Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Microscopic Mimesis & Dual Translations

I. Microscopes in Mimesis: A Closer Look at Simplicity and Sub-Creation Through Low Mimesis

Our class discussion concluded that Tolkien emulates Christian rhetoric in his mixture of noble, established speech with common, colloquial speech. Christian rhetoric fused the separate antique forms of persuasion: sermo gravis for appealing to the nobility and sermo remissus for the common people (Auerbach 150-73). Christianity fused the two, exalting weakness, humbling the powerful, and flattening the valleys and mountains. But we also ventured beyond style, noting that noble constructions have to be consistent with the beliefs and character of the speaker. Archaism tended to chivalric ideals, with Theoden's romantic view of glory in battle (Letters, 171), with high mimesis tying archaism to noble character. Yet what ideals can we associate with low mimesis? Tolkien's low mimesis zooms in on blissfully absorbed stewards--plain folk--and their modest pieces of Creation. It points out their virtue of finding just as much appreciation and sublimity in these pieces as can be found in the rest of Creation.
Tolkien interprets this Christian motif--of the sublime and humble converging--not only in his writing but also in his life. On the high side, he attempts sublimity in his sub-creation out of necessity, feeling the ideas come to him compulsively, uncontrived. He does not seek sublimity, but accepts it out of necessity, in the way that Niggle constructs a saving sub-creation in the afterlife out of pure need for his and Parish’s healing. In fact, if anything, Tolkien is drawn to simplicity and humility in his own life. In Letters 213 he finds joy in imitating the modest bliss of a hobbit:
“I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”

Tolkien’s simplicity is not remarkable for any great amount of pleasure, nor any great amount of suffering. They are notable because of his complete and utter absorption into such small spaces and activities. Much is created in these small activities, since the result is much more than what went into building such experiences. They are sub-creations themselves, just as immersive as his more proud and noble sub-creations. He focuses on unique, minute ounces of pleasure without concern for the outside reality, without regard for how ridiculous his “ornamental waistcoats” might appear. Christian humility, then, is not the grinding-teeth martyrdom and self-flagellation as Nietzschean critics might paint it, nor is it a stoic show of Christ-like strength through suffering. Rather, humility is joy in simplicity and bareness of existence. It takes a microscope to Creation and finds even more beauty at a small scale.
Thus low mimesis--the rendering of cotidian reality and characters with ordinary qualities--is more than just a style or persuasive technique, but another belief system. We discussed archaism at length (more appropriately: archaism at length we discussed), and found that noble constructions of fluid sentence construction mesh with characters who believe in noble ideals. For instance, Theoden’s conscience that seeks a glorious death in battle. Yet for all the stylistic markers that Tolkien uses to characterize the noble, his colloquial style meshes with its own characterization.
The rules of colloquialism are just as present as those of archaism. Colloquial characters favor contractions, exclamations, trailing prepositions, and simple or dangling word order: "A nice pickle we have landed ourselves in, Mr. Frodo!" (II.2.284) This grammar (or lack thereof) complements the expression of blissful ignorance and hypocritical, yet endearing (never crossing into satire--not even with the laughable Sackville-Bagginses), phrases mistaken for wisdom. Shippey most nearly approaches these rules and ideals when he analyzes the Gaffer's mistakes: “I can’t abide changes...for the worst.” Indeed, both Shippey and Gandalf complain of Gamgee’s use of superlatives, which mark a limited perspective. But where Shippey sees prejudice, ignorance, and self-absorption in a bubble, Gandalf harbors affection for the blissful squabbles of hobbits. This bubble of simplicity is a sub-creation: hobbits are absorbed in their own, self-enclosed world, in which they create simple experiences of feasts and fireworks that enchant them as sublimely as more romantic beings' experiences with Elvish verses, the cities of Gondor, or the mithril of Moria. The Shire is Tolkien’s experiment with the extremes of sub-creation: of enjoying self-confinement to a sub-creation. He finds this extreme absorption in such a small piece of Creation no extreme at all, but an ideal of Christian humility.

II. Not Lost in Translation: Poetry and Prose as Dual Translation

Letters 180 included Tolkien's complaint of a common misconception. The content of Greek mythology, he argues, is only part of its effectiveness. The other half is much lost in translation: the aesthetic qualities of the words are partly lost when epic poems and other fragments are translated. Yet some translators take on the difficult task of preserving style and aesthetic qualities. At the expense of precise content, these translators choose to render, for example, an English Odyssey that is metered or even rhymed (the original Greek Odyssey was in dactylic hexameter). Such fluid speech rhythms communicate, to some degree, the dramatic--often musical--oral tradition that was an integral part of Greek epic poems or plays.
Tolkien’s characters deal with the language barrier through this same two-pronged assault, poetically and prosaically in separate. Strider first sings in Elvish fashion an “ann-thennath” excerpted from the Lay of Leithian, with more extreme archaism communicate noble, cathartic sadness. His rhyme and meter, and presumably the melody, manage to translate a component of the Elvish verse that is inaccessible in a precise translation of meaning. Indeed the excerpt is “hard to render in our Common Speech,” so he follows the song with a prosaic synopsis, explaining the meaning of the Elvish words (I.11.203-6). Similarly, Gimli’s ballad (II.4.329) expresses the dwarves' longing for Moria, but his dwarf-characteristic silence withholds meaning, leaving Sam enchanted but mystified. He bursts with questions: “Then what do the dwarves want to come back for?” (II.4.329). And, though pressed for time, Elrond prefers poetry to communicate across cultures. He accepts Bilbo's tale in the absence of poetry, knowing that the old hobbit prefers to polish his adventures with the personality of his nursery-rhyme style: “If you have not yet cast your story into verse, you may tell it in plain words” (II.2.262).
Appendix F.II “On Translation” epitomizes Tolkien’s method of dual translation. His Modern English analogs of Westron names reflect the original meaning, but place equal importance on matching the language-atmosphere. For instance, in translating Galpasi he considers the meaning, arriving at the intermediate step of Gamwich. However, he next matches the reduced forms in sound and syllable count, inventing Gamgee to represent the abbreviated Galpsi. This method of matching not only significance, but also aural quality, is analogous to translating myth through separate versions of prose and poetry.


Auerbach, Eric. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.
LeGuin, Ursula. “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Susan Wood. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.
Shippey, Tom. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely analysis of Tolkien's own humble style! Strictly speaking, the difference in styles in ancient rhetoric was not a matter of audience, but subject matter: the "sermo sublimis" was for lofty matters, the "sermo humilis" for common. The latter was therefore technically condescending--noble orators speaking about common matters. Tolkien understood himself as at once noble (a professor of languages) and common (someone who enjoys plain food and a simple lifestyle). His professorial humility is, therefore, itself a kind of critique in exactly the terms you describe: true humility *is* "joy in simplicity." This is the reason (as I see it) that Tolkien refuses to make his hobbits figures of fun for being so self-absorbed. It is also their virtue. RLFB