Writing: Style

squire: Now I’d like to look at the chapter from a slightly different, perhaps more technical point of view: the writing, and that elusive quality known as ‘style’. Tolkien was not just an imaginative genius at creating a mythic story, he was an authority on words and their use. But as a writer of fantasy prose and poetry, he was somewhat isolated, and mostly self-taught—that is, he wrote initially for himself, and only later learned that what he wrote was popular. As much as any writer, perhaps more, he struggled endlessly to express himself to best effect. Was he always totally successful? Some think not.

It’s an endless pit, of course. Today I’ll just offer up some thoughts on style that came to me as I was reading for and preparing this chapter discussion.

 hatster: [modded up!] whew! Artsy Fartsy stuff! with apologies to the memory of Reverend, here goes... a chance for me to be long-winded :-) No time spell check or proofreading... here goes!


What was he thinking?


'If we reach the Fire in that time, we'll be lucky at this rate!' he thought. `And we might be wanting to get back. We might!'


He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: `I love him. He's like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.'


`That won't do! Never thought it would show like that!' he muttered, and he started to hurry back.


`I wonder where that dratted Gollum is?' thought Sam, as he crawled back into deeper shade.

Tolkien has been accused of not letting us hear his characters’ inner thoughts. Here Sam variously thinks, and talks.

squire: A. Are these “inner thoughts”? What is the difference for Tolkien, if any, between Sam thinking and Sam speaking in these examples? Do you wish the characters “thought” more in general in Tolkien’s works?

an seleichan: When I'm reading LOTR, I don't notice the lack of character thoughts voiced in the text. It's only when it's pointed out that I miss them. So no, I don't think they are lacking.


Who’s talking?


squire: Here is how the narrator tells us stuff:

Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.


South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dœath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away.


And here is how a character tells us stuff:

‘’Tis said that there were dealings of old between Gondor and the kingdoms of the Harad in the Far South; though there was never friendship. In those days our bounds were away south beyond the mouths of Anduin, and Umbar, the nearest of their realms, acknowledged our sway. But that is long since. 'Tis many lives of Men since any passed to or fro between us. Now of late we have learned that the Enemy has been among them, and they are gone over to Him, or back to Him—they were ever ready to His will—as have so many also in the East.’

squire: B. Is the difference just a matter of quotation marks? From the writing style alone, can you distinguish Tolkien’s usage of third-person omniscient narration from those times when some all-knowing character (usually one with absurdly bushy eyebrows) spouts a lot of lore?

hatster: [modded up!]  Much difference. The narrator is prone to what would be anachronistic in the voice of a character. Earlier examples are more blatant--the freight train and Sam behaving as a school boy. But even "dishevelled dryad loveliness" refers to a mythology removed from Middle-earth. All of us have noted that the narrative voice shifts as the story goes. It does blur somewhat with the characters it has as its focus, however, as in your example it seems always aware of the cosmos where the characters are not--it embraces not just the immediate landscape but also "southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away" and times long ago and does not need to position them in relation to the life and times of men or elves.


A style of his own


“Critics who have been embarrassed by the non-standard elements of Tolkien's style (and they are more common than they are likely to admit in print) might want to reconsider their defensiveness and instead try to determine why that style, as different as it is from canonical Modernism, works so effectively to achieve Tolkien's purposes. And critics who have focused solely on source or themes should note that the analysis of style may unearth new sources and shed new light on traditional themes as well.” – Michael Drout

squire: C. What is Drout talking about—just who is embarrassed? What is “non-standard” about Tolkien’s style (give an example or two)? How exactly is it different from “canonical Modernism”? Can anyone tell me what “canonical Modernism” is, and why Tolkien is being held to its standard?

Arquen: How does this sound to you? An unusual aspect of his style is that it works well aloud, and this is very different from most more modernistic styles.  When OrcKid was littler, I would read aloud to her from whatever was at hand, including News-Anchor Style paragraphs of biochemistry articles in Science.  I would ask her how it sounded, and she noted that Tolkien sounded best out loud of the motley collection of stuff lying around, better than newspapers or other novels.  The different styles you cite are very easy to distinguish by ear, and some of the phrases are particularly memorable, most especially, ‘dishevelled dryad loveliness'. 

