Is Tolkien Actually Any Good?

The dwarves who turn up on Bilbo's doorstep are, to us as well as to him, reassuringly familiar: they have beards and silly names and mine jewels, and there is just a moment where we half expect them to start singing 'Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go.' But Tolkien immediately knocks us off balance: these aren't fairy tale dwarves, but real dwarves; uncouth and dangerous. It's more like having your house taken over by New Age Travellers than being visited by pixies or flower fairies. There is a bad tradition of post-Dungeons & Dragons fantasy which leaves it there and says 'Well then: Dwarves are perfectly mundane; simply an ethnic group.' Tolkien, on the other hand, pulls the rug away a second time: while we and Bilbo are pre-occupied with the banal (is there enough seed-cake to go round?), he hits us in the face with un-diluted Wagner:

'The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
As hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep where dark things sleep
In hollow halls beneath the fells.'

(...) Having come to grips with Tolkien's slow pace, we now have to come to grips with his unbelievably dense structure. As a teenager, I am fairly sure that I did not tolerate this; I skipped, or read passively, waiting for a 'good bit'. At the beginning of book two, all the characters get together in a council chamber to have a jolly good exposit. Some of what we hear is stirring stuff--legendary narratives about great battles and Isildur cutting the ring from Sauron's finger as a 'weregild' for his father. But we also get this sort of thing:

In the South the realm of Gondor long endured, and for a while its splendour grew, recalling somewhat of the might of Numenor, ere it fell.…Their chief city was Osgilliath, Citadel of the Stars, through the midst of which the River flowed. And Minas Ithil they built, Tower of the Rising Moon, eastward upon a shoulder of the Mountains of Shadow, and westward at the feet of the White Mountains Minas Arnor they made, tower of the Setting Sun….And in time evil thing came forth and they took Minas Ithil and abode in it, and they made it into a place of dread, and it is called Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sorcery, then Minas Anor was named anew Minis Tirith, the tower of guard.'

If this were only a piece of evocative scene setting, vaguely archaic words rolling gently through the air to create a sense of history, it would be a nice enough piece of writing. Only a professor of philology could have come up with a name as beautiful as 'Osgilliath'. But Tolkien means it. If he refers to Minas Arnor again, you are expected to jolly well remember that it is the same place as Minas Tirith.


What's more, he does it all the time. I wonder if he knows he's doing it, or if he simply forgets that you-the-reader have just bought volume one and therefore can't look things up in the appendices even if you want to. So, Gondor 'recalls the glory of Numenor ere it fell', does it? And what would that glory be? Gandalf has begun his narrative by speaking of Numenor, 'its glory and its fall'; a hundred pages earlier, Aragorn has narrated a story concluding 'And of Earendel came the kings of Numenor' but that is all we have to go on. Several times in the book, the elves recite a poem beginning 'A Elbereth! Githoniel!'. In Mordor, Sam pretty much uses the couplet as a cross to repel a vampire, or in this case a spider. Frodo expresses surprise that the first set of elves he meets 'spoke the name of Elbereth'. Who is Elbereth? According to the Simarillion she is one of the Valar, the demi-goddess of the stars, with special executive responsibility for elves. I suppose the fact that the elves say things like 'May Elbereth protect you' might clue us in. But we aren't told explicitly.

For the whole article, click on the title above.

1 comment:

MisterDavid said...

I think it's a great article! Totally helpful in showing me why so many people find Lord of the Rings entirely (ENTIRELY!) inaccessible. I'm SO glad started with the BBC dramatisation.

It is a classic problem, when you get geek-ish about something, to not bear any criticism of it to plague your ears. Your brain can't function cos your heart is so involved. I don't think it's a good thing.