The rhetoric of Middle-earth

This essay is included in my collection, Writing Down the Dragon. It has previously appeared on LiveJournal.


Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story — the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths — which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 131 (to Milton Waldman)

The business of finding and resolving cruxes, of course, is not the only trick in the philologist’s bag, or the only one that Tolkien brought to his imaginative writing. A philologist, in the nature of things, must have a keen nose for style, for the sounds and usages of words. A genuine document is always rooted in the dialect of a particular time and place, modified by the author’s choice of words, rhythms, and turns of phrase. Many a forgery has been exposed because of anachronistic language.

Since textual criticism is a branch of philology, it is only natural that it should suffer when practised by people with no philological skill. Unfortunately, since the eclipse of philology as an academic discipline, most English-speaking critics have been ignorant of philology and, on the whole, rather disdainful of the idea that it has anything to teach them. This does not always stop them from making the most sweeping assertions about a text, often on purely ideological grounds. Such critics are fair targets for C. S. Lewis’s accusation in ‘Fern-Seed and Elephants’:

These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight.

As these critics lose the ability to understand a text, they focus all the harder on the minute details of the text, and lose the benefit of context. This seems paradoxical, but it is, alas, not hard to explain. The ‘New Criticism’ was invented by men who had not the cultural literacy to see why literature is not and cannot be a science. In the interest of scientific objectivity, they banished the author’s intentions and the reader’s reactions from their purview. But literature is inherently a subjective art: it is an act of communication between a writer and a reader, and if you leave either of them out of account, the whole art form becomes strictly meaningless.

To rescue criticism from this dead end, the critics imagine they can appeal to ‘objective’ criteria derived from ideology or psychology instead of the subjective facts of their experience as readers. Hence the elaborate vocabularies of symbolism propounded by various schools: Marxist, feminist, Freudian, Jungian, etc. ad infinitum. Whichever code-book is used, the technique is the same. By a process absurdly known as ‘close reading’, you break the text down into individual words and sentences — syntactic units, not narrative units. On this level you can analyse it without contaminating your objectivity by an emotional reaction. You then look for bits that are ‘explained’ by your code-book as symbols of something else, and accuse the author of deliberately inserting those symbols with a full (and usually culpable) knowledge of the coded meanings your school of critics has decided to give them. This process is generally known as ‘deconstruction’.

In reality, most books are neither written nor read in any such way. What happens, at least with fiction and narrative poetry, occurs on a level above the text, to which ‘close reading’ by its nature gives no access. When I say above, I do not mean that this level is superior to the text considered merely as a string of sentences. I mean that this level of narrative is built on the text as a house is built on its foundation; it depends on it, is supported by it, and could not stand without it. The foundation is not built for its own sake, but for the purpose of holding up the house. The text does not exist for its own sake; it exists to convey a story.

When you read a story — I speak here of normal recreational readers, not of critics or even editors — you enter a mild trance state. This trance has several interesting properties. It resembles a vivid daydream, but because its materials are furnished or suggested by the author, you as a reader are relieved of the task of making up the events of the daydream and can devote greater attention to imagining its sensuous details. Also, the critical faculties that might impede this imaginative play are partly engaged, and in a way lulled, by the task of reading the words on the page (or, in the case of told stories, listening to the narrator’s speech). The resulting mental state is mildly psychedelic; it bears some resemblances to the effects of mescaline. Interest in the external environment is diminished; interest in time almost disappears. But where Aldous Huxley on mescaline could spend hours contemplating the folds of his trousers, when you read a story, you contemplate a parallel world, constructed by the author’s words out of the materials in your head. Your attention is not on the book, but on the movie playing in your mind: not a flat thing on a screen, but a rounded environment into which you project yourself, either as an observer, or vicariously in the person of one of the characters. Within this environment, your reasoning faculty is fully engaged, but only in particular ways: you want to make sense out of the events, perceive connections between them; above all, you are consumed with a desire to know what happens next, and why. This art, or rather the art of inducing such vicarious dreams, is what Tolkien called ‘Faërian drama’.

