Thursday, April 13, 2017

Too Fantastic to be Real or Too Real to be Fantastic? Tolkien's Careful Stylistic Balance

Great works of fantasy are marked by the very important quality of being able to sweep readers off their feet. These works transport us to other worlds where we are fully immersed in the actions, the dramas, and the emotional ins and outs of the characters who we grow to love as dearly as our friends in the "real" world. A richly detailed and colorful world is necessary to produce this quality, and Tolkien accomplishes this in The Lord of the Rings. But, that is only one small piece of an enormous puzzle. In order for fantasy to truly take us away, a careful balance must be struck. The text has to be just real enough to hook us, and just fantastic enough to take us away. 

On the one hand, a work of fantasy has to be tangible enough for the reader to identify with the text. We have to be able to understand it, and interact with it. Otherwise, it will fail to draw us in. For example, in Tokien's letter to Houghton Mifflin in June 1955, he writes that he should have, "preferred to write in Elvish" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 219). Had Tolkien's preference been realized and he had written the entirety of the story in the Elvish tongue, well, that would have made it substantially more difficult to understand and enjoy. Even when it comes to the use of plain English (or the language of the author's intended audience) it is important to avoid archaisms that will prevent the reader from steadily being able to plod along with the story. How can one be swept off their feet if they need to consult a dictionary every sentence and a half? The prose cannot be too fantastic to be real. 

On the other hand, a work of fantasy has to be able to transport the reader somewhere. The reader needs somewhere to go in order for that quality to be produced. This means that a work of fantasy cannot read simply like every day speech. Ursula LeGuin makes this point very clear in her text, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie." There, she explains that fantasy almost requires the use of archaic, older styles of prose because that is what creates the distance that allows the reader to be moved somewhere else, to another place and to another time. The prose cannot be too real to be fantastic. When a piece of fantasy can do that, the author is said to have style. 

J.R.R. Tolkien has style. We see that in his masterful command of English prose and poetry throughout all of his texts. Each character's manner of speaking, in the remarkably consistent yet still natural rhythm of his longer and shorter works of poetry, weaved seamlessly throughout this prose. It is clear, at the very least based on my experience of reading The Lord of the Rings, that Tolkien does strike this careful balance. When I am reading the adventure of Frodo and his friends, I feel just as much a part of Middle Earth as the rest. 

However, it would be an enormous mistake to only examine The Lord of the Rings, without looking at any of the other texts that make up this complete world. It would also be a shame to analyze just the prose, as LeGuin has done, instead of the poetry that also an important part of making these works fantastic. As such, I would like to show how J.R.R. Tolkien balances his poems so that they are just fantastic enough to be real, and just real enough to be fantastic. I will do this through a discussion of Canto III of the "Lay of Leithian" from Lays of Beleriand. 

The Lay of Leithian is a poem much older than the story narrated in The Lord of The Rings, a small part of which Legolas recounts to Frodo and their companions when they reach Lothlorien (Book II, Chapter VI). When we look at the poem in full, we see that Tolkien did exercise a lot of freedom with the order of the words in the versus. For example, lines 610-612 read:

'A stranger walks the woods! Away!'

But Luthien would wondering stay;
fear had she never felt or known, 

As we can see here, the word order has been changed radically here in order to preserve rhyme and rhythm. If we were to 'translate' this verse into more modern sounding English, it could possibly read:

Leave! A stranger walks in the woods!
But Luthien stayed, wondering, 
For she had never felt or known fear. 

Despite the idea that we could change the word order to make the verse easier to understand, we see that it is not quite necessary. Tolkien's choice of words, or diction, still includes words that we are familiar with. Therefore, he is able to use the more flexible medium of poetry to balance archaic grammar structures with easily identifiable words. This is not to say, however, that Tolkien does not also use older, less familiar words as well. The poem includes many words we no longer come across in every day speech such as "lo" "forwandered" and "wayworn". In addition to the odd place names and character names interspersed throughout the poem, despite the generous use of modern-day nouns and adjectives, it is still remarkable that the poem does not become too fantastic for us the reader to identify with the story being told. 

When we consider the length as well, it is easy to see how poem like this would fail to sweep a reader off their feet, and instead force them to lose their way. However, the strict structure of rhyme and rhythm prevent this from happening. The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. Iambs, or pairs of stressed and unstressed beats, are said to sound natural to the ear of an English speaker. Indeed, some of the oldest English poems are written in iambic tetrameter. The steadiness of this rhythm means that one can almost predict the line that is to come. This predictability of rhythm lets us feel comfortable in a poem that could easily become overwhelming. The rhyme scheme does something similar. The poem is written in perfect rhyming couplets. The steadiness of the rhymes also eases us into the poem, dividing it into easily digested two-line chunks, as opposed to having to swallow entire versus. 

There is no doubt that Tolkien's prose throughout The Lord of the Rings balances the archaic feel necessary to transport us to the fantasy world of his creation, yet hits close enough to home so that we actually can engage with the text. He accomplishes this through his style, and also with the choices of fragments from the real world and human-like characters he uses to tell the story. However, on the level of just one poem, it is important to note that we also see this balance at play. The poem has an older, fantasy flavor, yet still manages to keep the reader engaged throughout. 

It sweeps this reader off her feet. 



  1. Reading your post, for some reason I thought of James Joyce, writing at about the same time as Tolkien and making zero concessions to his readers, at least in "Finnegan's Wake." I am not sure "balance" is quite the issue here, although I could see how the mixture of styles that I pointed to could suggest that. LeGuin's point is that the Lords of Elfland do *not* speak in a style that readers necessarily find easy. What is interesting is that Tolkien manages to make us think that his style *is* readable--not all critics have agreed! RLFB

  2. Take my opinion with a grain of salt since I have no familiarity with medieval poetry, but I've never found any of the poetry in Tolkien's works to be all that dissimilar from other poetry. I'd put the poetry found in LoTR on level with, for example, Emily Dickinson in readability (which I suppose is part of the point, he doesn't want its language to be too thick or incomprehensible). I suppose this is part of the "faux old English" that Le Guin talks about, which gives the reader the impression of a different time period while remaining familiar, but as a result I'd say that the poetry more often than not seems fantastical due to its subject matter, not its style.

    This isn't to say that the stylistic differences in the poems within Tolkien don't contribute to them though. Within Tolkien there are poems which are closer to prophecies (e.g. Bilbo's poem to Frodo about Aragorn) and others which are closer to old myths (like the Lay of Leithian or Tom Bombadil's stories). Personally I'd say both of these styles are equally readable, and I find it interesting how Tolkien uses these two styles to add flavor to the bits of lore he adds into LoTR.