Children of Húrin or,
Tolkien: The Scholars and the Critics
In Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17, there's a description of a weapon that can look just like a rock or a small piece of metal. It's basically undetectable, but if you sneak it onto a spaceship and put it near any kind of "inertia-stasis system" the ship will disintegrate as soon as you try to travel through space.
I think that The Lord of the Rings has the same kind of effect on theories of good literature. Take some critic's theory of what "good literature" is, put Tolkien into it, and watch the whole edifice collapse into its own contradictions. For example, as Tom Shippey points out so beautifully, Philip Toynbee says that "The Good Writer" can write about anything, even "incestuous dukes in Tierra del Fuego" and it is up to the public to adjust, not to just discount the writing as too strange or different. Apparently Mr. Toynbee neglected to mention the "incestuous dukes are A-Ok, but Elves are not allowed" codicil to his theory, because Tolkien fits Toynbee's description (and many others) of "The Good Writer" to a T, and yet Toynbee, and "Bunny" Wilson, and Salman Rushdie, and most recently Bryan Appleyard clearly would not put Tolkien anywhere near their pantheon of "Good Writers."
And yet he fits the criteria so well:
Struggling with the recalcitrance of the English language? Check (Except Tolkien knew more about the structure and complexity of English, its history and its development, than Pound, Eliot or Joyce--though Joyce probably had an internalized phono-aesthetic sense as deep as Tolkien's, if not so explicitly theorized). Following his imagination wherever it goes? Check. Refusing to accept the givens of contemporary ideologies? Check. Writing for himself and not worrying about the opinions or critics or publishers or even posterity? Check.
So what does this show? It's tempting to try to turn the hostile critics' words against them in a kind of intellectual judo, showing that Tolkien does belong in with the other great writers, fitting precisely into Bunny Wilson, et. al.'s categories. Tom Shippey (who is a much kinder and more reasonable person than I am) does this very well. He seems to want to say to these critics: "Open your eyes. Use your own theories. This is what you said good writing was. Tolkien fits all your criteria."
I, on the other hand, (who am neither as learned nor as nice as Shippey) think that Tolkien shows that most modernistic aesthetic theories--at least the kind that are have been internalized by the reviewers who publish in the Times and other elite outlets-- are crap. Sorry, that wasn't polite and could be better formulated: The aesthetic theories of people like Bunny Wilson, Toynbee, Judith Shulevitz, Bryan Appleyard, Michiko Kakutani (when they bother to articulate them at all) are comprised equally of hand-waving and deeply embedded assumptions that, once interrogated, cannot be sustained.
Let me take the first review of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin by Bryan Appleyard. It's tempting (oh, so tempting) to "fisk" the review, chopping it up into paragraphs and showing what is wrong with each one, but I will leave that to others. Instead, I want to point out a few very important and unquestioned assumptions that I think really should be questioned.
Appleyard begins by citing A.N. Wilson on the point that Tolkien was "not really a writer" but was rather a world creator. This is a very useful insight into the minds of Wilson and Appleyard. A "writer" in this view, is not someone who publishes books or even writes thousands and thousands of words of narrative privately. A writer is something else, a member of some subset of people who publish books. A "writer" (as opposed to a writer) belongs to a specific group.
What is that group? From the next paragraph, we learn that writers must be that subset of people who write who are concerned about style. This is a promising start; I myself think that the great gap between Tolkien and his critics is that contemporary critical methodologies are not very applicable to Tolkien's style, so maybe we are getting somewhere.
But then we learn that Tolkien was concerned about style, just in, apparently, the wrong way. He was interested in the style of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Norse sagas "and, especially in this latest book... Wagner" (shocked emphasis mine): "The obvious approach for a contemporary writer who wishes to retrieve such forms is update their style and, perhaps, set them in contemporary context."
Now we have learned even more important things: to be a writer, one has to "update" one's style. That is the "obvious" approach. If we follow this line of reasoning, then, although there might be good and important things in old texts, if someone living now wants to write about these good things, he or she must "update" to contemporary style or even context. The unstated but controlling assumption must be that contemporary style is better than earlier styles (otherwise, why "update" to it -- update implies improvement).
So here we see that Appleyard (and I'm guessing Wilson and many others) have unconsciously been accepting a progressivist aesthetic ideology last articulated openly by late Victorian writers, but obviously still exerting a very strong influence. If you follow this line of reasoning, it seems that the craft of writing is continuously improving, so that what is later is better (although the uneven distribution of talent through the ages means that some great early writers are still worth reading even if they haven't been "updated").
Or, there's the possibility that we have a variety of aesthetic progressivism where one doesn't have to make the claim that, say, Hemingway is aesthetically superior to Shakespeare, but that each is a better "fit" to his or her time and so if Shakespeare wrote his exact words in 1941, Hemingway's work would be superior. I think probably this is where most journalistic literary critics (like Appleyard, Shulevitz, Kakutani) would end up: not an absolute aesthetic progressivism, but a relative one: there is a style that is appropriate for a given time period and to deviate too far from that style makes for bad writing.
But here's a quick thought experiment: let's say someone discovers, in some dusty archive, a genuine Shakespearean sonnet, or Chaucerian work (say, the lost Book of the Lion) or another poem by the Beowulf-poet. Could this be a great work of literature? I don't think anyone would argue that it could not (it would, of course, depend on the quality of the text). Now, let us imagine that, after 100 years, countless scholarly articles, etc., we discover that the found text was after all a 20th-century creation. Would those same words immediately shift from being good literature to bad literature? What if a canonical work was discovered to be a later forgery? If Beowulf was written in the Tudor period, is it now a bad poem?
