The Lord of the Rings, with its sweeping Manichaean conflict and monochrome heroism, would not be an obvious candidate for the adjective “subtle” — but at his best, Tolkien is indeed a subtle writer capable of moments of concise, suggestive power. Before going to two passages in The Two Towers that demonstrate this, I want to start with a section from Jane Eyre, which for me sets the gold standard for “concise, suggestive power.” Here we find ourselves at a girls’ boarding school, where punitive sadism masquerades as moral discipline. The supervisor of this school, Mr.Brocklehurst, is holding forth to the sympathetic Ms.Temple:
“Madam, allow me an instant. You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. Should any little accidental disappointment of the appetite occur, such as the spoiling of a meal, the under or the over dressing of a dish, the incident ought not to be neutralised by replacing with something more delicate the comfort lost, thus pampering the body and obviating the aim of this institution; it ought to be improved to the spiritual edification of the pupils, by encouraging them to evince fortitude under temporary privation. A brief address on those occasions would not be mistimed, wherein a judicious instructor would take the opportunity of referring to the sufferings of the primitive Christians; to the torments of martyrs; to the exhortations of our blessed Lord Himself, calling upon His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; to His warnings that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God; to His divine consolations, “If ye suffer hunger or thirst for My sake, happy are ye.” Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!”
Mr. Brocklehurst again paused — perhaps overcome by his feelings. Miss Temple had looked down when he first began to speak to her; but she now gazed straight before her, and her face, naturally pale as marble, appeared to be assuming also the coldness and fixity of that material; especially her mouth, closed as if it would have required a sculptor’s chisel to open it, and her brow settled gradually into petrified severity.
Meantime, Mr. Brocklehurst, standing on the hearth with his hands behind his back, majestically surveyed the whole school. Suddenly his eye gave a blink, as if it had met something that either dazzled or shocked its pupil; turning, he said in more rapid accents than he had hitherto used —
“Miss Temple, Miss Temple, what — what is that girl with curled hair? Red hair, ma’am, curled — curled all over?” And extending his cane he pointed to the awful object, his hand shaking as he did so.
“It is Julia Severn,” replied Miss Temple, very quietly.
(Jane Eyre, ch.7)
This writing is a little miracle. To begin with, Brocklehurst’s speech is the kind of self-righteous harangue that Victorian novelists excelled at: it is calm and plausible on the surface, almost rational — yet we can sense that it is coming from a place in the heart that is cold, cruel, insane. The speaker appears to himself to be absolutely sane and reasonable as well as pious and full of good intentions. But is there any reader who could take him at his own valuation? It is the mark of a healthy soul to respond to such a speech with hatred of religious hypocrisy and tyranny, but the author doesn’t need to tell us how to react: she respects our moral capacity to respond with anger where anger is deserved, and to see accurately through the foul smoke of righteousness. Mr. Brocklehurst again paused — perhaps overcome by his feelings: it is the perhaps that makes this so damning, because if he is really “overcome by his feelings” at this moment it would be an unmistakeable sign of derangement, and if he is not, then the speech has been crafted for effect. The perhaps indicates that Brocklehurst would be unable to tell the difference between these two — just as all morally manipulative people are blind to their own contrivances — and therein lies the true wickedness: the obscuring of any difference between love and control.
Charlotte Bronte does not have Ms.Temple respond with words or with thoughts, but instead gives us a description of her facial movements so clear and so precise that we are in no doubt that Ms.Temple is on our side. Miss Temple had looked down when he first began to speak to her; but she now gazed straight before her, and her face, naturally pale as marble, appeared to be assuming also the coldness and fixity of that material; especially her mouth, closed as if it would have required a sculptor’s chisel to open it, and her brow settled gradually into petrified severity. If you have ever tried to describe how a face moves you will recognize immediately what a marvel this sentence is. Ms.Temple cannot express her true feelings to this petty dictator. Her very silence is evidence of tyranny, but it goes even further than biting her lip: Brocklehurst’s moral sadism does not merit a response dignified by words because sense cannot penetrate such hardness of heart. It cannot be dignified even by eye contact, since that would acknowledge mutual humanity. Because the reaction is wordless, we can feel almost physically Ms.Temple’s scorn and revulsion. And because we are not told in words what to feel, we are left to find in ourselves the right reaction to Brocklehurst. This is why writers like Charlotte Bronte are so morally nourishing: they let us reconnect to some core of goodness in ourselves that is undeceived by the whited sepulchres around us. Part of the miraculous in this writing is that it seems to be what the narrator is observing, but in fact the author has created a dramatic scene as well as a narrator who observes what Brocklehurst is oblivious to — thus further enphasizing the self-blindness of the Pharisee.
While Charlotte Bronte is relentlessly perceptive most of the time, Tolkien is often capable of such craft and insight.
Gollum disappeared. He was away some time, and Frodo after a few mouthfuls of lembas settled deep into the brown fern and went to sleep. Sam looked at him. The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master’s face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain, asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound. Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: `I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’ Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound. Sam came to him a moment later and found him chewing something and muttering to himself. On the ground beside him lay two small rabbits, which he was beginning to eye greedily.
