The road less travelled by goes ever on

Long ago, I have read, Irving Berlin offered the young and struggling George Gershwin a job as his musical secretary, for the then princely wage of a hundred dollars a week. ‘But don’t take the job,’ said Berlin. ‘If you do, you may develop into a second-rate Berlin. But if you insist on being yourself, someday you’ll become a first-rate Gershwin.’

In the five years since Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings began to be released, there has been a fresh outpouring of critical, academic, and fannish writing dissecting, rehashing, and expanding upon every facet of Tolkien’s work. Probably no other author since Joyce has been subjected to such torrential inquiry; perhaps none since Dickens. If the flow continues a few years longer, Tolkienology may end up second in volume only to the endless study of Shakespeare.

Not all of this outpouring is wasted ink, and some of it is work of exceptional brilliance and inspirational value. I had a flash of insight — even I get flashes of insight from time to time — when I read Tom Shippey’s excellent and audacious Tolkien: Author of the Century. The Afterword on ‘The Followers and the Critics’ changed the whole focus of my thinking with respect to my own work specifically and fantasy in general. As he had a good deal to say on the subject, I shall abridge my quotations freely, without strewing ellipses all over the place.

In the section on ‘Tolkien and modernism’, Shippey writes:

Authoritative recent accounts of modernism often seem immediately applicable to Tolkien. Modernist style, we are told, is characteristically local, limited, finding beauty not in abstractions but in ‘small, dry things’. Tolkien appears to present himself in ‘Leaf by Niggle’ essentially as a miniaturist, and the impression is confirmed not only by the many passages of close natural description in all his works (the ‘purple emperor’ butterflies in Mirkwood, the falling willow-leaves by the Withywindle), but by, for instance, his long, careful, deeply absorbed study of hybrid flowers from a single plant in his garden. Modernism was said furthermore, by T.S. Eliot, to have made it possible to replace narrative method by ‘mythical method’; and the whole drive of Tolkien’s work, as one can see, was towards creating a mythology which his major narrative was there to embody. When one reads also (this time in Drabble) that modernism is distinguished by experiments with the representation of time; by rejection of the ‘realist illusion’; by the use of multiple narrators; and by experiments with language, one might well check them off by remarking, respectively: ‘Yes, see “The Lost Road” and “The Notion Club Papers”; the experiments with interlaced narrative, the use of “threads” of story alternating and contrasting; and, of course, the deliberate creation of unknown languages and unrecorded dialects’. As for a liking for irony, also cited as characteristically modernist, Tolkien’s whole developed narrative method is ironic, as also anti-ironic. Why is it unacceptable to see Tolkien as a modernist author parallel to Joyce?

The answer is clear enough if one looks at some of the other features itemized. Modernist works tend to rely very heavily on literary allusion — as, for instance, in Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’ or Joyce’s Ulysses. If the reader does not follow the allusion, does not realize the contrast between the words in their original context (in Homer, say, or Dante) and in their modernist context, then the point is lost. Tolkien by contrast was as well read as anyone and more so than most, and he alludes frequently to works of what he regarded as his own tradition. It is absolutely characteristic of his uses of tradition, however, that the source of the allusions does not matter. The words work best when they have become quasi-proverbial, merged with ordinary language, ‘as old as the hills’. Many of the works he used most are anonymous. Tolkien never subscribed to the cult of the Great Author.

A final contrast is the modernist love of introspection, of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, of the characteristic trick of even the simplest of modern novels of telling you what the characters are thinking. Tolkien does this too; it may be impossible to present a narrative successfully to modern readers without it. Tolkien was however well aware of works which had tried it, and tried it successfully. [Shippey cites Beowulf and Gawain.] In the cultures Tolkien admired, introspection was not admired. He was aware of it in a way his ancient models were not, but he did not develop it.

Once one sees the utter opposition of literary philosophy, even the superficial similarities listed above are exposed. Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used ‘mythical method’ not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. He showed his characters wandering in the wilderness and entirely mistaken in their guesses not because he wanted to shatter the ‘realist illusion’ of fiction, but because he thought all our views of reality were illusions, and that everyone is in a way wandering in a ‘bewilderment’, lost in the star-occluding forest of Middle-earth. He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment.

And then Shippey springs the nub of his argument:

One might almost say that he took the ideals of modernism seriously instead of playing around with them.

And that, says Shippey, is why the mainstream critics (and their SFnal apes like Moorcock and Miéville) have never forgiven Tolkien. He beat them at their own academic game, because to him it was not an academic game, but the very stuff of life; and he beat them while writing what their theories taught them could be nothing but low, escapist, commercial trash. His cardinal sin was to be pretentious without being inaccessible.

In the last hundred years, two great innovations have utterly reshaped the technique of fiction. One was Hemingway’s adoption of a straightforward, hardboiled prose style, stripped of the bookish idioms and literary conceits that encrusted even the best previous novels like barnacles on a sunken hulk. Look at almost any novel in the English language written before 1920, and you will see narrative longueurs, direct auctorial address, stilted dialogue, and a general impression of arch formality.Huckleberry Finn, despite its awful phonetic representation of dialect, is a shining exception. It is no accident that Hemingway himself regarded it as the finest American novel ever written. But if you read The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms, as I recently did, you will find a tone and atmosphere indistinguishable from that of mainstream commercial novels being written today. Hemingway dragged fiction off the melodramatic stage and put it back in the gutter where it belonged.

