Read Meditations on Middle-Earth Online

Authors: Karen Haber

Tags: #Fantasy Literature, #Irish, #Middle Earth (Imaginary Place), #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Welsh, #Fantasy Fiction, #History and Criticism, #General, #American, #Books & Reading, #Scottish, #European, #English, #Literary Criticism

Meditations on Middle-Earth (13 page)

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ince I had three children, I’ve read Tolkien’s trilogy aloud three times. It’s a wonderful book to read aloud or (consensus by the children) listen to. Even when the sentences are long, their flow is perfectly clear, and follows the breath; punctuation comes just where you need to pause; the cadences are graceful and inevitable. Like Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, Tolkien must have heard what he wrote. The narrative prose of such novelists is like poetry in that it wants the living voice to speak it, to find its full beauty and power, its subtle music, its rhythmic vitality.

Woolf’s vigorous, highly characteristic sentence-rhythms are purely and exclusively prose: I don’t think she ever uses a regular beat. Dickens and Tolkien both occasionally drop into metrics. Dickens’s prose in moments of high emotional intensity tends to become iambic, and can even be scanned: “It is a far, far better thing that I do/than I have ever done . . .” The hoity-toity may sneer, but this iambic beat is tremendously effective—particularly when the metric regularity goes unnoticed as such. If Dickens recognized it, it didn’t bother him. Like most really great artists, he’d use any trick that worked.

Woolf and Dickens wrote no poetry. Tolkien wrote a great deal, mostly narratives and “lays,” often in forms taken from the subjects of his scholarly interest. His verse often shows extraordinary intricacy of meter, alliteration, and rhyme, yet is easy and fluent, sometimes excessively so. His prose narratives are frequently interspersed with poems, and once at least in the trilogy he quietly slips from prose into verse without signaling it typographically. Tom Bombadil, in
The Fellowship of the Ring
, speaks metrically. His name is a drumbeat, and his meter is made up of free, galloping dactyls and trochees, with tremendous forward impetus: Tum tata Tum tata, Tum ta Tum ta. . . . “You let them out again, Old Man Willow! What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!” Usually Tom’s speech is printed without line breaks, so unwary or careless silent readers may miss the beat until they
it as verse—as song, actually, for when his speech is printed as verse Tom is singing.

As Tom is a cheerfully archetypal fellow, profoundly in touch with, indeed representing, the great, natural rhythms of day and night, season, growth and death, it’s appropriate that he should talk in rhythm, that his speech should sing itself. And, rather charmingly, it’s an infectious beat; it echoes in Goldberry’s speech, and Frodo picks it up. “Goldberry!” he cries as they are leaving, “My fair lady, clad all in silver green! We have never said farewell to her, nor seen her since that evening!”

If there are other metric passages in the trilogy, I’ve missed them. The speech of the elves and noble folk such as Aragorn has a dignified, often stately gait, but not a regular stress beat. I suspected King Théoden of iambics, but he only drops into them occasionally, as all measured English speech does. The narrative moves in balanced cadences in passages of epic action, with a majestic sweep reminiscent of epic poetry, but it remains pure prose. Tolkien’s ear was too good and too highly trained in prosody to let him drop into meter unknowingly.

Stress units—metric feet—are the smallest elements of rhythm in literature, and in prose probably the only quantifiable ones. A while ago I got interested in the ratio of stresses to syllables in prose, and did some counting.

In poetry, the normal ratio is about 50 percent: that is, by and large, in poetry, one syllable out of two has a beat on it: Tum ta Tum ta ta Tum Tum ta, etc. . . . In narrative, that ratio goes down to one beat in two to four: ta Tum tatty Tum ta Tum tatatty, etc. . . . In discursive and technical writing, only every fourth or fifth syllable may get a beat; textbook prose tends to hobble along clogged by a superfluity of egregiously unnecessary and understressed polysyllables.

Tolkien’s prose runs to the normal narrative ratio of one stress every two to four syllables. In passages of intense action and feeling the ratio gets pretty close to 50 percent, like poetry; but only Tom’s speech can be scanned.

Stress beat in prose is fairly easy to identify and count, though I doubt any two readers of a prose passage would mark the stresses in exactly the same places. Other elements of rhythm in narrative are less physical and far more difficult to quantify, having to do not with an audible repetition, but with the pattern of the narrative itself. These elements are longer, larger, and very much more elusive.

Rhythm is repetition. Poetry can repeat anything—a stress-pattern, a phoneme, a rhyme, a word, a line, a stanza. Its formality gives it endless liberty to establish rhythmic structure.

What is repeatable in narrative prose? In oral narrative, which generally maintains many formal elements, rhythmic structure may be established by the repetition of certain key words, and by grouping events into similar, accumulative semi-repetitions: think of “The Three Bears” or the “Three Little Pigs.” European story uses triads; Native American story is more likely to do things in fours. Each repetition both builds the foundation of the climatic event, and advances the story.

Story moves, and normally it moves forward. Silent reading doesn’t need repetitive cues to keep the teller and the hearers oriented, and people can read much faster than they speak. So people accustomed to silent reading generally expect narrative to move along pretty steadily, without formalities and repetitions. Increasingly during the twentieth century readers have been encouraged to look at a story as a road we’re driving, well paved and graded and without detours, on which we go as fast as we possibly can, with no changes of pace and certainly no stops, till we get to—well—to the end, and stop.

“There and Back Again”: in Bilbo’s title for
The Hobbit
, Tolkien has already told us the larger shape of his narrative, the direction of his road.