As Samuel Alexander observed in Space, Time, and Deity, it is psychologically impossible for human beings to do a thing and analyse it simultaneously. Alexander gave these separate activities the rather unhelpful names of ‘Enjoyment’ and ‘Contemplation’. For my own purposes I prefer the terms performance and attention. When you look through a telescope, you are attending to the stars and performing astronomy. If you then look at the telescope to see how it works, you are attending to the telescope and performing the science of optics. The moment your attention is captured by the instrument instead of the object, your performance moves along with it. This is a general rule; it applies to any activity that requires mental focus.

When you read for enjoyment, you are attending to the story and performing the text — performing it much as an actor performs his lines: bringing it to life in motion and detail, even if you do not read aloud as an actor does. When you read as a critic, or at any rate as a New Critic, you are attending to the text itself and performing the act of textual analysis. This can be a valuable activity. The trouble is that you cannot attend to the text while performing the text; that is because you cannot focus on the text and the Faërian drama simultaneously. Critics, especially those taught ‘close reading’ too young, tend to denigrate the whole idea of story; some lose the knack of immersive reading altogether. For such unfortunates, whenever faced with words on a page, their only reaction is sentence-level criticism. The vicarious experience of the story is lost to them for ever.

As a dubious compensation, these critics have the run of academia and the ‘literary’ reviews. There they can play the game of what B. R. Myers famously called the sentence cult, combing through a text without ever performing it, looking for individual sentences that leap to the eye. A bizarre metaphor, a strange cadence, a peculiar word choice, an imitation koan: these are the jewels that the sentence critic gathers. A book like Ulysses is perfect for this purpose: Joyce spends so much time doing stylistic jumping-jacks that the story is virtually concealed. For us ordinary writers, this would be a terrible mistake. A few literati love puzzling out texts, just as some people love crosswords; but the average recreational reader, and especially the kind who devours a novel a week, wants stories.

Our grave danger as writers, then, is that we will do something to wrench the reader’s attention away from the story and back to the text. That an insult that he may not lightly forgive. Remember, the reader in the trance is vitally interested in the sequence of time and logic within the story: he wants to know what happens next. When we put stumbling-blocks in the text, we yank him away from the fulfilment of that desire and make him focus on an unwanted and (to him) irrelevant problem. This is what is meant by the expression ‘bouncing one out of the story’. Readers are reasonably forgiving as a rule, but every bounce will persuade a few to lay the book aside and not return. If we want them to stay with us for the whole journey, we need to keep their minds on the story as much as possible, which generally means keeping it off the text.

There are, generally speaking, two ways to do this. The first is to play it safe. If we write plain, flat, unadorned prose, we will never reach for any high emotional or lyrical effects, but then, we will never stumble when we fail. The danger of this style is that it may be too flat to engage the emotions. The second way is more difficult but also more rewarding. That is to write with a broad emotional range, with high points and low points, lyrical passages and plain ones, so that our prose will infect the reader with some of the emotions we wish to induce, and we will not have to depend on the raw impact of the things described. In this, prose style plays a role like the incidental music in a film. It heightens the mood; it enables emotional responses that would seem ridiculous without it.

The first technique is the usual method of melodrama; the second, of drama. It is difficult to predict how readers will respond to a subtle event; they may not notice it at all, or it may mean something to them that we did not intend. Melodrama is not subtle; it deals with obvious heroes, obvious villains, obvious problems with clear-cut solutions. A flat prose style can deal with such things, but when it deals with the subtler shades of drama, it either exaggerates them or makes no mark at all. In the first case, the reader is bounced out of the story; in the second, merely bored and confused. You cannot create the Mona Lisa with a sheet of construction paper and a box of crayons.

