When Tolkien Is Bad

Books you love, like people you love, can sometimes get on your nerves; sometimes they can annoy you so much that you avoid them for months, even years. In this essay I will let myself vent one last time on what I find deeply bothersome about Tolkien, before turning to the passages in which he shines as a great writer.

   Bluntly put — Tolkien’s warriors are cardboard. Their two-dimensional quality shows in interactions like his one, in which Aragorn and the other heroes approach King Theoden’s throne room and are addressed by the guard at the door:

‘I   Doorward of Théoden,’ he said. ‘Háma is my name. Here I must bid you lay aside your weapons before you enter.’

Then Legolas gave into his hand his silver-hafted knife, his quiver and his bow. ‘Keep these well,’ he said, ‘for they come from the Golden Wood and the Lady of Lothlórien gave them to me.’

Wonder came into the man’s eyes, and he laid the weapons hastily by the wall, as if he feared to handle them. ‘No man will touch them I promise you,’ he said.

Aragorn stood a while hesitating. ‘It is not my will,’ he said, ‘to put aside my sword or to deliver Andúril to the hand of any other man.’

‘It is the will of Théoden,’ said Háma.

‘It is not clear to me that the will of Théoden son of Thengel even though he be lord of the Mark, should prevail over the will of Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elendil’s heir of Gondor.’

‘This is the house of Théoden, not of Aragorn, even were he King of Gondor in the seat of Denethor,’ said Háma, stepping swiftly before the doors and barring the way. His sword was now in his hand and the point towards the strangers.

‘This is idle talk,’ said Gandalf. ‘Needless is Théoden’s demand, but it is useless to refuse. A king will have his way in his own hall, be it folly or wisdom.’

‘Truly,’ said Aragorn. ‘And I would do as the master of the house bade me, were this only a woodman’s cot, if I bore now any sword but Andúril.’

‘Whatever its name may be,’ said Háma, ‘here you shall lay it, if you would not fight alone against all the men in Edoras.’

‘Not alone!’ said Gimli, fingering the blade of his axe, and looking darkly up at the guard, as if he were a young tree that Gimli had a mind to fell. ‘Not alone!’

‘Come, come!’ said Gandalf. ‘We are all friends here. Or should be; for the laughter of Mordor will be our only reward, if we quarrel. My errand is pressing. Here at least is my sword, goodman Háma. Keep it well. Glamdring it is called, for the Elves made it long ago. Now let me pass. Come, Aragorn!’

(The Two Towers, p.115)

This childish spasm of heroic truculence would automatically disqualify Aragorn from any claim to statesmanship: 88 years old, and still engaging in manly chest-bumping about givng up his weapon? Gandalf’s comments are the cooling words of an adult to fiery children. Does Aragorn really not comprehend the normal courtesy required in an audience with another king in that king’s castle, and does he have no gracious sympathy and respect for the guard who has to demand this? Does his sense of majesty also not come with an understanding  that true kings ennoble their swords but do not need them to assert nobility? Legolas’ immediate compliance is a useful foil to Aragorn’s posturing, but Gimli’s hot-headed defiance is simply ludicrous. Who would go on a difficult journey with heroes who lose their self-control and wits so easily? I think that in his heart of hearts Tolkien knows that Aragorn is wiser than this, but here he cannot help lapsing into the rhetoric of a martial epic and can’t see, at this moment, how sadly pubescent it all sounds. 

   How does he do when he describes male-female interactions between members of the warrior class?

The woman turned and went slowly into the house. As she passed the doors she turned and looked back. Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood. And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt. For a moment still as stone she stood, then turning swiftly she was gone. (119)

“Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings.” These sentences could have been fan-fiction written by a twelve-year-old. The inversions of syntax (“strong she seemed and stern as steel”) are vain attempts to elevate drab and lifeless emotions. The overall effect is pictorial, Pre-Raphaelite, a rendering of expressive gesture but without genuine expressiveness.  

   Here at least Tolkien is trying to render some inner conflict and nuanced emotion through bodily movements; and he is being a novelist rather than a teller of tales in seeking to convey the meeting of two perspectives. I suspect that he fails not because he can’t write, but because he doesn’t really understand the electricity of romance. Besides, what electricity can possibly crackle in bosoms that are incapable of betrayal or self-betrayal? 

   No writer can do everything; with so many passages of great beauty in a large book, he can be forgiven his inability to write women and sexuality. But even when he tries to capture the transformation of a heroic soul, the result is simplistc and cartoonish:

Will you not take the sword?’ said Gandalf.

Slowly Théoden stretched forth his hand. As his fingers took the hilt, it seemed to the watchers that firmness and strength returned to his thin arm. Suddenly he lifted the blade and swung it shimmering and whistling in the air. Then he gave a great cry. His voice rang clear as he chanted in the tongue of Rohan a call to arms.

Arise now, arise, Riders of Théoden!

Dire deeds awake, dark is it eastward.

Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded!

