Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Is Tolkien's style really ‘Epic’?

I'd like to spend some time here pushing back on one of Ursula LeGuin's points. In her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", she argues that good fantasy, but particularly Tolkien's "plain, clear English", is "a modern descendant of the epic." Among this list of older epics are the Iliad, Beowulf, and most interesting to me, the Icelandic sagas. On the surface, this analogy seems fair. As LeGuin noted, "The Song of Roland has four thousand lines, containing one simile and no metaphors. The Mabinogion and the Norse sagas are as plainspoken as they could well be" (LeGuin pg. 89). However, apart from a superficial terseness, it seems to me that Tolkien is, in fact, far less 'prosy' than these ancient sources (to use his own term). To that end, Tolkien falls short of the standard LeGuin sets.

To help me compare Tolkien's style to these ancient sources, I will be comparing sections of dialogue and description to Volsunga saga. I chose this one specifically for two reasons. Firstly, because it deals with the actions of the non-human, and contains perhaps the most highfalutin language of any of the sagas. Other sagas deal with ordinary men, and sometimes occur immediately before they were recorded. These would be inappropriate to compare to fantasy. Secondly, we will be working with the text later in the course, making it ideal as a point of comparison.

The most obvious stylistic difference between The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and Volsunga saga is in the narrator's voice. In a saga, the narrator takes great care to remain very present in the telling, but very separated from the action.To this end, they simply emphasize that their own anonymity. A traditional formulation for the first chapter is "Here we begin by telling..." (Volsunga saga chapter 1). Also, they will often report to the reader information about the characters in the story directly. For example:
Now Sigurd rode away. His ornamented shield was plated with red gold and emblazoned with a dragon. Its top half was dark brown, and its bottom half light red, and his helmet, saddle, and buffcoat were all marked in this way. He wore a mail coat of gold and all his weapons were ornamented with gold. In this way the dragon was illustrated on all his arms, so that when he was seen, all who had heard the story would recognize him as the one who had killed the great dragon called Fafnir at Vaerings. (Volsunga saga chapter 23).
While this bears some archaic grammatical constructions (because this is genuinely antique), the narrator is quite conversational. it generally feels far more modern than the actual characters, who I will discuss in a little while. The author is purely contemporary to the composition; he is not in the frame of the action. Despite this, the author refuses to moralize beyond reporting opinions of other characters. Actions need to speak for themselves, even when the actions are breaking oaths or other socially heinous acts.

As a narrator, Tolkien is far less distinct from his story. Most times characters change in appearance or role, it is another character who perceives it. "Gimli and Legolas looked at their companion in amazement, for they had not seen him in this mood before. he seemed to have grown in statue while Eomer had shrunk; and in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone" (LOTR III.2). of course, Tolkien separates himself from the action of the story to some extent; he is, after all, the primary Elf-friend. His conceit of translating the Red Book of Westmarch separates him a little further. However, he still describes the action as an eyewitness, even when there is no dialogue. In addition, where an Icelandic author will simply announce an event "He now drew the sword Gram and cut of Regin's head" (Volsunga saga chapter 20), Tolkien describes the event in incredibly precise detail "Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her." (LOTR V.6).

All this amounts to Tolkien writing a very bad epic, in LeGuin's sense. He is neither so objective nor so terse as he pretends to be. While his individual words are only rarely difficult to parse, the precision tends to an excess of detail. This forces him to stay close to the action, making the conceit of translating only viable by adding Frodo, and Sam, and Bilbo, and Merry as recorders of their own lives.

That being said, I find that LeGuin, by creating this association, does not give Tolkien nearly enough credit. His style is clearly influenced by epic, but in falling short, he accomplishes something else. After all, in an epic, everyone speaks in the same level. Odin himself tells Sigurd "This horse is descended from Sleipnir. He must be raised carefully, because he will become better than any other horse" (Volsunga saga chapter 13). It takes the author to inform us that it was Odin. The style of speech is indistinguishable from any other noble (or bird, as the case may be) in the saga. Tolkien, by writing in a non-epic style, is able to create the drastic diversity of peoples and speeches present in LOTR. As Shippey's analysis of the Council of Elrond shows, Tolkien had a deep understanding of how the very speech creates interesting characters. This allows for far more subtlety than is present in the vast majority of epics. Boromir's "very slight whine" (LeGuin pg. 83) contrasts content with style, foreshadowing his own test. Faramir's identical style, marked by less confidence, makes it instantly clear that he is wiser than his brother was. But, neither of them could possibly be mistaken for a "fine old fellow" (LOTR III.8), as Theoden was labelled by Pippin. In an epic, this is information that would be conveyed exclusively through the narrator. In Middle-Earth, though, the characters breathe with their own life. The reader's suspicions are confirmed explicitly, but only after the readers and the characters learn more information. The reader is engaged in learning about the world through experiences, which is, I think, the great success of Tolkien's style in LOTR.


P.S. As a final note, this only deals with only a small, minor part of LeGuin's argument. However, the implication LeGuin established with the structure of her essay is to me a simplification, which is worth exploring.

Byock, Jesse, trans. The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1990
LeGuin, Ursula, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", in The Language of the Night. New York; Harper Collins, 1979 (essay from 1973).
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston, New York; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.


  1. I'd tend to agree with your opinion that Le Guin is oversimplifying when she writes "Tolkien writes a plain, clear English." However, I'd point out that I think what matter more to her than terseness or economy of language is the versatility of style, how "it ranges easily from the commonplace to the stately." I think it's interesting you bring up the Volsunga saga, particularly since Tolkien himself wrote two poems - published posthumously in 2009 as "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" - based off the saga. I recall when I read them for the first time, I was taken aback by the marked difference in style; I could not even distinguish it as Tolkien. Here's a brief passage from a dialogue. I'm curious, would you call it "epic" or "highfalutin"?
    (Sigmund's sister
    Signy answered:)
    ‘ Son Sinfjolti,
    Sigmund father!
    Signy comes not,
    Siggeir calls her.
    Where I lay unwilling
    I now lay me glad;
    I lived in loathing,
    now lief I die.’
    I'm not sure I could call Skaldic verse "epic": is it formal, highly mannered, and structured? Absolutely. But it's also astonishingly spare. Though it's certainly related to the "epic poetry" tradition, I don't think it's a strict subset. Therefore, is it fair to say Tolkien's style "style is clearly influenced by epic, but in falling short, he accomplishes something else"? Might he be drawing stylistic motivation from a more complex network of Northern European influences that can't be summarized as "epics"?

    - Elaine Yao (disclaimer: not an English/Linguistics/Germanic Studies/History/etc. major, claims no expertise.)

  2. I would be more persuaded by your analysis of the saga-style if you were not working in translation! Why do you use Byock's translation? Every translation (as Tolkien knew) makes important changes to the feel as well as the sense of the original. Have you seen Roy Liuzza's comparison of different translations of "Beowulf"? Before arguing against LeGuin how well Tolkien mimics "epic" style (which, I tend to agree, he really doesn't, at least not in LotR), we need a better understanding of the primary sources he was translating--both his own and those he used as models. RLFB