This, by the way, is the answer to the plaintive question from so many critics (and envious writers), ‘Why do X’s books sell so well? He can’t write his way out of a paper bag.’ Dan Brown’s prose style is as flat and unaffecting as cardboard; it is, if you like, a ‘bad’ style. But it is appropriate for melodrama; and the elements of melodrama exist on the level of story, not text. It has been said that a melodrama is a story about a Villain, a Victim, and a Rescuer. These roles are all defined by the characters’ actions, not by anything you will find from sentence-level analysis. When George Orwell talked about ‘good bad books’, he meant just the kind of book that tells a melodramatic story in a limited prose style, but tells it vividly and is therefore entertaining and effective.

Many critics have claimed that Tolkien is a bad prose stylist. Does this mean that The Lord of the Rings is a ‘good bad book’, merely an entertaining melodrama? To answer the question, we need to define the difference between melodrama and drama. I am indebted to Stephen R. Donaldson for this partial but useful definition: Where melodrama is about a Villain, a Victim, and a Rescuer, drama is about how those three characters exchange roles.

Gollum is an excellent example. When we meet him in The Two Towers, he appears to be a pure villain, with Frodo and Sam as his intended victims. But Frodo tames him, for a while, just enough so that Gollum can play the rescuer in the Dead Marshes. Captured by Faramir, he becomes a victim, and Frodo rescues him. He is victimized in another way by Sam, who fails to see how Gollum is struggling towards the good, and inadvertently pushes him back into his evil habits. Then Gollum becomes the villain once more, betraying the Hobbits to Shelob; but in the end, at Mount Doom itself, he turns (despite his worst intentions) into the final rescuer who saves the Quest from catastrophe.

Whatever The Lord of the Rings is, it is not a melodrama, any more than Hamlet or the Iliad. It contains several dramas, interlaced in a complex pattern, and each told in a style appropriate to the incidents and the characters. But none of these styles are the default style of the modern ‘literary’ novel. There are no showpiece sentences for the critics to make much of; there is no stock vocabulary of symbolism, Freudian, Marxist, or what not, by which to decode the text.

Indeed the text of The Lord of the Rings is very different from that of the modern novel, because it says what it means, and means (at minimum) what it says. This, too, is a necessary feature of fantasy. The Ring is not a symbolic reification of Frodo’s will to power, but a real physical object — real in the context of the story — which happens to actually confer power. Critics are apt to confuse the two. One could deliberately choose to read the Ring symbolically; but then, one could ‘read’ an actual motorcar as a ‘symbol’ of the desire to travel rapidly. Dark Lords in Middle-earth have Rings of Power, and people in that equally wild fantasy world, the Industrialized West, drive cars. As Tolkien himself said: ‘The story is really a story of what happened in B.C. year X, and it just happened to people who were like that!’ As such, it resists all attempts to analyse it by Modernist or Postmodernist methods. You cannot take the text simply as a text; to find out what it means, you have to experience it as a story.

A more promising line of attack blames Tolkien for not writing in the usual language of the English literary novel circa 1950. His style is usually criticized on two different grounds, or three. The opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring are denounced for their slightly old-fashioned tone, reminiscent (it is said) of Victorian penny dreadfuls and Edwardian school stories. The other two volumes repel many critics (and some readers) because of their archaic language. The third criticism is that Tolkien has no consistent style, but veers all over the place. In fact this variation of style was done deliberately and expertly, and the story could not be effectually told without it.

One of the most common bits of advice offered to young writers is to ‘find your own voice’ and then stick with it. This is some of the worst advice a writer can take. Ernest Hemingway took it, wrote three or four strikingly original books, and then spent the rest of his life writing pastiches of his earlier style. Tolkien never fell into that trap. He knew that each story demands its own voice. A fairy-story like The Hobbit should not be told in the same tone as a creation myth like the Ainulindalë, or a tragedy like The Children of Húrin, or a light farce like Farmer Giles of Ham. In The Lord of the Rings we see the whole regiment of Tolkien’s styles on parade, beginning with the lightest and most quotidian, climbing by degrees to the highest and most formal.