Forth Eorlingas!

The guards, thinking that they were summoned, sprang up the stair. They looked at their lord in amazement, and then as one man they drew their swords and laid them at his feet. ‘Command us!’ they said. (122)

I find it hard to read passages like this aloud with a straight face. It is not the mythic imagery that I object to, but the fact that Tolkien tries too hard and says too much — as if he himself needs to be convinced. If he had ended at “Then he gave a great cry,” the passage would have been eloquent — more powerful through trusting the reader’s ability to imagine the magnificent. But Tolkien does not trust the reader’s capacity, so he has to put in the dreadful poetic call to arms as well as the reaction of the guards to make sure that we do not miss the full glory of the transfiguration. The prose suffers from lack of tact, which in this care involves lack of respect for the reader’s sensitivity and intelligence. This tactlessness, as I intend to show in my next essay, is not at all characteristic of Tolkien except when he is straining to write nobly.

   I do not skim or speedread, which is probably what I need to do to swallow this pap. After taking in every word for whole chapters at a stretch, I find myself mildly nauseated and yearning for a literary emetic, something harsh and a little bit poisonous, such as Balzac’s Cousin Bette:

Monsieur Hulot junior was in every respect the young Frenchman, as he has been moulded by the Revolution of 1830; his mind infatuated with politics, respectful of his own hopes, and concealing them under an affectation of gravity, very envious of successful men, making sententiousness do the duty of witty rejoinders—the gems of the French language—with a high sense of importance, and mistaking arrogance for dignity.

Such men are walking coffins, each containing a Frenchman of the past; now and again the Frenchman wakes up and kicks against his English-made casing; but ambition stifles him, and he submits to be smothered. The coffin is always covered with black cloth.

Every word, even in translation, is to be savored. The description succeeds in catching the difference between how someone sees himself and how he really appears, what he aspires to be and what he is; it exposes the layers of a soul, its vulnerabilities and self-protection. “Mistaking arrogance for dignity” is a concise expression of what Aragorn does in the quarrel about his sword, but it is not the kind of distinction that Tolkien ever articulates. “The coffin is always covered with a black cloth” is a richly hyperbolic observation about the deadliness of confusing solemnity for seriousness. The irony of a passage like this depends on tremendous intellectual and emotional quickness: see how it moves from sentence to sentence, so different from Tolkien’s pompous stiffness. Balzac’s writing has vitality because it has critical insight into the human heart and its myriad ways of self-deception. 

   Or take this, from Austen’s Mansfield Park:

As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends. Having married on a narrower income than she had been used to look forward to, she had, from the first, fancied a very strict line of economy necessary; and what was begun as a matter of prudence, soon grew into a matter of choice, as an object of that needful solicitude which there were no children to supply. Had there been a family to provide for, Mrs. Norris might never have saved her money; but having no care of that kind, there was nothing to impede her frugality, or lessen the comfort of making a yearly addition to an income which they had never lived up to. Under this infatuating principle, counteracted by no real affection for her sister, it was impossible for her to aim at more than the credit of projecting and arranging so expensive a charity; though perhaps she might so little know herself as to walk home to the Parsonage, after this conversation, in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.

Austen, like Balzac, has no mercy for self-deluded righteousness. Such prose cannot be skimmed, indeed every word must be relished and weighed — and only then might we perceive that Austen’s Mrs.Norris is in every way an embodiment of wickedness much more serious than Sauron, who is blandly monochrome in comparison. But in reading such prose we have to be alert, just as we have to be alert in our lives to perceive the real flickerings of good and evil around us, and not just the grossly obvious manifestations of Good and Evil in Manichaean fantasy. Writers like Balzac and Austen trust us to notice these things and respect us enough to let us be free to make our own wholes from them; writers like Tolkien don’t trust us as much, and have to make sure that we do not misunderstand. Lest I be accused of an unfair bias towards realism in my fictional tastes that blinds me to the unearthly grandeur possible only in fantasy, I will insist that my predilection is for shrewdness and sensitivity in whatever genre they may be found — and also the kind of lively, intelligent relationship between writer and reader in which both wholeheartedly enjoy the other’s intelligence. As we shall see, Tolkien also has his moments.


4 thoughts on “When Tolkien Is Bad

  1. This is mostly a devil’s advocate question:

    Is there a chance this is on purpose?

    From our seminars, it’s clear that Tolkien likes to undercut traditional heroism. As a guess, he probably spends one page describing ‘glorious’ combat for every 10 pages he spends describing forests, walking, or hills. His heroes are anti-heroes. Good does not seek to destroy evil, rather good seeks to outlast evil.

    So, is it possible that Tolkien intentionally describes Aragorn’s regal pride as childish or trite? Is grasping a sword and bellowing a great cry like screaming in the wind? A hollow, vain gesture for such troubled times.

    Conversely, are there counter examples where he describes traditional heroism with the delicacy or subtlety that he’s able to conjure for other themes in other parts of the book?

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