‘Sméagol always helps,’ he said. `He has brought rabbits, nice rabbits. But master has gone to sleep, and perhaps Sam wants to sleep. Doesn’t want rabbits now? Sméagol tries to help, but he can’t catch things all in a minute.‘ (260)
Two aspects of this passage are striking to me. The first is how lovingly Tolkien renders Sam’s absorption in Frodo, fusing memory and perception in a few sentences, such that we get a picture of Frodo’s transformation over time as well as Sam’s own deepening of character, which comes about through his deepening love. The narrator makes himself explicit: Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself — as if Sam’s reaction actually consists of two voices working together. The narrator has stepped into Sam, recognizing that only through Sam can Frodo be seen. What Sam thinks to himself is: `I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’ It is the kind of sentence that Charlotte Bronte — nearly always clear-headed and strong-minded — would never be sentimental enough to write, but it captures Sam’s capacity to brim over with a devotion so uncontainable and mysterious that it can burst words open: He’s like that... somehow…whether or no.
Tolkien’s triumph in this passage is what he does in the next sentence: Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound. Sam, in his devotion to Frodo, is blind to Gollum, as he often is. Tolkien lets us see Gollum, but doesn’t describe the facial expression — only that he shut his eyes and crawled away. The secret of Gollum’s soul is in these words, and Tolkien trusts us to imagine it. Does Gollum see in Frodo what Sam sees, and is he moved by the gently radiant beauty of the sleeping hobbit? — does he even feel something of what Sam feels? If he does, then the act of shutting his eyes might signify either a great refusal or a resignation to the eternal loss of his own peace. Peering over Sam’s shoulder, he might feel himself excluded from companionship — thus the shutting of the eyes might be sadness or anger or both together. The phrase crawled away is abject and also sinister: is it the crawling of a broken being, or the crawling of stealthy malice? — or both? Tolkien’s reticence suggests a state of soul that cannot be described unequivocally because it is ambiguous and conflicted — probably even to Gollum himself.
It is one of Tolkien’s weaknesses that he will attempt the same thing more than once, because he doesn’t completely trust us to get it. A few chapters later, he gives us the same configuration, with some revealing variations:
And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum – `pawing at master,’ as he thought.
`Hey you!’ he said roughly. `What are you up to?’
‘Nothing, nothing,’ said Gollum softly. `Nice Master!’
`I daresay,’ said Sam. ‘But where have you been to – sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain? ‘
Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall. (323-24)
In this version, both Sam and Frodo are asleep, but we get to observe the motions of Gollum’s face. This may be the only time in the whole book when we are allowed intimacy with Gollum, but overtly mediated by the narrator, who, unhelpfully, calls his expression “strange”: in what way strange, and what are we supposed to be imagining? The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him: if what he sees is their love and peacefulness, then the twisting pain would seem to express both agony at a world that is closed to him as well as remorse for what he has planned. “Twisting” suggests spiritual convulsion, for what is being twisted is not only “his face” but him, his being; and it also suggests moral torsion or distortion, as if the pain of his fate is forcing him into impossble positions. As he turns away, shaking his head is a powerful expression of both self-disagreement and also disapproving rejection of the hobbits’ innocence: he is torn and angry, at himself and them. Tolkien, not trusting us, errs momentarily by adding as if engaged in some interior debate — but then he tells us, Then he came back — as if for a few seconds Gollum had left, gone somewhere. This emphasizes the narrator’s intense presence in the scene, such that he can notice a character’s wandering attention. What is the meaning of Gollum’s touch? — helpless love, a yearning for contact, even if it be with something as lowly as a knee? And why “almost” a caress? — does it not dare to be a caress, or does it refuse to be a caress? Gollum wants but doesn’t want, dares but doesn’t dare, loves and doesn’t love, hates and doesn’t hate: it is the fused opposition of extreme emotions that puts him beyond the pale in a no-man’s-land where nothing is clear or whole any more. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing. The passage carries overtones of a banished Cain as well as Milton’s Satan as he beholds the happiness of Adam and Eve, happiness from which he has exiled himself, secretly wants, and has vowed to destroy. Tolkien wisely refrains fom unpacking what is going on inside Gollum because he knows it cannot be unpacked: it is a storm at night, a raging ocean, unintelligible to the being experiencing it.
“I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain?
“Gollum!” he called. “Would you lke to be the hero? — now where’s he got to again?” (Frodo to Sam, 322)
In a book that tends towards crude black-and-white moralism, in which it is clear to everyone what is good and what is bad, it is the character of Gollum that takes us into the confused depths of the soul, where all things are possible. Without these depths, The Lord of the Rings would be two-dimensional and soulless. Tolkien’s description of Gollum in these passages is careful, crafty, fascinated: he couldn’t have succeeded if he didn’t somehow love Gollum, and respect him.