Under the assumptions that Appleyard seems to be following, it seems to me that author and period count for everything, the specific words on the page for nothing. Yet I am not aware of any logical argument for such a point of view. That Joyce or Eliot are better prose stylists than Tolkien--"(much greater artists)" Appleyard says, without explaining why--presupposes some way of judging prose style. But when we try to see what a reviewer means by a better prose style, we come up with hand-waving: "depth" (undefined) or "deeper currents" (undefined).
Appleyard continues (in regard to The Children of Húrin: "The modern mind is clearly being dragged by the scruff of the neck away from its literary comfort zone." This is a really good line, and most likely true, but he says it like it is a bad thing. It seems to me that most of what I've heard about the power and importance of modernist and post-modernist art and literature is about moving people out of their comfort zones: isn't that the basic message of every single Whitney Biennial since, say, the 1980's? But when Tolkien does this, it's bad. Is it because there are Elves? (Did someone forget to mention the "no Elves" codicil again?)
Appleyard notes that he "gave up on" The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien's prose is "all surface, with none of the deeper currents that make good or great writing." Here I became really confused. If there's one thing that Tolkien scholarship has shown its that there is vast "depth" behind Tolkien's word-choices and images: when Tolkien uses "eyot" or "laving" or "louver," or "ninnyhammer," or "dwimmerlaik," he is using precise technical terms and linking back, through literary reference, to earlier works of literature (just as Eliot does in "The Wasteland," which Appleyard references). When Tolkien uses syntactic constructions such as "Come not between the Nazgul and his prey," or "That was a grim meeting," he makes use of traditional referentiality to invoke larger literary contexts. When he tells the story of Túrin eventually sleeping with his sister and committing suicide when he finds out, he is referring to the Finnish Kalevala and taking a kind of folk-tale motif and turning it into a story with more complex characters and more specific ironies ("updating" if you will). Unfortunately, if you're a literary critic but not a scholar, if you're a journalist who invokes but hasn't carefully read Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (or, in one of the above examples, King Lear), you miss the point.
It is not, then, that Tolken's prose lacks depth, but that the depths which it references are not the depths that the critic knows. But why is Tolkien to blame here ? Isn't, per Toynbee, the great writer supposed to rush ahead and the critic to make the effort to follow? Who has legislated that the set of references and texts must be those with which the critic is comfortable? Eliot seems to be mocking the lack of erudition of many critics when he published his own footnotes to "The Waste Land," and critics who don't follow Tolkien's references also lack erudition (of a different kind, "northern" rather than Classical, for example), but rather than making the effort to acquire it, they assume the references are obscure, "tweedy," "donish," "dotty."
Appleyard's comparison to T.H. White's The Once and Future King is telling. White's work is infused with irony, that all-purpose condiment of modernist writers, critics and journalists. Tolkien has really very little interest in that kind of irony (which often is, to my mind, superficial, though not in White's case). But irony is easy for the critic, and it allows him or her to present a pose of superiority, which is essential if you are going to tell people what they should or should not like (rather than, say, explain how an aesthetic artifact produces its effects on different readers). It is an additional layer of irony: not only does the reader know things that the character do not, the critic is assumed to know things, important things, that the author does not.
It is ironic, then, that The Children of Húrin is driven by a series of dramatic ironies, and perhaps why Appleyard seems basically to like the book, despite the use of "tweedy," "dotty," and the mention that Dungeons and Dragons was "sweeping fetid undergraduate bedrooms" in 1974 (speak for you own bedroom, buddy)-- all of which is intended to show that Appleyard really is one of the cool kids, with discriminating taste.
There is also much "depth" in The Children of Húrin, but the depth is, as Gergely Nagy has shown in the single best article written on Tolkien the past decade, related to Tolkien's own body of texts. Unlike other imitative fantasy, Tolkien's work produces the "feel" of reading myth. His layers of poems, stories, anecdotes, annals and sketches works to produce the kind of textuality otherwise possessed only by works that have been handled by many writers and readers over many centuries. No one else has managed this feat, before or since: not Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Morrison, Rushdie or even Eco (Borges perhaps comes close).
Now this is not the only criterion for aesthetic excellence, but it at least has the advantage of being explicit: The Lord of the Rings and, now, The Children of Húrin sets out to do something that was previously impossible: write a new story that gives the reader the impression of reading a very, very old one. I don't have a lot of time for the unbelievably tedious "did Tolkien create a new mythology?" argument (my answer: not at first, but perhaps it is becoming one), but I think it is obvious that he did manage to make it seem as if his work was mythological rather than invented. That aesthetic effect was not part of the modernist project (and may be quite contrary to it), but it is nonetheless an effect that many readers feel keenly. A good reviewer should attempt to explain the effects of the book being reviewed.
My students are amused by the (very) old-fashioned literary-critical methodology of comparing every work of literature to Homer and Virgil (60% as good as Homer and 75% as good as Virgil would be the reducto). But mainstream journalistic criticism seems to be doing exactly this, without the benefit of naming the models or acknowledging the methodology.
Perhaps, though, we could solve many problems by making official a new dictum. Call it Dyson's law: It is impossible for good writing to include an Elf.
I don't think such a rule has ever been proven, but it does seem as if many critics have accepted it as absolute. I would love to see the outlines of the argument.
[Next: How Tolkien's prose style can be critiqued (Hint: not on the "lack of depth" unarticulated standard]