The Power of Tolkien’s Prose

The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle Earth’s Magical Style

by Steve Walker

Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

JRR Tolkien is the writer of a number of fictional works all of which have been widely read and two of which have inculcated themselves so fiercely into popular culture that it is impossible to disassociate them from the general history of the 20th Century. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are two of the most well-known literary works ever produced; the Lord of the Rings is the single most widely read book in history, bar the Bible.  Nevertheless, academic study of Tolkien’s work has remained to this day stifled and largely ignored. Of course, popularity is itself no guarantor of “literary greatness”, but it certainly suggests that there is something inherent (rather than merely tangential) about a work that causes it to be consistently cherished by successive generations of people all over the world.

Regardless, a book as long and as rich as the Lord of the Rings has yet to receive the attention it deserves from academia. Unfortunately, it probably never will. It fails to conform to the paradigms of familiar literary history: it is not a work of Modernist angst (although it shares some features in common with the Modernists), and it can hardly be called postmodernist in style or aesthetic. Neither is it a 19th Century bildungsroman in the style of Crime and Punishment, or a Kafaesque piece of science fiction nonetheless acceptable as “Literature” because keeps away from those nasty aliens. No, there’s too many of them in Tolkien; in the form of elves, dwarves and most detestably, diminutive humans with hairy feet – Hobbits. Of course, these elements are all peripheral: the real reason academia doesn’t like Tolkien is because it despises his aesthetic, in all its manifestations.

Tolkien is too…black and white, too trite, to unstylish, a bad writer, obsessed with invented languages, an ignorant donnish cad, and most brutally, not a “real writer” at all, but a “world maker” in the words of Bryan Appleyard. These and other questions are tackled by Professor Steve Walker of Brigham Young University in his new polemic, The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle Earth’s Magical Style. In short, Walker argues that Tolkien has mainly been misunderstood, by his supporters as well as his detractors. If nothing else, this breathes a little fresh air into the sometimes rather partisan approach that critics bring to Tolkien studies.

Walker contends that “…critical contradiction provides a key to Tolkien’s art…”, that the myriad contradictory opinions on Tolkien cannot merely be explained away by appealing to critics’ ignorance or stupidity, as Tom Shippey has sometimes argued. For Walker “Tolkien’s mode is vivid ambiguity” characterised by “literary power from emotive polarities” and a literary space where “fantasy verges on deepest reality, tall tale approaches archetype…and…metaphor assumes actuality and flexibility finds lasting form, where semantic language comes perilously and provocatively close to life”. This is an appealing hypothesis, and if Walker sometimes falls short of explaining as well as possible some aspects of Tolkien’s style, it is not for want of enthusiasm. Certainly, Walker’s book goes some way towards opening a new door for Tolkien studies to an area that refuses to be dominated by the popular source analysis questions (which have been done to death by Shippey and others, but are of course important). For a long time, Tolkien studies appears to have suffered from this obsession with the sources. Where do orcs and ents come from? What about elves and hobbits. No doubt, this is interesting, but it doesn’t actually say much about what exactly Tolkien was attempting to do, let alone examine the aesthetic effects that novels like The Lord of the Rings have had on various readers. It’s as if when discussing Joyce we only ever think about Ulysses in terms of Homer’s Odyssey, an obviously fallacious approach. Of course, Shippey and others have also been interested in Tolkien’s context as a 20th Century writer (Shippey’s famous study of Tolkien is after all called Author of the Century, meaning this century), but the examination of Tolkien’s fiction for all its peculiarity and uniqueness has unfortunately seemed, to me at least, to have taken a back seat behind the study of its illustrious transcriber.

Instead of taking that road, Walker’s nicely crafted little book takes a look at different aspects of Tolkien’s writing in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, engaging in a close reading of Tolkien’s prose without taking its effects for granted and without treating it as something worthy only of secondary study. In other words, Walker treats Tolkien like a writer, or more precisely, a novelist. He does not pander to Tolkien as a philologist, as a linguist, or as an inventor of language, for although these were certainly dimensions to Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings did not merely come about as a result of philological experimentation. He was a prose writer of English, and it is in that capacity that he is examined by Walker. For this reason, Walker’s book is something truly new in Tolkien criticism, bar maybe Brian Rosebury’s fantastic Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, which presents a similar argument based on aesthetic criteria.

The central thesis of the book is that Tolkien’s prose has been deliberately crafted to evoke, not merely provoke, a kind of meaningful ambiguity. Therebye readers are encouraged to become as involved in the process of generating meaning as the author ultimately is. “This invitational prose is so carefully etched it can disclose not only the actuality of the transcendent, but also that deeper miracle: the numinousness of the common place”. Just as Tolkien himself argued in his essay On Fairy Stories that Fantasy can serve as a kind of reawakening, a cipher between the mundane and the transcendent, so Walker argues that Tolkien’s work is itself brought to life not by an over gluttenous application of circuitous prose, but by the calculated evocation of places, peoples and characters in stylistically sparse though descriptively rich passages. “What becomes evident when we zero in on Tolkien style is how strikingly invitational this prose is…” Walker cites several responses to Tolkien’s work as evidence of its inherent and deliberate ambiguity. “On the one hand, doubters accuse that “all too often, Tolkien asserts rather than demonstrates”. On the equally skeptical other hand, there are those who think “Tolkien tends rather to over complicate – not to purpose, but in detail,” causing the reader to lose himself in “a mass of detail which is itself vibrant with imaginative energy”. That striking critical dissonance, that contradictory reaction  to both an apparent absence of detail and at the same time the presence of particularised detail so profuse it swamps the creation, provides paradoxical proof of the careful crafting of Tolkien’s ambiguity.”