The only exception I recall was part of Finnegan's Wake:  I had read this page about 20 times and couldn't make any sense of it until I read it aloud.  It helped, some. 

I think that if you like Tolkien's style, you like it, and if you don't, you don't.  I like it.

Aunt Dora Baggins: Quick thought about canonical style It is an almost absolute no-no not to stick to one point of view during a scene.  Amateur writers like me get booted off the winners' pile immediately in writing contests if we don't follow that rule.  And yet in one sentence, Tolkien might show us what several characters are thinking.  For example, after they leave Lothlorien, in one sentence he tells us what each one of the Fellowship is thinking about as they float down the Anduin.  There's also that infamous Fox: people who have been trained in the modern style will complain "How do we know what the Fox is thinking?  Whose point of view is this?"  Then there's the scene where the Nazgul creep up on the house in Crickhollow.  It's completely cinematic.  There is no point of view character at that point. 

For myself, I love Tolkien's omniscient point of view.  He's able to share a character's thoughts whenever we need to know them, and let us see action that none of the characters can see.

I'm reading the Narnia books right now, and I'm noticing that Lewis breaks that point-of-view "rule" too.  So I think it's something that has come about in the past 40 years or so.  I've also noticed that the Harry Potter books break it, and since they made money, maybe that will mean that it becomes less of a hard-and-fast rule for publishing in the future.

LilyFairbairn: Yes I think the single pov per scene rule *has* come about in the last 40 years. I also hear from some of my British and Australian colleagues that it's something that's required by American publishers more than others.

I think this is due to the omniscient point of view giving way to a more personal one, where instead of the god-like author narrating the tale, the reader is put into the head of one character. You really see this in the popularity of first-person novels these days.

I've gotten to where "head-hopping" really annoys me in some novels, but Tolkien can get away with it, just as he can get away with any number of things :-). And even Rowling manages to sneak it by me fairly smoothly. I understand that American romance author Nora Roberts also "head-hops", which hasn't hurt her sales one bit, although I haven't myself read any of her work.

(Yes, I'm still lurking in the Reading Room and enjoying everyone's comments immensely!)

FarFromHome: Unities This reminds me of how Shakespeare was disdained for a couple of centuries in France, because he didn't observe "the unities" of time, place and action. French drama was bound by strict rules, and anything that strayed outside of them (by using multiple settings,  having too much time pass, or introducing 'unnecessary' subplots) was dismissed as hopelessly primitive and unworthy of attention. Shakespeare's habit of including humorous scenes with lower-class characters into his tragedies was also seen as quite inappropriate. Modern 'serious' literature too seems to have bound itself with a set of rules by which to judge the works that are allowed into its company. If it won't allow Tolkien entry because he flouts its rules, then its loss is rather like the loss the French suffered by ignoring Shakespeare for so long!

Elostirion74: [modded up!] some musings on style It's a huge task, of course, defining modernism or distinguishing Tolkien from more typical modern writers and I'm not the one to do it, but I think I have some examples. Unfortunately I do not have the books handy, so most of my concrete references to Tolkien's style will be to other chapters than this one.

Inner thoughts: Modern novels (from around the turn of the twentieth century) are concerned with the inner thoughts of the characters, just like modern thinking and psychology concentrates on the private inner world of the human being and the creative expression of individual persons.

Typically modern novels are therefore concerned with reveries, associations, inner debates. You will also find attempts at creative and playful imagery, partly as a consequence of the insistence on being inventive and display a mastery of form.

Tolkien is very much different from this. His prose is descriptive, you rarely see the characters inner thoughts, but rather their connection to the outside world. This is particularly visible in Tolkien's unabashed tendency to attribute human qualities to the landscape, which by the way makes him come up with some startling images (from chapter II, the description of the Noman Lands "poison-stained, fire-blasted, slowly revealed in the reluctant light").

- Tolkien's syntax is different. The word order is often inverted,  important words being put at the start of the sentence, "Helms too they chose", King of the Golden Hall.

- He often uses older words, germanic in origin and taken from the times when the resemblance between English and Norse was stronger. I often find these words more gritty and concise than their modern equivalent.

