Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reflecting Register: Differences in Styles and What They Represent

“Speech expresses character.  It does so whether the speaker or the author knows it or not.”  This quotation of Ursula Le Guin candidly explains the importance of speech and its style within a story, but I believe that she also hints at a more fundamental notion with it.  If speech indeed expresses character, differences apparent in speech should then represent differences in the characters of individuals, archetypes, and peoples that exhibit them.  This notion was not lost on J.R.R. Tolkien, as our class discussion analyzing his works and associated scholarship revealed.  Style, in the case of Tolkien and his work, is manifest through the many conscious distinctions drawn not only between the prosaic and poetic registers of speech, but also within these registers themselves.  Here, it is important to note that analysis on these differences in style as a rule apply to quoted speech, song, and verse within The Lord of the Rings; Tolkien himself writes most of the other narrative descriptions in his own literary voice that was remarked on early in the class and which is markedly less variable and more ‘journalistic.’  Speaking then only on the significance of variation within speech as such, I identify several key examples as follows.

On the level of the individual, variation in style most readily reflects social, cultural, and geographical differences impacting speakers.  In The Lord of the Rings, all conversations and verses appearing in English occur in the same in-universe language of Westron, but the unifying bond of a shared language does not preclude the emergence of vast stylistic differences between speakers.  This is particularly noticeable in the Council of Elrond found in book II chapter 2 and T. A. Shippey’s analysis of it in J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century.  From among all the unique styles portrayed herein by Tolkien and expanded in discussion, I am most struck by the multiple registers on which Aragorn communicates based on his audience, the gravity of the situation, and conversational goals.  This propensity he exhibits to switch from the terse, unadorned speech of Strider to the ‘higher’ Númenorian register appropriate of potential Gondorian royalty is known in the realm of linguistics as ‘code-switching,’ itself defined primarily as the ability to modulate the variety of language one employs based on the social contexts and interlocutory expectations found within a conversation.  Aragorn’s ability to do this not only adds a convincing and authentic layer of realism to the narrative (a specialty of Tolkien and his fantasy), but also furthers aspects of his character:  Aragorn is not only worthy to occupy his inherited status as a King in the line of Isildur, but he is also a well-travelled and rustic Ranger of the North who himself encounters both the lowest of common folk and the most vile of enemies.  The linguistic clues of code-switching help make this characterization valid and tenable.

Given the importance placed on variations within spoken language by Tolkien seen above, I found it initially peculiar that Tolkien appears to dismiss the importance of accents in Letter 193 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.  In this letter to BBC producer Terrence Tiller on a Lord of the Rings television program, Tolkien urges him to “avoid certain, actual or conventional, features of modern ‘vulgar’ English,” as he believes “no accent-differentiation is needed or desirable” (Letters 253).  Given the potential of accents to reveal linguistic divergences and as practical theatrical tools to highlight characterization, accents would seem to be just the tools Tolkien would make use of if his work were not confined to written mediums.  However, Tolkien defends his position as such:

I have no doubt that if this ‘history’ were real, all users of the Common Speech (C.S.) would reveal themselves by their accent, differing in people, place, and rank, but that cannot be represented when C.S. is turned into English – and is not (I think) necessary.  I paid great attention to such linguistic differentiation as was possible: in diction, idiom, and so on” (Letters 254).

This defense not only rebuts the necessity of accents and reveals Tolkien’s own consciousness of their linguistic merit, but also hints at a final key aspect of style: its attachment to “people, place, and rank.”

Finally, I believe it to be primarily in the poetic register that style serves most importantly as an indicator of culture.  Poems and songs are widely interspersed in The Lord of the Rings and form a large segment of Tolkien’s external works, such as The Lays of Beleriand.  In all its appearances in Tolkien’s work, the poetic register serves almost as a conduit for carrying the overflowing of culture, being employed for history, merry-making, and other similar non-essential functions indicative of healthily productive and vibrant societies.  Given the cultural significance of the poetic register, any differences in the poetry and song of a people also indicates the different values, experiences, and mores of that people.  In a thematic reading of Canto III of “Lay of Leithian” as an exemplary Elven work, we can readily identify the importance of imagery of the natural world (“shaggy woods, birds of Melian, et alt.) in casting a richly detailed vision of history.  Similarly, one can observe terseness and extensive references to smithy crafts and precious minerals (“As gems upon a silver thread, et alt.) within Dwarven verse in Gimli’s retelling of Durin’s Saga in book II chapter 4 of The Lord of the Rings.  This cultural reading of Tolkien’s poetry even extends to Men and Hobbits, with such cultural values as bravery being communicated through Rohirric verse, and Hobbit tales (excluding of course the Red Book of Westmarch) exalting levity and pastoralism.

Having reflected on these variations, themselves very varied, I have found quite a new appreciation for the subtleties of the linguistic and literary efforts J.R.R. Tolkien took to craft truly authentic mimesis for Middle Earth.  Both in poetry and prose and throughout the internal registers of each, he could gird his story with noticeable style without it coming off as either overbearing or trite.

-C. Abbott

1 comment:

  1. I am intrigued by the question of accent that you raise. It is curious that Tolkien says it was not needed in order to show the differences between his characters. What might he be reacting to here? There is a strong propensity in modern (19th and early 20th century) English literature to use accent as a way of differentiating social class. Does Tolkien's reticence suggest something about his understanding of class and its importance to his story-world? Perhaps something about his understanding of Christianity, as we talked about in class? RLFB