from Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, by Brian Rosebury

Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, p. 86

[Rosebury analyzes Tolkien’s writing style in his Chapter Two, “Achieving the Narrative”. His final example is an close reading of Frodo’s first view of the Morgul Vale, the paragraph in Chapter 6 beginning “Light was fading fast when they came to the forest-end” and ending “There it seemed to Frodo that he descried far off, floating as it were on a shadowy sea, the high dim tops and broken pinnacles of old towers forlorn and dark.” Let’s join him in his penetrating analysis a few pages later, with:]

The inversion ‘old towers forlorn and dark’ is for euphony, and to vary the adjective-noun sequence, already used three times in the sentence. Out of context, it might be dismissed as a Gothic cliché; actually it is an instance of one of the work’s great strengths, though a strength difficult to illustrate by quotation. The point is that the towers are literally forlorn: they belong to Osgiliath, the ‘populous city’ glimpsed in the Mirror of Galadriel, but long ago abandoned in Gondor’s retreat before the expansion of Mordor. Not only do we recall this historical detail when we read the phrase, but the visual scene brings home the distinctive kind of forlornness to which Osgiliath is condemned: it stands in no man’s land between the two opposed powers, East and West; and the haunted impression it makes under the gathering dark reminds us that it is Mordor, rather than Gondor, the spirit of decay rather than the spirit of growth, that dominates in this disputed territory. Roger Sale observes, in a rather backhanded compliment to Tolkien, that he ‘can make the world live just by taking all the dead metaphors he knows and writing them as if they were not dead’. For Sale, the success of this enterprise depends on the wide-eyed receptiveness of the hobbits, for whom the dead metaphors ‘come to life’. But it is more than that. Tolkien here restores power to a jaded image by constructing around it a new historical and geographical context, which displays afresh its original aptness: the very simplicity which made it a cliché becomes again its virtue. (Conversely, when Tolkien concludes a passage describing the fragrant beauty of Ithilien with the sentence, ‘Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness’ (TT, 258), the very ingenuity of the phrasing tends to discredit it. With its nymph’s-hair conceit, its incongruous classicism and abstraction, and its obtrusive and contrived-looking alliteration, it is too obviously drawn from a specialised stylistic jewel-box (of a kind which Tolkien usually keeps firmly closed) to have the inevitability and transparency, the quality of seeming to draw upon the most natural and unaffected expression, ‘the word neither diffident nor ostentatious’, which his descriptions generally achieve.)

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