- Tolkien's characters often speak in a more ceremonial style, see for instance the dialogue between Frodo and Faramir.

No chattering or casual daydreaming here.

- The dialogue is frequently verging on the proverbial, "Wise man trusts not to chance meeting on the road" (Faramir to Frodo)

- Tolkien uses alliteration, which makes for a rhythmical feel to the sentences "dishevelled dyadic"

- I don't know how to explain this, but Tolkien's language, like Arquen says, is definitely better read aloud than modernist novels or realistic fiction.

In almost every chapter I find some passage which is very musical, either because Tolkien is allowing his characters to be elegaic (see Faramir's lament for his dead brother next chapter) or because he's not afraid to repeat the same idea (see the description of Quickbeam laughing, Book III, chapter IV or Galadriel's words to Treebeard Book VI, chapter VI), or use conjunctions like "or", "and", "whether" to tie different elements into a long sentence without stopping the flow of it.



“…the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.”

Brian Rosebury has a word or two to say about this sentence.

squire: D. Do you agree? Do comments like this, or like Drout’s above, affect your interest in reading Tolkien, or Tolkien criticism?

                *page turns*

squire: More generally, Rosebury and Drout are two of the very few critics I have read who insist that reading Tolkien need not be a love it or leave it experience. They take each sentence as it comes, and generally show that Tolkien’s style and command of his prose is of somewhat variable character, usually quite wonderful and effective in its own way, but sometimes weak, ‘unfortunate’, or otherwise inferior.
E. Again, do you agree? Are there any passages in this chapter that you feel could have been written ‘better’?

hatster: [modded up!]  C, D, and E: Aaaargh! my books are still packed, so examples will be hard to come by, but I'll give this a whirl. First, In the broader sense, I think those who are embarrassed are modern critics (or post modern) who begin with the idea that anything smacking of Romanticism is BAD (emphasis intentional). Tolkien was an unabashed Romantic. I agree with some that his study of the ancient texts combined with his experiences in the war were enough to make him temper his world. His sense of the world as thoroughly fallen was much closer to Hardy than to Wordsworth. But unlike the moderns, for him the world, nature, and even men still had some connection (albeit a dying connection) to that better spirit that lives beyond the sea of his world. The modernist would eschew any temptation to anthropomorphize (since the world and all in it can be explained in material and historical terms), would ask more questions that he or she answered, would let thoughts take the illogical course they tend to take in "real" life.

drogo_drogo: Thoughts on Hardy, Tolkien, etc. Great insights there, hatster, on Tolkien's place in that Romantic tradition.  It occus to me that what distinguishes Tolkien from Hardy (and makes him closer to T. S. Eliot perhaps) is that sense that there is another reality beyond the fallen and diminishing world of Middle-earth.  It is the taint of Morgoth and the decay of Arda Marred that runs through the waking world, but the prospect of Arda Healed still promises to undo that corruption and restore the world to its pure state.  Hardy sees the failure of the Romantic ideal and the Christian ideal, and his is an entropic universe of a post-Darwinian age; there is no healing to come.  Eliot, though, sees the "Waste Land" of the modern world, but like Tolkien, has a deep religious faith that points to a way out of that Waste Land and towards a healing.  His High Anglicanism and Tolkien's Catholicism enable them to transcend the decay of the here and now and see a promised end.  Wordsworth, who came before the angst of the late nineteenth century and first half of the twenetieth century, still sees his secularized, Romantic "spirit" inside nature; Tolkien and Eliot see that divinity in nature as a promise of a cleansing to come.

hatster: except that I think in Tolkien's work there seems to be a fear--no, a knowledge--that the spirit was dying and that with each generation it would fade that much more until it was gone so utterly that only the second coming would revive it. And yes, about Hardy. This is why I said that Tolkien seems closer to him, but isn't him. However, Hardy wasn't quite modern in the sense that there seems to be an active evil in replacement for the active grace. He had not quite embraced the idea of the fortunate fall.