The rhythm that shapes and directs his narrative is noticeable, was noticeable to me, because it is very strong and very simple, as simple as a rhythm can be: two beats. Stress, release. Inbreath, outbreath. A heartbeat. A walking gait. But on so vast a scale, so capable of endlessly complex and subtle variation, that it carries the whole enormous narrative straight through from beginning to end, from There to Back Again, without faltering. The fact is, we
from the Shire to the Mountain of Doom with Frodo and Sam. One, two, left, right, on foot, all the way. And back.

What are the elements that establish this long-distance walking pace? Which elements recur, are repeated with variations, to form the rhythms of prose? Those that I am aware of are: Words and phrases. Images. Actions. Moods. Themes.

Words and phrases, repeated, are easy to identify. But Tolkien is not, after all, telling his story aloud; writing prose for silent, and sophisticated, readers, he doesn’t use key words and stock phrases as storytellers do. Such repetitions would be tedious and faux-naïve. I have not located any “refrains” in the trilogy.

As for imagery, actions, moods, and themes, I find myself unable to separate them usefully. In a profoundly conceived, craftily written novel such as The Lord of the Rings, all these elements work together indissolubly, simultaneously. When I tried to analyze them out, I just unraveled the tapestry and was left with a lot of threads, but no picture. So I settled for bunching them all together. I noted every repetition of any image, action, mood, or theme, without trying to identify it as anything other than a repetition.

I was working from my impression that a dark event in the story was likely to be followed by a brighter one (or vice versa); that when the characters had exerted terrible effort, they then got to have a rest; that each action brought a reaction, never predictable in nature, because Tolkien’s imagination is inexhaustible, but more or less predictable in kind, like day following night, and winter after fall.

This “trochaic” alternation of stress and relief is of course a basic device of narrative, from folk tales to
War and Peace;
but Tolkien’s reliance on it is striking. It is one of the things that makes his narrative technique unusual for the mid-twentieth century. Unrelieved psychological or emotional stress or tension, and a narrative pace racing without a break from start to climax, characterize much of the fiction of the time. To readers with such expectations, Tolkien’s plodding stress/relief pattern seemed, and seems, simplistic, primitive. To others, it may seem a remarkably simple, subtle technique of keeping the reader going on a long and ceaselessly rewarding journey.

I wanted to see if I could locate the devices by which Tolkien establishes this master rhythm in the trilogy; but the idea of working with the whole immense saga was terrifying. Perhaps some day I or a braver reader can identify the larger patterns of repetition and alternation throughout the narrative. I narrowed my scope to one chapter, the eighth of Volume I, “Fog on the Barrow Downs”: some fourteen pages, chosen almost arbitrarily. I did want there to be some traveling in the selection, journey being such a large component of the story. I went through the chapter noting every major image, event, and feeling-tone, in particular noting recurrences or strong similarity of words, phrases, scenes, actions, feelings, and images. Very soon, sooner than I expected, repetitions began to emerge, including a positive/negative binary pattern of alternation or reversal.

These are the chief recurrent elements I listed (page references are to the George Allen & Unwin edition of 1954):

• A vision or vista of a great expanse (three times: in the first paragraph; in the fifth paragraph; and on p. 157, when the vision is back into history)
• The image of a single figure silhouetted on the sky (four times: Goldberry, p. 147; the standing stone, p. 148; the barrow-wight, p. 151; Tom, pp. 153 and 154. Tom and Goldberry are bright figures in sunlight; the stone and the wraith are dark looming figures in mist)
• Mention of the compass directions—frequent, and often with a benign or malign connotation
• The question “Where are you?” three times (p. 150, when Frodo loses his companions, calls, and is not answered; p. 151, when the barrow-wight answers him; and Merry, on p. 154, “Where did you get to, Frodo?” answered by Frodo’s “I thought that I was lost,” and Tom’s “You’ve found yourself again, out of the deep water.”)
• Phrases describing the hill country through which they ride and walk, the scent of turf, the quality of the light, the ups and downs, and the hilltops on which they pause: some benign, some malign
• Associated images of haze, fog, dimness, silence, confusion, unconsciousness, paralysis (foreshadowed on p. 148 on the hill of the standing stone, intensified on p. 149 as they go on, and climaxing on p. 150 on the barrow), which reverse to images of sunlight, clarity, resolution, thought, action (pp. 151-153)

What I call reversal is a pulsation back and forth between polarities of feeling, mood, image, emotion, action—examples of the stress/release pulse that I think is fundamental to the structure of the book. I listed some of these binaries or polarities, putting the negative before the positive, though that is not by any means always the order of occurrence. Each such reversal or pulsation occurs more than once in the chapter, some three or four times.

resting/traveling on
vagueness/vividness of perception
confusion of thought/clarity
sense of menace/of ease
emprisonment or a trap/freedom


These reversals are not simple binary flips. The positive causes or grows from the negative state, and the negative from the positive. Each yang contains its yin, each yin contains its yang. (I don’t use the Chinese terms lightly; I believe they fit with Tolkien’s conception of how the world works.)

Directionality is extremely important all through the book. I believe there is no moment when we don’t know, literally, where north is, and in which direction the protagonists are going. Two of the windrose points have a pretty clear and consistent emotional value: east has bad connotations, west is benign. North and south vary more, depending on where we are in time and space; in general I think north is a melancholy direction and south a dangerous one. In a passage early in the chapter, one of the three great “vistas” offers us the whole compass view, point by point: west, the Old Forest and the invisible, beloved Shire; south, the Brandywine River flowing “away out of the knowledge of the hobbits”; north, a “featureless and shadowy distance”; and east, “a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer . . . the high and distant mountains”—where their dangerous road will lead them.

BOOK: Meditations on Middle-Earth
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