Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Enchantment and Eucatastrophe: How Style Convinces Us That We're in the Same Story Still

Tolkien deliberately uses a mixture of styles in order to achieve enchantment and eucatastrophe. Enchantment is when a secondary reality is presented in such a way that it is experienced as a primary reality. Eucatastrophe is the moment when a story suddenly turns for the better. Within Christian mythology, the eucatastrophe is the Incarnation of Christ, when the divine steps into the mortal and the commonplace. Eucatastrophe is then also the moment when one experiences the divine in one's everyday life, changing one's life for the better.

Tolkien's style is crucial to the enchantment and eucatastrophe that readers experience when reading his works. In her discussion of the importance of style in fantasy writing, LeGuin writes, "To create what Tolkien calls 'a secondary universe' is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator's voice. And every word counts (LeGuin 91)." Style is utterly crucial to fantasy, because without it the enchantment is broken. If Tolkien tried to write this mythology, which he saw as an ancient, historical mythology, in a very modern style, the reader would not be convinced of their place in the story.

Tolkien's writing style, especially as shown in the style of speech of his characters, varies from very archaic to more colloquial. He is often criticized for leaning towards the archaic. John Heath-Stubbs referred to the Lord of the Rings as "a combination of Wagner and Winnie the Pooh." Indeed, we see a great variation in style that corresponds with a character's social status. Style ranges from positively mythical and powerful characters, such as Gandalf and Tom Bombadil to the wise and high characters, such as the Elves, to the simple and nearly colloquial Hobbits. And when they compose poetry, Elves write lays, the Rohirrim write Anglo-Saxon ballads, Eagles writes psalms, Dwarves write rhyming ballads, but Hobbits write nursery rhymes. However, this combination of differing styles is a crucial part of creating the enchantment. Tolkien and his characters take themselves seriously, as is evident in their speech styles. Because they take this work seriously, we, the readers, do as well.

Tolkien is often criticized for mixing "outdated" language with "childish" language, but it is this combination that embeds Tolkien's work in its own world, distinct from our own. In his "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin decries the destruction of what he refers to as the "aura." A work of art's "aura" is its "unique existence" within a "domain of tradition" (Benjamin 221). The characteristics of a piece of artwork that delineate its place in space, time, and culture combine to create an experience for the audience. In Tolkien's work, this aura is created by the combination of varying styles, which denote the geographical, temporal, and cultural origins of the speakers. Benjamin was deeply concerned with the destruction of this aura through the removal of these distinctions of space, time, and culture. He explained that this was caused by "the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction" (Benjamin 223). He claimed that there is a modern propensity to make everything exceedingly accessible and relatable. Tolkien's critics condemn him for being too detached from our modern reality, but Tolkien's mixed styles create a distinct world that the reader can enter into.

In his letter to Hugh Brogan, one such critic of his archaic style, he explained that his archaic style was absolutely necessary to conveying the sentiments necessary for his high fantasy. He said that he could use more modern language, "But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in modern style would not really think in such terms at all [Letter 171]." When Tolkien writes a character using a specific style of speech, the words he uses reflect the way they think, their cultural backgrounds, and more. In this case, King Theoden's words show that he is an educated nobleman whose culture does not have the idea of death as sleep, which is a Christian idea present in English culture. This distinction makes it clear that Tolkien's world is a reality distinct from our own, yet one that is internally consistent. This distinction makes the secondary world believably different, thus achieving enchantment.

Not only is there variation in style from character to character, but even within one character's speech. In his appendix on languages in the Third Age, Tolkien writes, "It will be noticed that Hobbit such as Frodo, and other persons such as Gandalf and Aragorn do not always use the same style. This is intentional [LotR Appendix F]." This type of variation of style is due to personal experiences as well as natural aptitudes. Though Hobbits generally speak less formally and less archaically than Elves, etc., Frodo's speech style differs because he is a wealthy, educated, and later well-traveled Hobbit. Though a person in our reality would have to travel not only through space, but also through time, in order to come across the use of archaic styles of speech, Frodo encounters these ancient languages and ancient registers. This convinces the reader of the secondary reality as something both relatable and yet distinct.

Another excellent example of this variation within one character's speech is Aragorn. Aragorn speaks all along the spectrum from Common Speech to High-Elven, which produces both enchantment and euctastrophe. In his comparison of Boromir and Aragorn's speech, Shippey writes, "The way they 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)." We see glimpses of Aragon's royal lineage in his moments of high speech, and his noble character through his humility and humble speech. We begin to believe in this king's return, to fall deeper under this enchantment. We experience the interaction of the higher and the lower throughout this secondary reality and in this King. We begin to see that Tolkien's mixed style is not a confused or inept style, but the style he feels is best: Christian style. Tolkien's sub-creation is a mixture of the common and the divine, so that the reader, too, may experience the divine in their everyday life. Just as Christian Scripture created a new kind of sublimity in which the lowest and the highest could come into direct contact, so does Tolkien's mythology.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000; first published 1981).
Benjamin, Walter. 1968[1935]. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." in _Illuminations_. Ed. by Hannah Arendt. Trans. by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books. pp 217-251.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
Shippey, Author of the Century, pp. 68-77 (“The Council of Elrond: Character Revealed”).
Ursula LeGuin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Susan Wood, rev. ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1989), pp. 78-92.

V. Camacho

1 comment:

  1. "Tolkien's sub-creation is a mixture of the common and the divine, so that the reader, too, may experience the divine in their everyday life." This is the crux of your argument, but I would have liked to hear more! Benjamin would seem to suggest that ordinary readers would not find Tolkien's mixture of styles inviting, more along the lines of what the literary critics have said. Tolkien does the exact opposite of making his work "relatable" at the level of style--and yet, somehow we find ourselves in the story. Perhaps Benjamin is wrong about the masses? RLFB