Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tolkien's Style (Nobel, con't)

So, one point I wanted to follow up on in my previous post about the news of Tolkien's having been nominated (though obviously as a long shot*) for a Nobel Prize in literature was focusing in on the specific reason given for his rejection: literary critic Anders Osterling's judgment that Tolkien's prose did "not in any way measur[e] up to storytelling of the highest quality". David Bratman, in his comment on my original post, points out the difficulty involved in judging the prose style of a work in a foreign language. I don't know how members of the Swedish academy generally handle this -- it's unlikely they're all fluent in all the languages in which the major nominees write -- but I'd think they'd be wary of making stylistic judgments based on translations. Something worth finding out more about.

In any case, I don't think Osterling's charge shd pass unanswered. Even though made fifty years ago, its only being released now means that it'll soon be seized upon by Tolkien bashers as evidence that Tolkien's really not a literary figure but simply a pop-cultural phenomenon.**

Attacks on Tolkien's style are endemic, but oddly enough some of them come from people who are otherwise well-disposed to Tolkien's work, in the midst of essays which praise Tolkien and stress his importance as a writer, which is somewhat bizarre. Prime examples include Stephen Medcalf, whom I saw giving a major presentation in which he kept reading out loud individual sentences from LotR and saying how bad they were, as if it were self evident (neither I nor I think anyone else in the audience agreed). An early and influential example is Burton Raffel in his essay in Isaacs & Zimbardo (TOLKIEN & THE CRITICS, 1968) in which he pillories Tolkien's prose and suggests readers love this stuff purely because of the storytelling.

I don't know why Tolkien scholars have been so slow to challenging the Medcalfs and Raffels in their midsts, when they've been all too eager to take on clueless outsiders like Harold Bloom and Edmund Wilson. I've done what I cd in my recent articles, esp. the Marquette lecture that appeared in TOLKIEN STUDIES, "A Kind of Elvish Craft, Tolkien as Literary Craftsman", to argue that Tolkien is a v. careful stylist who deliberately weighed the effect of each word. The only person I know of who's made a spirited and detailed defense of Tolkien's style a major aspect of their work is Brian Rosebury in the two editions of his book (the first of which I greatly admire, the second of which I've only skimmed as yet). I hope there'll be more work along these lines, so that the Tolkien-bashers aren't met with silence or worse a half-grudging admission that one of the most widely read and obsessively re-read writers of our times really cdn't write v. well. Which is nonsense, pure and simple.

--John R.


current reading: THE CHINESE LAKE MURDERS by Rbt Van Gulik

*does CSL's nominating him demonstrate that Lewis was prescient about a great writer in their midst who had not yet been recognized (which is how I'd like to take it) or simply prone to cronyism (which the evidence of the whole making Adam Fox Professor of Poetry and promoting his pad Ch. Wms as among the greatest poets of the century)? Or, perhaps, some mix of the two?

**there were no comments on the Guardian piece when I first read it, but later that same day there were a long string, and even a quick skim of a few showed the Tolkien-bashers were already out in force. Any popular author, or director, or actor, generates a crowd of anti-fans who delight to deprecate his or her work at any opportunity, and Tolkien is no exception.


Anonymous said...

Steve Walker has recently published The Power of Tolkien's Prose: Middle-earth's Magical Style (Palgrave) which is another well argued defence of Tolkien's style. It gets a good review in Tolkien Studies as helping to fill a gap in Tolkien scholarship. Walker argues that Tolkien is a master of language, symbol and style.

David Bratman said...

It was not all that enthusiastic a review, and I'll be even less enthusiastic when the book comes around to me. I found it vague and waffling, pathetically poor when compared to Rosebury's brilliant work.

Also, nobody whose own prose style is as terminally flat-footed as Walker's should be evaluating anyone else's prose.

N.E. Brigand said...

See also Michael Drout's recent comments on Tolkien's prose in light of the non-Nobel news.

I participated in a nine-part discussion of Burton Raffel's essay more than five years ago in the Reading Room forum at (link to index), in a series that also included discussions of Tolkien criticism by Edmund Wilson, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Nick Otty. The general consensus was that Raffel, misguided as some of his ideas were, was best of that group. As one participant said then, Raffel "praises LotR as literature in every sense except the most narrow possible definition, a definition he only defends because he seems to think it's part of his job."