Of course, it could be argued that all writers seek to create ambiguity and that Tolkien is not unique in that respect. However, Walker seems to be arguing that  Tolkien employs a kind of ambiguous prose in order to generate the particular effects that readers often mention: a sense of otherworldliness and of otherness cloaked in familiarity. Walker sets out to demonstrate the particularities of Tolkien’s approach, citing several Tolkienian tropes, including the use of ubi sunt passages, (Where now is the horse and the rider…), which “elicit perspectives of the future from visions of the past”, his use of bildungsroman in the Hobbit, and Tolkien’s tendency to “undercut epic” to bring “larger than life epic values down to essentially lifelike dimensions.” Walker is most interesting, however, when discussing Tolkien’s use of allusion, which he says “fosters an aura of expectancy that encourages the reader to find in its statements the ripples of expansive implicit meaning.” According to Walker, this kind of implied meaning is best observed in Tolkien’s conscious evocation of understated meaning. Walker cites the example of Celebrian, the mother of Arwen, who in Middle-earth “suffers torment”. Walker suggests that “the intensity of torment is typical of the power with which Middle-earth’s ironic attitude magnetizes its words.” Earlier he states that “…typically, the understatement is itself understated”, when “Tolkien provok[es] semantic power from unimposing words with uncanny efficiency”. Ultimately, it is this visceral, understated and richly allusional prose that “manage[s] to multiply meaning” in Tolkien’s work and provides such a rich tapestry for readers. It is a style that consistently “tends toward ramification rather than reductiveness” or absoluteness. This is an enlightening new approach to Tolkien. Unlike past critics, Walker does not  implicate Tolkien for being to wordy of damn him for being too sparse.

Instead, Walker approaches Tolkien as a writer who knew something of his craft and his purpose. Walker contends that above all else, Tolkien was an effective writer, and that it is his effectiveness as a writer that accounts for much of his popularity. Tolkien’s capacity to imply meaning, not merely to state it, to make it ambiguous, multifaceted and ironic on several levels is what, for Walker, defines Tolkien. Yes, all authors “imply” their meaning on some level. Modern writers, particularly, are fond of ambiguity, stressing the value of shifting, “plastic” unfixed meaning. But in Tolkien’s case, this approach is fully integrated into his writing and it is fundamentally aesthetic in nature: both an affirmation of familiar reality and and evocation of the possibilities inherent in meanings usually taken as “metaphor”, as some device for grounding a more real thing or experience (For more on this consult Verlyn Flieger’s excellent study of the The Silmarillion, Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World.) In Tolkien’s world, metaphor is often actualized, wherein the Witch-king can “pass into the shadows” and literally do “everything that statement might intimate”. For Walker Tolkien’s language possesses a unique power in this respect; a capacity to push the limits of perception and confuse the readers’ spatial, moral and aesthetic sense of direction, paradoxically immersing the reader ever more vividly in the world of the text. It is “prose that undertakes to be simultaneously realistic and emblematic as well as ironic, aurally sensitive, allusive, and narratively vital…” It is in every way rich and complexly layered, so that having read Walker’s book, Tolkien emerges, perhaps as never before, as a powerful writer, one ironically in control and yet determined to make it appear as if he is but a spectator.

Following from his examination of style, Walker asserts that Tolkien’s moral meanings are plural and not textually determined. Although Tolkien the author certainly had certain ideas and morals, Walker tends rather to emphasise Tolkien the writer here again. Walker does not argue that Tolkien is an invisible presence, nor a cipher for impersonal preachy values, but is an author, and being an author, writes a book that is in places contradictory and in no way dogmatic. This, perhaps, is the central thesis of Walker’s study: Being a writer, as opposed to a philosopher or a preast,  means that one’s profession is in some sense the obfuscation of meaning rather than its revelation. Tolkien, suggests Walker, was no different in this respect. “Readers of Tolkien, on the other hand, fall all over themselves to find in his writing political, religious, and especially social visions of truth…” This is not to intimate that literature is without vision or truth, or that it can be biased and prejudiced. But it should qualify the common assumption that an author sets out with a moral in mind, if not a fully blown message, and that that moral is harmoniously conveyed through the world of the text. In Tolkien, as in the postmodern writers of today, morality consists of “an embarrassment of riches…interpretations of a magnitude reminiscent of the innumerable denominational readings of the Bible.”

In the end, “Language is Tolkien’s bottom-line means of imaginative expansion” says Walker. “His prose is taut with semantic ambiguities tending to widen potential meaning – the contradictory consonances of paradox, the incremental implications of an emblem, the topsy-turvy profundity irony…Middle earth is a place where the invisible has palpable impact, where the impossible can be experienced.”

Walker’s examination of Tolkien’s prose is commendable for its detail as well as its new approach. But reading the book I consistently felt that it was only a beginning, an opening, and certainly in no way the final word on the matter of Tolkien’s fiction, his prose, his style and his aesthetic. If anything, there are many more questions raised than answers, but importantly they are questions that up to now have not been given nearly enough attention. What are the implications for our understanding of Tolkien in light of Walker’s revelatory work? Who knows, but I desperately hope it opens the floodgates for a new breed of critics who will be willing to engage with Tolkien as a serious writer of engaging and important fiction.

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