hatster: [modded up!]  How does this reflect on the style of his writing? Tolkien does not shy away from calling on the "spirit" of both things and words. Things have quality, not just quantity. Lewis's discussion in "Men Without Chests" comes to mind here. I personally love the poetic cadence, alliteration, and slanting nod to both Old English and British Romanticism in the line "the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness." Such a line works on many levels: For those of us who know our literature and our mythology (and even for some of us who don't, but I'll explain that later) it illuminates with allusion things that would amount to fairy, while it embeds the present scene in a long history. For those less aware of the literary connections, the reversal along with the poetic cadence and lack of punctuation lets the language slip a bit so that while the "desolate garden of Gondor" still keeps a lovliness, the now desolate Gondor stills that loveliness. In some ways that slippage is more modern than Romantic, but for Tolkien it lends the landscape life where we might even feel the tug of war between Ithilien's struggle to cling to its old peace against the growing doom of Gondor. The reversed syntax changes the stress so that in the phrase "kept still" the stillness is emphasized, not the keeping. I do believe that even the untutored reader may be influenced by that even when reading at top speed. Language functions on so many levels we don't pause to notice.

Now, on that note, I know that one of the main reasons I went to college and studied literature was because Tolkien's writing instilled in me the sense that I was only seeing half the world. His writing along with Lewis's and others made me aware that their were allusions there that I "felt" and "understood" even while I had no means of making the literary and historic connections to them I knew must be there. They made me ask what it was about literature that made me feel what I was feeling. While I don't believe I found all my answers there, I did find some and began to understand where I don't think either Tolkien or I think we can find those answers this side of the sea. In that respect we are both somewhat Modernist while keeping our Romanticism.

Penthe: lovely hatster I love the connection between the romantic and the modern.

an seleichan: [modded up!] untutored reader here :-)

Thanks for your discussion, it was very helpful to me, not to mention interesting.

I do believe that even the untutored reader may be influenced by that even when reading at top speed. Language functions on so many levels we don't pause to notice

Even when we notice it, we often don't know why the words sound like the rush of water down an eternal falls, or the wind always blowing down a long corridor of time.

We just like it, without knowing why.

Aunt Dora Baggins: Wow!  *mods up in spirit*

Elostirion74: [modded up!] At times I find that Tolkien is clumsy or unfortunate, or using too many adjectives, but this is rather the exception than the rule. 

I'm sure I could enjoy a scholarly book devoted to Tolkien's style, but I doubt that it would enhance my reading very much, analysis of style rarely does the trick for me. For me it's enjoyable in small doses, after which I rather prefer just reading some passages aloud, immersing myself in the more rhythmic or imagistic aspects of the prose.


Downstairs Color


squire: Sam’s speech in this chapter is filled with:



        ‘Higher up for me.’

        ‘Third time pays for all’

        ‘rare good ballast for an empty belly’

        ‘if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned’

        ‘something hot out of the pot’

        ‘We don't see eye to eye’


        ‘And we might be wanting to get back. We might!’

        ‘I'd not be sorry for a change myself.’

        ‘if you don't put wet stuff on it and make a smother’

        ‘If you give me a coney, the coney's mine, see, to cook, if I have a mind. And I have.’

        ‘Then you won't see the fire, and I shan't see you, and we'll both be the happier.’

        ‘Herbs we can manage, seemingly.’

        ‘nigh on half past eight by Shire clocks, maybe.’

        ‘I haven't brought no bowls, nor nothing proper’

        ‘I'll never forgive myself. Nor won't have a chance, maybe!’

        ‘Meaning we're not, I take you. Thank you kindly’

        ‘He stands a fair chance of being spitted for an Orc

        ‘Go quietly when you must!’

Curses. – so to speak

        ‘Well see here, old noser,’

        ‘Don't you damage one of my pans, or I'll carve you into mincemeat.’

        ‘Sméagol'll get into real true hot water’

        ‘I wonder where that dratted Gollum is?

