the second requires a master. Aragorn himself struggles with this process in translating a piece of the Lay of Leithian for the Hobbits (Bk. 1; chpt 11). Particularly interesting about this moment is that Tolkien himself also translated much, if not all, of the Lay of Leithian himself – provided one extends Tolkien’s conceit to its furthest extent. A comparison between the two reveals that they are different in terms of length (though Aragorn says his is only a fragment), meter, and rhyme scheme; however, importantly, they share all the basic touchstones of the story. For me, this creates the aura or illusion of vast expanses of time and the growth of culture rather than any sort of internal inconsistency – inconsistency is a part of history. So too, in Tolkien’s mythic history, these little details enhance the sense that these works are not simply fictitious stories to be enjoyed and thrown away. They are too compelling to do so.
How does this tangent apply? First and foremost, it means that we as readers, students, and analysts of Tolkien’s works should not consider them to be novels but rather as historical narratives written either by or from the accounts of first hand witnesses. This is not to say that it is a literal history since, as Ursula LeGuin notes in her essay, history only partly requires style whereas fantasy – which is the true categorization of Tolkien’s works – is nothing but a ‘recipe’ or plot synopsis without style (LeGuin, pg. 90). Rather, I would argue that the style mimics that of a historical narrative which is why it reads like ‘plain, clear English’ though its register has wide flexibility in order to cope with the subject matter in which it deals (LeGuin, pg. 89). While some critics may bemoan the wide shifts in style or tone, to me it seems like a very reasonable choice to make in translation when you have one passage where some Hobbits are joking around while bathing versus another where the representatives of the free folks gather at a high council to discuss the doom of their world.
This mix of the sermo sublimis and sermo humilis further reflects the actual shifts in the register of communication that would naturally occur were the events Tolkien describes to have in fact taken place just as we can see modulations in our own daily speech. Therefore, such mixing would logically carry over into the work of the chronicler whether it be Bilbo, Frodo, or the later copyists, and Tolkien himself carries on the chain by employing both the high and low mimetic styles that grate certain critics so.
In saying all of this, I want to reiterate that I don’t believe the Lord of the Rings to be anything other than fantasy, an exploration of faerie, but his archaizing style can be best understood to serve a very distinct purpose which gives it strength. As LeGuin says, archaizing is the first great pit-fall of beginning writers of fantasy because they archaize blindly (85); whereas Tolkien, he archaized only to serve the needs of his translation such as preserving the language of the Rohirrim as Old English or expressing the incredible age of Elrond in his specific, idiosyncratic grammatical structures.
At the very end of class, I feel as though I remember a short point being made about the intrusion of faerie into the real world – though this may be simply my own fevered imaginings. However, it now seems to me that the end result of the careful style is the seamless creation of faerie to the point where the question, “do you think that Tolkien really took this stories seriously?” is a legitimate question to ask. Moreover, the fact that the question, “is it perhaps possible this was all translated from some dusty, old manuscript?” comes to me at all is very significant. In short, the conceit of translation seems to be deeply integral both to the style in which Tolkien wrote, but also to how he understood his works and how we should understand his works.
* Though more properly, Tolkien actually ‘found’ a later expanded copy called The Thain’s Book which was remarkable among the copies of the Red Book in that contained the whole body of Bilbo’s Translations from the Elvish.