Friday, April 14, 2017

The Necessity of Tolkien's Style

Is Tolkien really a mix between Wagner and Winnie the Pooh? 

Critics have described Tolkien’s works of fantasy as a rude mixture between Wagner and Winnie the Pooh.  However, other critics defend his work as an integral piece of the entire fantasy genre.  At the surface level, Tolkien’s works may indeed be viewed as just another piece of literature discussing the tales of elves, wizards, and all sorts of odd creatures.  Nonetheless, it does not take much effort to peel away at this surface to reveal the mastery of Tolkien’s ability to create an entire world filled with various unique characters, detailed geographical maps, and a wide spectrum of language.

Le Guin defends Tolkien’s fantasy from these critics by first comparing it to lesser works of fantasy in her opinion.  She picks out an excerpt from one of these “fantasies” and replaces just four of the words with their modern equivalents (Le Guin, 81).  The resulting product is a paragraph that could be describing a very modern and realistic event instead of something taking place in a fantasy world.  For Le Guin, this is proof that this work is not actually fantasy or at least very poorly written fantasy.  In contrast, the same exercise could not be used on Tolkien’s writings without changing half of the words in the excerpt.  The difference is that Tolkien does not merely use elvish sounding names or the archaic forms of modern English words.  Instead, all of the dialogue and narration seems to be from another world yet, at the same time, sounds familiar.  Le Guin says, “The archaic manner is indeed a perfect distancer, but you have to do it perfectly. It’s a high wire: one slip spoils all” (Le Guin, 85-86).  

Tolkien is able to distinguish himself from other fantasy writers by giving his readers information on his characters such as their history, class, and places of origin by merely focusing on how each character speaks.  One can distinguish an elf from a dwarf and a human without any contextual clues except for the dialect of speech used.  For instance, Elrond is one of the oldest characters mentioned in The Lord of the Rings and therefore, uses the most archaic and eloquent speech.  Conversely, Gimli’s sentences are very short and often disjointed.  Finally, Aragorn is able to adjust his speech depending on whom he is talking to.  When talking to Butterbur in the Prancing Pony, he uses more colloquial language but when he talks to Boromir who is of a higher class, Aragorn elects to use more archaic language.  Shippey explains in Author of the Century that “People draw information not only from what is said, but from how it is said” (Shippey, 76).  

This is true also in the poetry and songs that are recited throughout The Lord of the Rings.  These poems at the very least often show the history and style of the race of the person reciting them.  During the Council of Elrond, Boromir recites:

“Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand” (Lord of the Rings, Bk. 2, Ch. 2)

This poem came both to Boromir and his brother in a dream, but it concerns the people of many nations if they are to discern its true meaning.  “Imladris” or Rivendell requires the knowledge of the Elves, the “Morgul-spells” necessitate awareness of the Men of Gondor, understanding of “Isildur’s Bane” only comes with familiarity with the Ring, and one gains that familiarity only by knowing what a “Halfling” is.  This lore may have only come to the people of Minas Tirith, but it requires the study of how all of the unique cultures of Middle-Earth are actually deeply interwoven.  It acts as a prophecy in which its true understanding lies in the knowledge of many different peoples.  This stresses just how important the Council of Elrond was in establishing their goals and what actions to take with the Ring.  To unpack the prophesy in its entirety, the Council needed one person from each of the different races.  This explains why, at the Council of Elrond, there are twelve different speakers and seven of which that have not been introduced to the reader beforehand (Shippey, 69).

Therefore, Tolkien’s unique style is a necessary part in the making of his fantasy.  These different styles allow the reader access to supplemental, but often critical, meaning beyond just the words on the page.  If this style was nonexistent, Tolkien’s fantasy would simply not work.  It would truly be characterized as in the same level of mastery as Winnie the Pooh.  However, Tolkien’s attachment of different dialects, word choice, and accents to specific races allows the reader enter into the numerous layers of his fantasy. 



  1. Could you give some examples other than the ones that LeGuin and Shippey analyze so as to test their arguments about Tolkien's style? For example, from the poetry? RLFB

  2. I agree with your general point that Tolkien's use of dialect and other similar devices helps give his fantasy deeper layers of meaning. I wanted to provide an additional example that, beyond functioning in the same way as the examples you give above, provides what I think is a further layer of meaning that I’ve always found interesting. Upon the arrival of part of the Fellowship in Edoras, Aragorn recites an old Rohirric poem, translated in to the Common Tongue, that reads in part “Where now the horse and rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? . . . The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.” This poem bears a cadence and aura of melancholy distinct form that of other poetry found in The Lord of The Rings. It serves, as with other poetry and songs in Tolkien’s works, to provide a window into the culture of the Rohirrim and set it apart even from other cultures of Men. However, this particular poem I believe plays another role as well. The opening lines of this poem are clearly drawn from an Old English poem called The Wanderer that, translated into modern English, has a section that reads roughly “Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? . . . How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night, as if it had never been!” This parallelism helps add an additional degree of realism to Tolkien’s work by tying it in some way to Europe’s actual collective past. I don’t know if other such examples exist in Tolkien’s writing, but I think the idea that Tolkien’s use of dialects serves not only to differentiate people in his writings but to make them more immediate to the reader is an important one. -EI