September 02, 2013

Tolkien's revery

As we ramble through Lord of the Rings each night (currently negotiating with Faramir) I find myself admiring Tolkien's elaborate, verbose style.  Edmund Wilson (who did not sell nearly as many books), despised Tokien's prose in The Lord of the Rings, denouncing its "professorial amateurishness."

And I know all about that

He's right, I suppose, Tolkien does get carried away sometimes.  But would the book (I think of it all as one book) be better or worse without this sort of thing?
It was dreary and wearisome. Cold clammy winter still held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers.

I can't say I mind.  It's the sort of thing that annoyed mid-century critics, but sometimes they annoy me.  I can actually picture Wilson making a sour face as he reads this:
Before them dark in the dawn the great mountains reached up to roofs of smoke and cloud. Out from their feet were flung huge buttresses and broken hills that were now at the nearest scarce a dozen miles away. Frodo looked round in horror. Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.
They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor...

And I can imagine him throwing down the book as Tolkien's description of Ithilien becomes positively encyclopedic:
Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. 
South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel DĂșath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.

Yes, saxifrages.  You got a problem with that?

Wilson read The Lord of the Rings as a simple quest story, badly done, and consequently read Auden's admiration of The Lord of the Rings as occasioned by his own interest in quest stories:
What I believe has misled Mr. Auden is his own special preoccupation with the legendary theme of the Quest. He has written a book about the literature of the Quest; he has experimented with the theme himself in a remarkable sequence of sonnets; and it is to be hoped that he will do something with it on an even larger scale. In the meantime - as sometimes happens with works that fall in with one's interests - he no doubt so overrates The Lord of the Rings because he reads into it something that he means to write himself.

Wilson underestimated his man, of course. Lord of the Rings is not just a quest story - not even a book, or a trilogy, or a sextet.  It is a moderate portion of the dreams of a man so obsessed with languages that he invented his own, and equally obsessed with the relationship of language and memory.  Here (thanks to Kindle search) are some of the "lores" that appear in The Lord of the Rings:
  • herb-lore (several times)
  • hobbit lore
  • lore of Living Creatures
  • ancient lore
  • Elven lore
  • Shire lore

As the hobbits orbit Mordor I wonder if Tolkien is creating his own lore of the English countryside.  Perhaps he is naming and listing these things because he is afraid they will be forgotten, or already have beenIt bothers him that a human being might hear the word marjoram and not know what it is.  And he names the force that takes such things out of the world, and out of memory:  evil.

It might be bad writing, but it it is not without purpose.  And to paraphrase Tokien's friend C.S. Lewis, the world would be a better place if we had more bad writing like this.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

If it's "bad writing," then I'm a fan of "bad writing." So be it.

September 3, 2013 at 8:08 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home