The second was Tolkien’s. His choice of subject-matter has been often imitated, and many of his imitators have been content to ape his own treatment of the subject without ever going behind him to read his sources. I do not speak of that. What set Tolkien apart was his insistence upon strict and unbending epistemological standards. He did not bring back the bookish language of Victorian fiction, but neither did he use the modern colloquialism of Hemingway. Instead, he insisted that each character, each culture, have its characteristic voice and style, consonant with its philosophy and the range of its learning. He made sure that no character acted on knowledge he could not possess, and that not even the narrator could ever report any event except as seen by a reliable eyewitness. (The episode of the fox is a regrettable exception.) The massive apparatus of chronologies, calendars, appendices, alphabets, and languages serves primarily to buttress this epistemological rigour. In consequence, he could write of the most fantastical events and persons without tempting the reader to doubt his gravitas or his sincerity. Tolkien’s serious fiction never degenerated into tall tales or Hausmärchen,as even the best fantasy before him tended to do. He solved the paradox; he squared the circle; he treated unreal subjects with the utmost realism.

All these are the innovations that Shippey summarized as ‘taking the ideals of modernism seriously’. For more than twenty-five years I have striven to learn how Tolkien produced these effects and how to apply them myself, with one or two refinements (as I hope) of my own. As anyone can tell by reading my little essais, I have become a difficult and exacting audience, for my own work even more than for the work of others. I can well imagine that it makes me a prickly customer to deal with — if my native truculence and ill manners did not suffice.

But more than that, Tolkien did some things that few or none of his followers have ever seriously attempted. Of this, too, Shippey speaks at some length:

One interesting feature which no one has attempted to copy in any detail has been Tolkien’s continual insertion of poems, in very different styles and often complex metres. It could be that this is too much trouble, but another factor is probably the sheer depth of Tolkien’s involvement with literary tradition: fantasy writers are not brought up the way he was any more. Along with this goes a lack of interest in literary gaps, errors, contradictions. Fantasy authors are very ready to raid works like the Elder Edda or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for material, but not to rewrite them, point out their mistakes, ‘reconstruct’ narrative which is no longer there. A further feature which as far as I know no one has ever tried seriously to copy is Tolkien’s structuring ofThe Lord of the Rings, his use of narrative threads. For one thing the very careful chronological positioning, the cross-checking of dates and distances and phases of the moon would be hard to do accurately, something best left to a ‘natrual niggler’. For another, it seems likely that no modern author feels able to accept Tolkien’s highly Boethian ideas of fortune, chance and Providence, even when checked and balanced by the anti-Boethian suggestions also present. The underlying sadness of his work, its many death-scenes and avoidance of the unmodified happy ending, presents a further challenge to the world of commercial publishing.

Well, someone is making the experiment. Perhaps the result will be unpublishable. For myself, I do not believe that Tolkien succeeded in spite of doing all these things; I believe they all contributed to the richness and depth that made The Lord of the Rings so much more successful than any of its imitators. It has long been an article of faith with me that, sour-faced critics to the contrary, the average reader does not dislike good prose style, even though she may not notice it. Well-written prose makes the story flow more smoothly and clearly, and this is something that the least literate reader ought to appreciate most, even without having any idea how the effect was produced. Whether the stylistic monkey-tricks and impressionistic moonshine praised by critics as ‘fine writing’ are in fact good prose is, of course, another question.

Tolkien’s prose is often difficult, though not as difficult as Shakespeare, because of his continual use of archaic words and unfamiliar idioms; but this has not detracted from his popularity. A few people have refused to read him because of it, but many others have either not minded at all or found it an additional attraction. The same goes for his verses. When Donald Swann set a job lot of Tolkien’s songs to music, the resulting book, The Road Goes Ever On, sold a considerable number of copies; almost forty years on, it is still in print. And The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which is nothing but poetry, sold better than any contemporary English poet except possibly Betjeman. I do not think these things will prevent a book from being successful, though they might well prevent a chicken-hearted editor from taking a chance on it.

I will not refrain from doing my best work, such as it is, just because some persons think the market would prefer trash. Maybe, just maybe, my best will be good enough to sell and be read; I know anything less will not. And if that means including snippets of ‘Shakespeherian rag’, so be it. The illiteracy of fantasy characters in general has long bothered me. After Gram Loris of Colmahr quoted those lines, he exchanged the following banter or badinage with Our Hero:

‘Barbarians!’ he growled. ‘Galderman is too good for them.’

Without thinking, I said: ‘Darion the Golden, Act Four, Scene Five.’

He turned to look at me in surprise. ‘An owl among the rooks! You know Galderman from Grimsack, young Lowford.’

‘That surprises you,’ I said sourly.

‘I understood there was no theatre in the Eastern Thorps.’

‘A man can read, can’t he?’

‘One lives to hope.’

Grimsack was a character in a farce, a failed playwright who wrote and staged the most ludicrous tosh, like Sheridan’s Mr. Puff. But it should do my readers no harm not to know that, and little good to be informed. Save it for the pie-in-the-sky Annotated Edition.

I shall go on taking the road less travelled by, and that may yet make all the difference.


  1. When I read The Eye of the Maker, I had not yet read this essay, but I specially liked those lines. I somehow felt the world of the characters was the richer and, somehow, the more spacious for them.

  2. Twain’s representation of dialect is not awful but awesome in its precision. Sometimes, indeed, we can no longer well appreciate it. I have seen complaints that he represents his black characters as saying “wuz” whereas his white characters said “was”. In our time, this would be mere respelling for the sake of respelling, but in 19th-century America, “was” still had the vowel sound of “water”, as it does to this day outside North America. Jim’s pronunciation has become everyone’s.

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