Thread: Writing style/turns of phrase
I love reading and rereading Tolkien's books, but I find that most other people have trouble getting into it. This is not surprising, since it's not for everyone, but what does surprise me is the comments I get from people about what they got when they did read LOTR.
Friends of mine who liked LOTR have trouble reading The Silmarillion, and give up on The Unfinished Tales. Apparently they have trouble with the Professor's writing style and his way of turning a phrase. I myself find it easy to read and quite lyrical in its classical, one might almost say "High", style. A perfect example is his opening sentence, which still captures my imagination to this day: "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." In these days, someone else might have written "Once there was a creature called a hobbit who lived in a hole in the ground."
Or another of my favorite quotes, this time from The Silmarillion: "The meeting of the hosts of the West and of the North is called the Great Battle and the War of Wrath. There was marshalled the whole power of the Throne of Morgoth, and it had become great beyond count, so that Anfauglith could not contain it, and all the north was aflame with war. But it availed him not..."
Does anyone else have trouble with his writing style, or heard from anyone else who has trouble
understanding his turns of phrase and his style of writing? My friends refuse to read The Silmarillion, saying that it reads too much like the Bible, so they defer to me when it comes to knowledge of LOTR.
I hope to get a nice discussion started with this.
*The Wood Beyond the World, and The Well at the World's End,
It's been related that JRRT owned nearly all of Morris' works, and that CJRT had a clear recollection of having been read The House of the Wolfings by his father. Carpenter thought that Tolkien enjoyed the tale because Morris' view of literature coincided with his (JRRT's) -- Morris trying to recreate the excitement he had found in the pages of early English and Icelandic narratives. He described Morris' style in this tale as highly idiosyncratic, heavily laden with archaisms and poetic inversions in an attempt to create the aura of ancient legend (all that thanks to Hammond And Scull incidentally). I've read some Morris, but not enough yet.
Having already read most of it in various forms, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Children of Húrin recently (which for me proves CJRT's point in publishing it regarding the experience of the book).
I can see how some would not find The Silmarillion their cup of tea, but it was right up my alley even as a teen. Of course I'm so 'aged' I had to wait a bit for it to be published (still quite young according to Elvish Long Years however). Gergely Nagy wrote a very interesting piece on the poetry of The Silmarillion, but as the essay is somewhat long for a post (and I'm not really allowed to reproduce the whole thing here anyway) I'll just quote some of the beginning and the summary, and one 'middle' piece intended to support only one part of the analysis.
The Silmarillion is perhaps the linguistically most refined work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Polished for a lifetime, it is not surprising that it is written in a most remarkable and memorable of styles. In fact it has more than one style (as it is more than one text). Several distinct styles can be found in the variants of the Silmarillion tradition, which David Bratman distinguishes as the Annalistic, Antique, and the Appendical.
Further grounding is available in this class of instances for the interaction of prose and verse traditions, the stylistic conventions for central/climactic scenes, and I believe that even something about the compositional principles and methods, some of the implied cultural context of the poetry can be recovered. The first such important passage from the Túrin story is:
Then Túrin stood stone still and silent, staring
on that dreadful death, knowing what he had done. (S 208)
The image itself is part of the prose tradition; but that, in turn, and much of the actual wording of the text as well, goes back to the verse Túrin (ll. 1273-74):
stone-faced he stood standing frozen
on that dreadful death his deed knowing
Nearly all the alliterating words, together with the alliteration pattern itself, doubtless derive from the poem; the imagery and to some extent the very phrasing of this very moving central scene traveled between the versions virtually unchanged.
Tolkien's texts work in a variety of ways to produce depth behind themselves. This feeling of depth can be illusory, or it can be real: I hope to have shown that at least in some instances in the Silmarillion, the "poetic depth" created by the adapted texts is very real. For, returning to the earlier counterpoint, even if we say that these are not "adapted poetic texts" but simply "poetic prose," we have presupposed poetic style and poetic convention already. Like Old English "rhythmical prose," which is very hard to differentiate from Old English "alliterative verse proper," the adapted texts cannot be proclaimed non-poetic and their poetic suggestions denied. If we did not know alliterative verse, its patterns and beats, we would never be able to detect "rhythmical prose": we judge poetic prose in terms of (and in forms of) poetry, and this finally shows that poetry is the reference point. It is a fact of cultural history that narratives are composed first in verse (which offers better mnemotechnical opportunities) and only then in prose: Tolkien's text and Tolkien's world follow this rule.
In striving for verisimilitude and authenticity, Tolkien apparently repeats cultural history. One cannot write a mythology, primarily because myths are not written; what is great about Tolkien is that he manages to write not only texts but traditions. He goes even further: he supplies the background of his narratives with poetic traditions which are not there—but the very supposition uncovering this fact is based on pieces which are there, actual fragments from fictitious poetic traditions. This congenial device makes use of the painstaking stylistic refinement, and again shows up how important textual transmission is to the interpretation of Tolkien—indeed, how very crucial textuality is in Tolkien's mythopoesis.
In terms of primary interpretation, this is significant and is perfectly integrated to the system of the Silmarillion. This work is not only about telling stories that go with other stories (like The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit): it is about the story of stories, both in a historical and a metafictional sense. Tolkien shows us how narratives are preserved; yet not only narratives are his concern but also language, the actual words that tell the tale. The preservation of style together with matter is a well-known phenomenon, as is the editor's and redactor's leveling of style. The Silmarillion discusses how stories come to be told in exactly these words: either the author (origin) or the editor/redactor (transmission) is conscious of the stylistic conventions. Both ways, the point is the existence and content of the conventions; Tolkien manages to have it both ways, and say something both about the nature of the poetic narrative sources (the cultural contexts, contents, and use) and the implied manuscript context (transmission). The Silmarillion, exactly as it stands in the 1977 text, is a profound work: an anatomy of story.
I said earlier that Tolkien's texts have subtle ways to create depth behind themselves, and I have examined in detail one of these ways; but it has in this inquiry, I hope, become clear that Tolkien has even subtler ways to fill this depth. The Silmarillion text, being a compilation of traditions and an editorial text, both in the primary and the textual worlds, works very much like an actual manuscript, holding in itself traces not only of the traditions that went into its making, but very often of the actual texts. This is no lost poetry of Tolkien, however; this is Tolkien's prose, paradoxically, one might say, giving us a glimpse of the lost poetry of Beleriand. G. Nagy