Tolkien the Terrible




It is almost impossible to sustain well-tuned, pitch-perfect prose over thousands of pages; even Tolstoy and Balzac have their rough patches — or rather, especially Tolstoy and Balzac, souls so teeming and volcanic with life that the writing can feel rushed forward by the irresistible geologic force of thought behind them, leaving no time to trim and polish. When Tolkien lapses, it is not into roughness, alas, but into a boring and bloodless pseudo-refinement. Roughness would be preferable to this:

Gandalf was shorter in stature than the other two; but his long white hair, his sweeping silver beard, and his broad shoulders, made him look like some wise king of ancient legend. In his aged face under great snowy brows his dark eyes were set like coals that could leap suddenly into fire. (220)

“Like some wise king of ancient legend”: Come on, Tolkien, are you asleep? As for the eyes “set like coals that could leap suddenly into fire” — well, sometimes the movie does it better.

Glorfindel was tall and straight; his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music; on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength. (220)

This might have been written by a twelve-year-old, so stale, flat and unprofitable are the adjectives and comparisons. If this is not juvenile writing, then it is the prose of a man who is not sufficiently interested in his subject to see it clearly; one can almost hear the snoring in each semi-colon. The soporific potency of such prose increases when Tolkien attempts to portray a female Elf:

Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost; her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver. (221)

On reading such language, this reader for one feels slightly sick, and begins to crave the acrid poison of a writer like Balzac; poison at least can penetrate, whereas Tolkien at his worst merely drones. Each phrase here strains cloyingly at an impression of archaic nobility, a straining that occasionally tears a muscle: “the light of the stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night”? Tolkien, wake up! How grey is a cloudless night, how bright is the grey of a cloudless night? The falsity and hollowness of the prose at these moments suggests to me either that Tolkien is attempting an effect of elevation that he does not feel — or that he has made a mistake in trying to render these through Frodo’s eyes, rather than Sam’s. Elves always come out rich and radiant when percolated through Sam’s transcendent spirit, whereas it is the quiet and contented moments of elfdom that filter to us best through Frodo:

He walked along the terraces above the loud-flowing Bruinen and watched the pale, cool sun rise above the far mountains and shine down, slanting through the thin silver mist; the dew upon the yellow leaves was glimmering, and the woven nets of gossamer twinkled on every bush. (233)

This is far more beautiful than the labored prettiness of the description of Arwen above; it is more particularized, the sentence rhythm less torpid, the diction less pretentious. Tolkien seems to be awake and looking, because he is genuinely interested in the details of the journey. Ultimately, perhaps, epic elevation bores him too; it is the observant intensity of the lyrical attitude that brings him to life, because it gives foundation and meaning to the heroic quest. No wonder he chose hobbits as his heroes, and not some cardboard warrior.


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