Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Favourite Novelists: JRR Tolkien And What He Taught Me


Though he was the man who wrote my very favourite book, The Lord of the Rings, I haven't spoken about Tolkien much in these pages. It's odd, because as much as I love this man's work, I have never had the slightest urge to reproduce it. For one thing, I couldn't possibly reproduce it: I have neither the formidable linguistic know-how nor the dedication and perseverance to build a world from scratch. For another thing, the body of Tolkien's work seems too perfect: imitating Tolkien seems an endeavour as unnecessary and fraught with embarrassment as starting life with the avowed intention of painting a series of portraits with all the elusive qualities of the Mona Lisa. For yet another, there are already far too many Tolkien-lite fantasies out there, and the mere thought of reading them has always bored me profoundly. And finally, while I love his writing style to death and pieces, in my own writing I have humbler aims. I am not a writer of grand epics; I haven’t the right mindset, and if I tried, I should fail miserably.

 
I do have something in common with Tolkien, though. Look at my bookshelves and you will see a curious collection. RL Stevenson sits next to Mary Stewart; Blackmore's Lorna Doone next to Braddon's Nancy Wake. Apart from some Lawhead and McKillip, there is very little modern fantasy, but plenty of Buchan, Chesterton, Austen, Haggard, Blackmore, Stevenson, Scott...Not the people Tolkien influenced, but the people he was influenced by.
This is one aspect of Tolkien's genius that often goes overlooked. True, he was influenced by the legend of Sigurd, by the Eddas, by the Kalevala and the Battle of Maldon, and above all by Beowulf and the Bible; but much as he lived in the past he was a child of his time, that age of late-Victorian and Edwardian melodrama. I once read a book with the thesis that as much as anything else, The Lord of the Rings owed a debt to Stevenson's Kidnapped, to Blackmore's Lorna Doone, to Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps, and to Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, and found it convincing. You see, I was already familiar with those books. I, too, recognised their shadows in The Lord of the Rings.
It was through reading Tolkien that I realised the truth that all writers steal from other writers. He also showed me how this looks when done properly. Nobody at first instance would ever connect Kidnapped, much less Greenmantle, with The Lord of the Rings, but if you look carefully, there is a moment here, a suggestion there, which has been stolen and enlarged in Tolkien's work. Tolkien acknowledged this creative borrowing—he mentioned the “leaf-mould of [his] mind,” the remains of the stories he had consumed. Everything Tolkien read went straight into The Lord of the Rings: everyone knows that he built his setting out of old epic poems. But if the setting came out of ancient epics, the events and emotional beats of the story come from popular fiction all the way up to his own day. For example, you may have heard that the march of the Ents comes from an early frustration with Macbeth and Birnam Wood marching on Dunsinane; so, in fact, does the slaying of the Nazgul by “no man of woman born”: a woman and a hobbit. But what about the gates of Moria or even better, Gondolin? What about Galadriel's eyes probing the Fellowship when they arrive in Lothlorien, or Aragorn standing above the gates of Helm's Deep to challenge the enemy a moment before the fall of the arch? The door to a secret valley inhabited by outlaws in Lorna Doone may become the underground passage to a secret city inhabited by the High King of Elves in The Silmarillion. The piercing eyes of a beautiful German spy may become the soul-searching gaze of Galadriel.
Another thing I learned from Tolkien was the sound of old words. Tolkien never or rarely resorts to archaisms in The Lord of the Rings. It has been a while, but if I recall correctly, there is not a thou or an -eth in the whole book. Yet despite this, Tolkien writes in an unmistakeably archaic style. Nobody—and I do mean nobody—in history has ever understood words as well as Tolkien did. Perhaps he wasn’t the greatest stylist ever, but he knew words back to front. I recall reading somewhere—probably the Tom Shippey book JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century--that he purposefully avoided words with French etymologies in order to cultivate a more Anglo-Saxon-based style!
But even if you're not actually using the purest Anglo-Saxon, even if you're not using thous and -eths, there is a lot you can do with word choice and word order to make your writing sound archaic. Tolkien intentionally—and successfully—used word order reminiscent of ancient epics in the grander passages of his works; one of the many areas in which imitators have failed.
Word choice can also work wonders. There's a line in Peter Jackson's films where King Theoden, at the funeral of his son, says, “No parent should have to bury their child.” I know it struck a chord with modern audiences, but Tolkien would never have been guilty of the line. “Parent” is singular, so the pronoun should be anything but the plural “their.” Correct English usage, which lasted until at least the 1970s and has only been recently swamped by a Wave of Political Correctness, is to use the universal pronoun his. But of course, no proto-Anglo-Saxon warrior king, mourning his son and heir before making his last ride to death and glory, would use a word so vague and undefined as “parent” anyway. Instead he would use the solid, definite Germanic terms “father” and “son.”
Not, of course, that an Anglo-Saxon would be likely to voice such a sentiment. Their outlook on life was more fatalistic than that; another reason why the line rang so false to me.
But by far the most important thing I learned from Tolkien was why stories should be told at all. Reading his magnum opus has given me the greatest literary pleasure of my life, but in the end the most important thing is not The Lord of the Rings but the foundation upon which it was built. People will tell you that The Lord of the Rings follows Joseph Campbell's monomyth structure. This is almost exactly false. Campbell's theory is basically an attempt to explain story structure without reference to God or redemptive history; a flimsy humanist version of the truth. The truth is far more splendid. The reason why stories must have a beginning and an end, a fall and a redemption, as inescapably as the sun rises in the East, is in the beginning there was God. And along with sunrises and time and jonquils and darling little frogs, God created stories. He did this by writing the first, the greatest story. And that story began something like this: Once upon a time, a man and a woman lived in a garden...
We are all part of that story still. Have you heard it, the story of the Prince who died and rose again? Do you remember?
I do not think it was Tolkien who first stated the fact that all stories are derived from that first True Story. I do not believe he was the first to identify the true unifying element of all good stories. Chesterton, of course, was before him (but who, before Chesterton?). Tolkien, however, was the first to hunt down and isolate this element, to classify it and drag it into the public eye, to write not just a story but a whole world that was self-consciously mythopoeic. The Lord of the Rings was written deliberately in praise of God, because deliberately in imitation of the Gospel story—it did not just happen to slide into alignment with some monomyth structure.
In the process, JRR Tolkien did something for which I will always be grateful. He showed that stories are holy.

3 comments:

Radagast said...

The line “No parent should have to bury their child” is a pet hate of a friend of mine. As you so correctly point out, someone might say that today, but Theoden King would never have used those words.

Anonymous said...

In fact Tolkien does use "thou" once or twice (when Eowyn is pleading with Aragorn not to take the Paths of the Dead, for example), and justifies this use in his notes on translation in Appendix F. Westron, like Spanish and French and others, distinguished between the formal and familiar second person pronoun, and Tolkien used "thou" to indicate a significant switch from the deferential to the familiar.

Suzannah said...

Ah--thanks for the heads-up. I wrote this from memory, far from my own copy of the book, so I couldn't check.

I've heard some interesting discussions about the dilemmas faced by those who translate LOTR into languages that still differentiate between the deferential and the familiar--people complaining about uses of Sie and Du in the German translation, for instance. It's still interesting that Tolkien achieves such an archaic feel with so little use of archaism.

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