Saturday, August 13, 2005

Infectious language

I've apparently caught my children's illness, so I've spent the day primarily in running to the doctor and pharmacy, and napping. When I am conscious and not reading back copies of "A Boy's Life," I've been reading The Silmarillion, looking for references to health and medicine for this entry I'm writing.

First off, anyone who doesn't think Tolkien really is the Author of the (Twentieth) Century should read The Silmarillion and consider that this book is available in paperback. While lots of other writers have their notebooks published, these are usually of interest to scholars only, and so have short, expensive runs and sit in college libraries. This book has sold millions of copies, and (if I can say this without incurring the wrath of the many Tolkienophiles) is boring beyond belief. It doesn't have characters so much as it has concepts; it doesn't have a plot so much as it has general movement; and it doesn't have prose so much as it has an homage to the language of Romance. I can't imagine why anyone would read it for itself -- rather, I think, people read it in order for such revelations as saying, "Oh, that's why Frodo starts chanting about Elbereth" and other such things.

Dr. Gill and I were talking about it the other day, and he said something like, "It's the only book to make King James English seem like free-wheeling slang" (or something along those lines). And it's true -- you can find lines of startling, over-the-top formality, that seem to be mockeries of the OT book of numbers or Leviticus, like this: "The sons of Bor were Borlad, Borlach and Borthand; and they followed Maedhros and Maglor, and cheated the hope of Morgoth, and were faithful. The sons of Ulfang the Black were Ulfast, and Ulworth, and Uldor the accursed; and they followed Calanthir and swore allegiance to him, and proved faithless" (189).

If you read enough of this, though, it begins to affect your own language; at least, that's the suggestion of the reviewer blurbs found in and on the book. Consider these: Time wrote, "Medieval romances, fierce fairy tales, and fiercer wars that ring with heraldic fury." Ring with heraldic fury? Who exactly are these furious heralds? Not only is this a rather faux high-tone, it makes no sense. The Baltimore Sunday Sun wrote that "the language is always lovely to the ear." Listen, Sunday morning in Baltimore is no time or place to awaken and read prose like "lovely to the ear"." The Los Angeles Times wrote, "One is hypnotized, drawn into peaceful lands of bliss and glad life." In addition to the tone, I've got to wonder if the person who wrote that review had actually read the book, since there's a lot more war and strife than "bliss and glad life" in the book.

All these sound silly when Tolkien does not, perhaps because the writers haven't earned the right to make Arthurian pronouncements in their reviews. That they make them without blushing is a sign of the power of Tolkien, and the overwhelming quality of his prose.

Somewhere in my distant past, I read someone's remark about someone else's writing that they needed to remove all the Latin tags and obscure vocabulary. The author responded by saying that he had been influenced by Poe, and that is was the way Poe wrote. The editor, in a pragmatic and true answer, replied, "If you want to write like Poe, by God, you've got to be Poe!"

Let's steal that. If you want to write like Tolkien, you've got to be Tolkien.

1 comment:

  1. I have to take issue with your label of "boring beyond belief." The "Ainulindale" is hard to plow through, but the rest is fascinating and captivating. I have always loved mythology, so perhaps I'm biased. But who wouldn't love heroes like Turin Turambar and tales like Beren and Luthien's descent into the fortress of Morgoth? I loved it!