The story begins in a jolly Edwardian style that hostile reviewers compared to the Boys Own Paper. This very mild dose of archaism does two necessary things. First, it distances the narrative from the purely modern novel: this cleanses the palate, and prepares the reader for something fresh. Second, it places the story culturally, by alluding to the nearest familiar equivalent. Tolkien once described the Shire as ‘more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee’. The various Hobbit-dialects, from the rustic talk of Gaffer Gamgee to the lighthearted blather of Merry and Pippin, faithfully recreate modes of diction from that place and time.

The last twenty years before the First World War were a time of peace and unexampled prosperity in England. Through all the popular novels, plays, and songs of the period there runs a kind of fat-bellied optimism, a refusal to be impressed by anything old or foreign, and especially by anything unpleasant. Such things could always be dismissed by the magic formula, ‘It can’t happen here.’ With the coming of war, the spell stopped working, the bubble burst, and English speech and thought necessarily changed. As George Orwell pointed out, the pre-war style is preserved in the stories of P. G. Wodehouse:

Conceived in 1917 or thereabouts, Bertie [Wooster] really belongs to an epoch earlier than that. . . . ‘He was still living in the period about which he wrote,’ says Flannery, meaning, probably, the nineteen-twenties. But the period was really the Edwardian age, and Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915.

If there had been a real Bertie Wooster, a wealthy young Edwardian man-about-town, he might not have been physically killed in 1915; but he would have been a changed man after Passchendaele and the Somme. The lighthearted assumption that progress was inevitable, and that only the comfortable life was real, would have been blown out of him by the mighty blasts of the German artillery.

Now, this is precisely the assumption that the Hobbits have at the outset of The Lord of the Rings. The ‘Days of Dearth’ are long past; the Shire is protected, secretly and unobtrusively, by the Rangers, just as England was protected by the Royal Navy. The average Edwardian Englishman thought foreigners were too silly and comical for words; Hobbits did not even bother to show the outside world on their maps. An English squire of 1910 talked like a Hobbit squire of Bilbo’s time; an Englishman of 1940 (when squires, in the old sense, hardly existed any longer) could hardly have been mistaken for either of them.

But this Edwardian style is only the first course in a rich and varied banquet. As soon as the Hobbits leave the Shire, the style begins to break down in an artfully arranged manner. The description of the Old Forest is severe and estranging. The narrative becomes more sober in tone, the Hobbit-talk forced and unconvincing, until even the Hobbits’ attempts at song are crushed out by the sinister atmosphere of Old Man Willow. Some passages of description at this point are written in a style curiously reminiscent of the ‘stage-directions’ in parts of Ulysses. In the chapters from ‘The Old Forest’ to ‘Fog on the Barrow-downs’, the effect is one of sustained phantasmagoria.

In this setting, and almost of a piece with it, is the voice of Tom Bombadil, who speaks in verse — a slightly looser version of the rough metre of his signature song. The four Hobbits have been rescued from an estranging environment, but their rescuer is stranger than the Old Forest itself. It does not do Bombadil much injustice to call him inconsequent: evil has no power over him, either to change him or to constrain him, but neither has he any power over it except for small personal interventions. His song (Ring a dong dillo!) is a string of nonsense, a spell against the grim and perilous sense of the Willow and the Barrow-wights. He can deliver the Hobbits from the consequences of their mistakes, but he lacks the power to bring about any consequences of his own. In today’s parlance, Bombadil is trippy. When Beard and Kenney, in Bored of the Rings, made ‘Tim Benzedrine’ a drug-addled, draft-dodging hippie, they rose from mere parody to trenchant criticism.

Next the Hobbits arrive in Bree. Like the Shire, Bree is inhabited (but only partly) by Hobbits, and protected (but only partly) by the Rangers. Both are what Clute & Grant, in the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, call ‘polders’; but the dykes surrounding Bree are thinner, and cannot keep out the Black Riders even for a single night. The style of the Bree chapters is a partial return to the Edwardian style, but a deliberately unsuccessful one. The comfortable Hobbit-life of the Bree-land has been diminished by ‘thinning’, to take another term from Clute & Grant; and the text is correspondingly ‘thinned’ as well. Frodo ventures a comic song, his first since leaving the Shire; but such levity is dangerous here, and nearly proves fatal. And Gandalf has failed to appear. The Quest seems lost before it has fairly begun; Hobbitry cannot face the Wild alone, any more than one could be a comfortable Edwardian gentleman without the protection of the British Empire.

It is here that we see the first important appearance of the style that will predominate in the later ‘books’ of the tale. We might call it Tolkien’s neo-archaic style: it is archaic in tone and diction, but he carefully refrains (at this point) from using archaic words. Aragorn is the first major character to employ it in dialogue. He is a personage out of an older and nobler world: the leader, in fact, of the unseen protectors who have hitherto preserved the Shire. Once he enters the story, the narrative tone becomes more formal, the prose more cadenced. It is not yet archaic in the strict sense: the words are all familiar to us, except for proper names and a few words of Shire-dialect. But the sentence structure begins to approximate an older diction. It is beginning to be the language of the sagas, dignified, musical, and evocative.

Such language is routinely deplored by modern-minded people, who suffer from what Owen Barfield called ‘chronological snobbery’. In fact, this degree of archaism is still used for effect by quite ordinary writers; even by politicians. John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address used the trick to good effect: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ Change Ask not to Don’t ask, and the sentence loses force and rhythm. Change it to Do not ask, and the effect is even worse: it turns from an inspirational speech into a priggish prohibition. Most of the archaism in The Lord of the Rings is on this level, and Tolkien uses it judiciously and well.

As the road to Rivendell grows more perilous, and the Black Riders hotter on Frodo’s trail, the narrative style becomes still more serious and uncompromising. At times the descriptions of scenes and action recall the unadorned vigour and economy of military reportage: the language of Caesar’s Commentaries or U. S. Grant’s memoirs. This reportage is leavened with just enough interior description to remind us of Frodo’s growing weakness and emotional struggle. Even the visible help of Glorfindel, and the unseen aid of Elrond and Gandalf, barely bring him to his destination alive; and Book I ends with Frodo unconscious, not knowing whether he has been rescued by the Elves, or captured by the Ringwraiths, or swept away by the flooding river.

The second movement of a symphony typically opens with a theme recognizably related to the first movement, but slower and more subdued, often in a minor key. The opening of Book II is, by that standard, musically perfect. Bilbo reappears; Gandalf reappears — but Bilbo has aged, and Gandalf is consumed by urgent cares. The whole tone is more serious, and despite occasional patches of Hobbit-talk, the Edwardian style is more or less gone for good. But before Tolkien settles down to the neo-archaic style, he presents us with a smorgasbord at the Council of Elrond.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, says that a poet can represent men either as better than life, worse than life, or just as they are. Northrop Frye has labelled those modes romantic, ironic, and mimetic, respectively. He then divides the mimetic mode into ‘high mimetic’, which deals with strong and heroic characters in a realistic way, and ‘low mimetic’, which deals largely with the characters and incidents of everyday life. To this he adds, at the top of the scale, the mythic mode, which deals with gods and other supernatural beings. Hobbit-talk is low mimetic; Aragorn is high mimetic at first, gradually ascending to the romantic as he grows from ‘Strider’ into ‘King Elessar’. The Council of Elrond is described in a mimetic style, ‘high’ in subject-matter and tone, but ‘low’ in that it realistically depicts the bickerings, misunderstandings, and confused agendas of a badly-run meeting. As Tom Shippey points out, Elrond may be a legendary hero, but he is not much of a chairman. However, these chaotic proceedings give full play to four of Frye’s five modes — all but the mythic — and some of Tolkien’s subtlest writing.

Each speaker has a distinct style, suited to his circumstances and to the story he tells. Gimli does a stellar turn in an old formal style, describing the visit of Sauron’s menacing ambassador to King Dáin. Boromir operates in the romantic mode, in the realm of prophetic dreams and ancient legends, and is answered by Aragorn in the same mode. Legolas gives high-mimetic reportage of Gollum’s detention and escape. The most interesting speaker is Gandalf, and his best turn comes in describing the treason of Saruman — who has the one really modern voice in the book. Saruman’s speeches are naked propaganda, as dishonest as Goebbels’ broadcasts or the leading articles in Pravda. Later, hearing him first-hand, Gimli will exclaim indignantly: ‘The words of the wizard stand on their heads.’ That could as easily describe George Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’.

The Council of Elrond shows one of the great advantages of Tolkien’s strategic use of style. Each character’s dialogue remains more or less on the level of the narrative at the point where he entered the story. In this way, nobody’s speech patterns (except Gollum’s) ever seem incongruous when they first appear; and because we grow used to them, they do not seem incongruous even when the style of the narrative changes and they remain the same. The Hobbits continue their light and informal Edwardian talk; Aragorn continues to talk like a sober man of honour, not only born but tried by fire to be a leader. Gandalf never quite loses the slightly humorous waspishness he first showed in The Hobbit, as when he snaps at Pippin in Moria:

‘Fool of a Took!’ he growled. ‘This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking-party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance.’

In ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’, we see another brief touch of phantasmagoria when Frodo looks across Middle-earth from Amon Hen, and nearly gives himself away to Sauron. Once again this serves as a kind of caesura, emphatically separating a comparatively safe and comfortable part of the story from the sharply increased perils and higher tone that come after; but, of course, on a higher level than before. This time it is Gandalf’s voice (never identified by name) that calls Frodo back from the brink of disaster: ‘Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!’ This interlude sets up the dire situation in The Two Towers: Boromir is slain, the Quest divided; Merry and Pippin are captured, Frodo and Sam are alone on the way to Mordor.

Tolkien himself observed, many years later, that The Fellowship of the Ring was very different in tone from the other two volumes. From the beginning of The Two Towers, the narrative achieves an approximately level and consistent tone, which I have referred to as the neo-archaic style. Book IV, concerned with the doings of Frodo and Sam, relaxes slightly towards the level of the Hobbits’ dialogue; the Rohan chapters stiffen into definite and formal archaism. Hugh Brogan roundly criticized this archaism when it occurred in the chapter ‘The King of the Golden Hall’, and called it ‘tushery’. This term, as Tolkien said in his reply, properly refers to the use of expletives to produce a false archaic effect: tush, zounds, marry, and so forth. He denied (with justified indignation) that he had done anything of the kind. He gave an example of ‘watered archaism’ (as he calls it) from The Two Towers, along with a modern English paraphrase. The speaker here is Théoden:

‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

Here is the modernized version:

‘Not at all my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties.’

‘And then what?’ Tolkien asks. People who talk like that do not say things like ‘Thus shall I sleep better’ when talking about death. Indeed, modern people have a horror of talking about death at all. It would be, as he calls it, ‘an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning’. People who talk in modern dialects do not bother about how they will rest in their graves. Either they have modern religious beliefs, and think they will be in Heaven (or Hell) with other things to think about, or they have no religion at all, and no belief in an afterlife. Even the modern, California-style Western Buddhists hardly count as an exception: to the extent that they talk about the afterlife in Buddhist terms, they are using imported terminology, and so not using modern English idioms at all.

The Riders of Rohan are the purest representation (and idealization) of ‘Northernness’ in The Lord of the Rings. Theirs is a ‘virtuous pagan’ culture, sanitized by comparison with any actual pagan society; but sanitized in the same way as the Danes and Geats in Beowulf. The good qualities of the pagan Teuton, the fine sense of honour, the tremendous personal courage even in the face of certain defeat, are emphasized; the faults are largely glossed over in silence. Rohan has many songs but few books, just as ancient Germanic society (despite the occasional use of runic inscriptions) was essentially pre-literate. In such a society, personal honour takes the place of written documents; poetry and high speech take the place of literature. Beowulf and the sagas are the perfect expressions of this culture in narrative form. It should be no surprise that Tolkien approaches closest to their diction when he portrays a similar culture.

One more style appears in dialogue in The Two Towers: the diction of the Orcs. This is almost as modern a style as Saruman’s, though not quite, because this kind of degraded speech, though more common now than formerly, has been current in ‘low’ English society for centuries. Unlike the cod Cockney of the trolls in The Hobbit, it is not primarily distinguished by class-markers. (Tolkien took pains to point out to the dramatizers at the BBC that Orcs did not drop their aitches.) What this style does, with a skill necessary in those days and almost forgotten now, is to suggest a squalid and vulgar mode of speech without actually spattering the page with obscenities. When Uglúk and Grishnákh use words like ‘filth’, or the Orc slave-driver in Mordor says ‘I reckon eyes are better than your snotty noses’, the reader is meant to infer that these are merely cleaned-up renditions of what they actually said. Tolkien explains in Appendix F:

Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. . . . Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds strong.

‘Orc-mindedness’, alas, is treated as an actual virtue by some modern critics, who call it ‘authenticity’ and suppose that only a prude could object. But in fact the squalid does not sound strong; and some readers are beginning to oppose it out of sheer boredom. How Tolkien represented Orc-talk without obscenities, yet also without the twee euphemisms then common in printed English, is a technique deserving of study.

I have mentioned how each major character tends to stick closely to the style and diction that prevailed in the book at the time when he first appeared. This provides one of the richest elements in Tolkien’s stylistic tapestry: the juxtaposition of widely different speaking styles, sometimes moving, sometimes comical. Occasionally the joke arises from the lower character’s incomprehension, as when the Hobbits return to the Shire and Gaffer Gamgee asks about Sam: ‘What’s come of his weskit? I don’t hold with wearing ironmongery, whether it wears well or no.’ In general, though, he does not mock the higher speaker for pretension, or the lower for vulgarity. We laugh simply because two characters are finding such different ways of saying the same thing, and are glad because they understand each other. So it is when Théoden meets Merry and Pippin:

‘Farewell, my hobbits! May we meet again in my house! There you shall sit beside me and tell me all that your hearts desire: the deeds of your grandsires, as far back as you can reckon them; and we will speak also of Tobold the Old and his herb-lore. Farewell!’

‘So that is the King of Rohan,’ said Pippin in an undertone. ‘A fine old fellow. Very polite.’

Perhaps the finest moment of this kind comes when Faramir and Sam exchange courtesies, each in his own peculiar idiom:

Sam hesitated for a moment, then bowing very low: ‘Good night, Captain, my lord,’ he said. ‘You took the chance, sir.’

‘Did I so?’ said Faramir.

‘Yes sir, and showed your quality: the very highest.’

Faramir smiled. ‘A pert servant, Master Samwise. But nay: the praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.’

In Middle-earth, only one thing is better than the praise of the praiseworthy. That is the praise due to those who have vowed the impossible and kept their vows; and to that, accordingly, I shall turn next.


  1. Thank you for a dense, well-reasoned analysis of the reader’s and the writer’s experience. I lost a delightful 3-4 hours to reading the essays here, but this is the one that really resonated. As a result, I have begun reading Tolkien after 35 years of avoiding him, mostly (I realize after reading your other essays) because of the poor impression made by his inferior imitators.

  2. I’m looking forward to re-reading him with the grandkids. It’s been a while.

    Thanks for illuminating this. I wasn’t really aware of it, consciously.

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