[update: My point here was to show how it would be possible to critique Tolkien's prose style without simply saying that it lacks [undefined] "depth." The comments below, and others on internet forums, show exactly how I think this approach can be successful: people are debating the quantity and quality of the landscape writing. They are making suggestions as to how the particular elements I flagged as being problematic might actually contribute to the aesthetic effects of the piece (i.e., that my assessment was incorrect). I chose the particular passages (except for the fox, for which I must confess an irrational dislike that I should probably exorcise) simply because that was the section I was reading to my daughter last night. My point was to illustrate that people of good will can disagree about the specific merits of the individual passages and that this disagreement demonstrates that 1) hand-waving and invocations of a lack of "depth" are useless as criticism; 2) those who like Tolkien do not mindlessly defend his every aesthetic choice (as do, by the way, many critics of the "greats," who will explain away even a typographical error as a point of genius; see my "spoiled eel" post), but actually practice analysis and criticism. I think these points stand demonstrated. I assert that specific and detailed discussion makes for better scholarship, criticism and intellectual practice than blanket condemnation.
Also, I am coming around to the idea that "pinnacles or pillars" is actually effective rather than flabby: it illustrates the temporary confusion in Frodo's perceptions quite well. I am still not sold on "thrawn trees].
At the end of my my previous and far-too-long post criticizing Bryan Appleyard's review of Tolkien's The Children of Húrin, I said that I would next discuss how Tolkien's prose style could be critiqued without resorting to the undefined notion of "depth" that Appleyard uses. I also said that Tolkien's prose style is, in my view a major stumbling block for contemporary critics.
As I wrote in the first volume of Tolkien Studies, it is possible to analyze and critique Tolkien's writing without falling back on hand-waving and invocations of depth (I think I showed that the prose style even in particulary harshly criticized passages had plenty of depth). There I tried to show how the prose style worked to convey complex meanings beyond those of the literal text. Here I'll suggest some of the flaws that could be legitimately criticized as failing to achieve their intended effects or working at cross-purposes with the rest of the narrative.
The first of these (and my students are already laughing) is the narrator's giving us the thoughts (in English) of a fox in Chapter 3 of The Fellowship of the Ring. I think this is a failure of tone (moving us back towards the intrusive narrator of The Hobbit) and jarring to the readers, who, after getting through all of the cute hobbit-business and small jokes of Chapter 1, have all of a sudden entered into a much more serious world in Chapter 2 (The Shadow of the Past). Tolkien scholar Marcel Bülles, when he was visiting my Tolkien class, suggested that the fox's thoughts worked as comic relief, but my judgment is that the comic relief was too slight to justify the intrusion of the animal narrator, the making of his thoughts into English, etc. "Sam was content, if logs can be said to be contented" works much better as narrative lightening without jarring the reader into the thoughts of an animal, though others might quarrel that the play on the "sleep like a log" cliche is too gentle for the seriousness of the story.
The second significant critique of Tolkien's prose style, and one that is obvious when you read the story aloud, is the amount of space given over to description of landscape. Without doing tedious tabulation, I would venture to argue that something more than 50% of the novel is devoted to landscape description. Defenders might argue that this vast quantity to description leads to the feeling in many readers that Middle-earth is a real place, but I wonder if Tolkien could have been just as effective with fewer words. On the other hand, this critique smacks of the emperor's critique from the film Amadeus: "there are too many notes. Remove some of them." But let's just look at one (very good) passage from the end of The Fellowship of the Ring:
Nothing happened that night worse than a brief drizzle of rain an hour before dawn. As soon as it was fully light they started. Already the fog was thinning. They kept as close as they could to the western side, and they could see the dim shapes of the low cliffs rising ever higher, shadowy walls with their feet in the hurrying river. In the mid-morning the clouds drew down lower, and it began to rain heavily. They drew the skin-covers over their boats to prevent them from being flooded, and drifted on: little could be seen before them or about them through the grey falling curtains.
In general this is very effective, clear, unornamented landscape writing. It could, with a little stylization, be made to fit into a Hemingway, "Nick Adams" story. I would critique "shadowy walls with their feet in the hurrying river"; the collocation of "hurrying" and "feet" seems to me ineffective, as the image the author is creating is quite the opposite of feet hurrying (the river, obviously, is doing the hurrying). That said, I can't come up with an obvious synonymn for "feet" off the top of my head. I would be tempted to delete the entire phrase. You can also criticize "grey falling curtains" as a cliche, but I'm a little hesitant to do that, because the recurrent image of the rain as a curtain is significant elsewhere in The Lord of the Rings, and here were could have the kind of layering through repetition which creates the "myth" feel of the book.
The rain, however, did not last long. Slowly the sky above grew lighter, and then suddenly the clouds broke, and their draggled fringes trailed away northward up the River. The fogs and mists were gone. Before the travellers lay a wide ravine, with great rocky sides to which clung, upon shelves and in narrow crevices, a few thrawn trees. The channel grew narrower and the River swifter. Now they were speeding along with little hope of stopping or turning, whatever they might meet ahead. Over them was a lane of pale-blue sky, around them the dark overshadowed River, and before them black, shutting out the sun, the hills of Emyn Muil, in which no opening could be seen.
Frodo peering forward saw in the distance two great rocks approaching: like great pinnacles or pillars of stone they seemed. Tall and sheer and ominous they stood upon either side of the stream. A narrow gap appeared between them, and the River swept the boats towards it.
Again, nice, clear prose that advances the story and provides a very effective description of the landscape. "Speeding along with little hope of stopping or turning" is particularly good because it can be read as an apo koinu construction: A: "speeding along with little hope" (which is true in general for this part of the story); B: "of stopping or turning" (ah, it's more specific). I think that such tiny re-constructions of sentence meaning are very important in poetry, but others disagree.
The use of the Sindarin name, Emyn Muil, is well done; the text clearly explains what this is, and the name in an elvish language puts the reader more fully in Middle-earth--Tolkien illustrates what the Emyn Muil are, but he doesn't stop the narrative to give a lecture, as so many other fantasy writers (Stephen R. Donaldson, for instance) are wont to do.
I do have two critiques: the "thrawn" trees: everything up to that point is good, but "thrawn" seems to me merely an ornamental archaism. You could make the argument that it provides additional color, but I wouldn't necessarily accept it as giving an important technical description the way that eyot, laving, louver, dwimmerlaik, etc., do in other places. I also question "pinnacles or pillars of stone." I think the sentence would have given the reader a better image without the "or," or without both pinnacles and pillars. On the other hand, I can see what Tolkien is aiming for, to produce a moment of confusion in the reader's mind (as there is in Frodo's) when it is not clear if the giant, pillar-shaped things are really carved by men or are natural formations (pinnacles).
As you can see, it's not easy to critique Tolkien's prose style -- which may mean that its much better than it is given credit for being. Most choices can, upon consideration and reflection, be seen to be contributing to particular aesthetic effects. I think critics sometimes displace their discomfort with other elements of Tolkien's writing onto a prose style that they have not considered carefully enough.
My critique in this post was on prose style, not speach style, so I'll stop short of critiquing Aragorn's speeches that begin with "Behold!" and save that for another post, where we may find some of the elements of Tolkien's writing that are most objectionable to modernist critics.