F. Does Sam’s colloquial speech strike you as authentic? Specific? Fake? Which is your favorite, and why? Does anyone else in the LotR speak as distinctively as Sam?

hatster: [modded up!]  I think Sam’s colorful language does well to approximate in English what its equivalent would be in the common tongue. Frodo sometimes picks up some of the same color if only to adumbrate how his is different.

dernwyn: [modded up!]  I love Sam's colloquial speech.  (Reminds me a bit of my gramma, the one what come out of the hills in West Virginia, took to marryin' a farmer and done raised herself up a fine brood.)  I see nothing "fake" about it, in fact it's refreshing!  So many of Tolkien's characters have more "refined" speech.  I don't have any particular favorite from this chapter, but Sam's "‘I haven't brought no bowls, nor nothing proper" is similar to what I recall hearing back on the farm...

an seleichan: Sam's voice Well, there's Gollum. :-)

Anyway, if you listen to the recording of Tolkien reading this section, Sam sounds perfectly normal, although the only real knowledge I have of his accent and kind of speech comes from old war-time British movies. But he sounds like the lower-class characters in those movies, the servants and enlisted men, etc.

But the words flow nicely out of the mouth, when read aloud. They don't sound stilted or forced at all.


squire: Even Faramir has a few sayings:

       ‘Elves are wondrous fair to look upon, or so ‘tis said.’

       ‘the Sun is climbing!’

       ‘Wise man trusts not to chance-meeting on the road’

G. Does Frodo ever speak with ‘sayings’ or other indications of verbal color? What do Frodo’s speech patterns tell us about him, if anything?

 hatster: [modded up!]  If anything, Frodo manages a chameleon speech--he is able to respond to all in kind, which suggests he is better educated and less provincial.


Double Trouble

the fragrance of the air grew as they went forward; and from the blowing and muttering of Gollum it seemed that he noticed it too, and did not relish it.


…sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched;


[Sam:]…the bones were best left in peace and not pawed and routed by Gollum.


Gollum, in any case, would not move under the Yellow Face. Soon it would look over the dark ridges of the Ephel Dúath, and he would faint and cower in the light and heat.

squire: H. Why does Tolkien use conjoined adjectives so often for describing Gollum’s actions?

hatster: [modded up!]  Not so much conjoined adjectives but double verbal constructions that lend him a restless quality. Gollum is never one thing. Even when sure of himself he is always restless and divided.

dernwyn: [modded up!]  Conjoined adjectives are used for conjoined personalities.  It's as if the first adjective refers to Sméagol, and the second to Gollum.


Sentence Structure


What became of him Sam never heard: whether he escaped to roam the wild for a time, until he perished far from his home or was trapped in some deep pit; or whether he raged on until he plunged in the Great River and was swallowed up.

squire: I. Why does Tolkien write this sentence this way? Does he write this way often? What is the effect he achieves?

hatster: [modded up!]  I'm not sure what you mean by "this way." It isn't so much the syntactical structure here that makes this line stand out, but the way in which the narrator fails to stand apart from Sam here. Though the language is clearly not Sam's, the syntax patterns the puzzle on a scale important to Sam while opening the door for some wonderful fanfic :-)

FarFromHome: Sentence Structure This open-ended sentence, with its "whether...whether..." structure reminds us of the open-endedness of stories, that we are in a story, that in fact everything is bound together in the endless web (or Road or River) of story. Here the story runs off into an "unknown vista" of future story, much as we glimpse hidden vistas of earlier stories in the references to the First Age.

Another suggestion of an unknown future story is seen after Shelob's defeat: "Shelob was gone; and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing her malice and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within...this tale does not tell."

Even the little references to our own world - the anachronisms like fish and chips or express trains to remind us of England, or a word like 'dryad' to make us think of classical, mediterranean history - suggest the unbroken, endless flow of the great story, right into our own world. The great tales, as Frodo and Sam understand, never end.

Owlyross: I love the idea about the language being linked to both the past and the present. It really gives a sense of the story being "historical" yet alive.

nefisa3: and don't forget the fox... minor as it may seem, the fox's little appearence in FOTR fits in with this theme of a story wending ever on.

It is that little reminder that other worlds and creatures have their own stories too: and we never know theirs, and they never know ours, even though we randomly intersect at times.

Lúthien_Rising: yet any "or not" to the "whether" is unnecessary; this structure is more common than you might imagine. It's only by virtue of his repetition of it that we notice it at all here.


                               previous:                  next:

 Home                     Sources                   COMMENTARY: HoME


The following links to the actual TORn discussion thread may be slow or unavailable: