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
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