Monday, September 22, 2008

Poor Results at Emulating Tolkien's Style
(but it does show that the "Mythology for X" has moved a bit more deeply into the culture)

Today the WSJ has an editorial that begins:
Once upon a time, in the land that FDR built, there was the rule of “regulation” and all was right on Wall and Main Streets. Wise 27-year-old bank examiners looked down upon the banks and saw that they were sound. America’s Hobbits lived happily in homes financed by 30-year-mortgages that never left their local banker’s balance sheet, and nary a crisis did we have.
Then, lo, came the evil Reagan marching from Mordor with his horde of Orcs, short for “market fundamentalists.” Reagan’s apprentice, Gramm of Texas and later of McCain, unleashed the scourge of “deregulation,” and thus were “greed,” short-selling, securitization, McMansions, liar loans and other horrors loosed upon the world of men.

Now, however, comes Obama of Illinois, Schumer of New York and others in the fellowship of the Beltway to slay the Orcs and restore the rule of the regulator. So once more will the Hobbits be able to sleep peacefully in the shire.

With apologies to Tolkien, or at least Peter Jackson, something like this tale is now being sold to the American people to explain the financial panic of the past year.

Well, they really do have a lot to apologize for in that lede, mostly for butchering Tolkien's style so badly that it's not even recognizable except for the words Hobbits, Mordor and Orcs. It interests me how people do this so frequently. They recognize something different in the style, and they glom onto that, but they haven't been paying enough attention.

So here, WSJ, is how it should have been done (I make no comment on the actual content of the editorial. Not related to my purpose here):

Then all listened while X in his clear voice spoke of America, the land built by FDR, and of the Regulations of Power, and for time, peace and prosperity were on Wall and Main Streets. Wise where the regulators in those days, and young bank-examiners performed their duties well and bravely, seeing that their banks were sound. In those times the Hobbits lived quietly in the Shire in 30-year-mortgaged homes, and they meddled not at all in the balance sheets of their bankers, who were not troubled by the world outside.

But that time ended, and evil things began to stir again in the land or Mordor. And the shadow that arose was "Reagan," and his Orcs, and his "Market fundamentalists," spread across the lands. At the same time, Gramm of Texas, in flattery and imitation of the greater Reagan, began his "deregulation," a smaller shadow under his master's great shadow. “Greed,” was multiplying in the mountains, and short-sellers were abroad, now armed with securitization. And there were murmured hints of still worse creatures: McMansions, liar loans and other horrors.

I could go on, but it gets tedious, and I don't really agree either with the satire or with what the WSJ is satirizing. But my point is that it is possible to create a "Tolkienian" feel without immediately reaching for the "Lo!"

Now, because I'm a hopeless geek, I decided to see how many times Tolkien uses "Lo!" and in what situations. They are:

  1. FR: Galadriel shrinks back to regular elf woman after "All shall love me and despair." 
  2. TT: none
  3. RK: passing of the Grey Company -- this one seems unnecessary. They just go through a rock wall and there's a stream. 
  4. RK: sun on Théoden's shield -- appropriate, as the battle is taking the epic turn. 
  5. RK: Nazgûl's shadow blocks sun -- balance to previous example
  6. RK: Éowyn's fight with the Nazgûl -- if there's one place where you need a "Lo!", it's here. 
  7. RK: Théoden opens eyes when Merry thinks he's dead -- I don't think this one is necessary or that it works, though note part of epic scene
  8. RK:Éomer defies black ships -- works here. 
  9. RK: Denethor is holding a palantír -- don't think it's necessary to express the surprise. But does preserve the epic tone. 
  10. RK: In the retelling of the Passing of the Grey Company -- maybe, but I don't think it fitswith retell by Legolas and Gimli, though you could argue that they are influenced by the awe of Aragorn. 
  11. RK: When Aragorn seizes the black fleet -- appropriate for epic action, though again, this is in the indirect voices of Legolas and Gimli.
  12. RK: The Field of Cormallen, when the Minstrel sings the Song of Frodo. Utterly appropriate. 
  13. RK: When Aragorn finds the sapling of the white tree. 2 times.  Don't know if it needed both, but this is meant to be a moment where we get the Strider/Aragorn contrast, the feeling that he will not be able to be an epic king and the sign of the tree that shows he has been transformed that way. 
So, 1 example of "Lo!" in Fellowship, none in Two Towers, but 11 in RK. These are mostly in the "high epic" modes of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the events surrounding that, so the epic style is at work. If I (perish the thought) were Tolkien's editor, I would have suggested he drop the one with Theoden's eyes, the entering the cave in the Passing of the Grey Company, and probably the two in the re-telling by Legolas and Gimli. But the rest work really, really well (and the ones I object to probably work well for others).

But the larger point is that Tolkien would never (as you can see) use "Lo!" simply for the kind of background narration that happens in the Preface, The Shadow of the Past or The Council of Elrond. And that's the analogous style-situation that the WSJ writers are trying to conjure up.

Grade: C- . Needs closer study. Do the reading again and come see me in office hours. 


John Cowan said...

You left out "As has been told".

Michelle said...

Oh my goodness, your 'grade and comments' left me laughing so hard! I agree that the WSJ article was a pathetic, badly done rip-off. Sadly, most of its readership won't know the difference.

Jason Fisher said...

I think what often accounts for the heavy reliance on "lo" in these imitations is more the assumption that Tolkien's prose is universally mock-biblical ("lo" occurs throughout the Old Testament; more than a dozen times in Genesis alone). Of course, that assumption is very wrong. Even where Tolkien uses a style some might call biblical, it's not usually in The Lord of the Rings, particularly not in the early scene-setting chapters or in the synopses people seem to glom onto so much. Nice job calling out the WSJ (only the most recent offenders, sadly) for this foolishness.

N.E. Brigand said...

A tiny correction* regarding Gimli and Legolas' retelling of the Paths of the Dead episode in "The Last Debate": there are not two but three instances of "Lo!" there.

1. Legolas uses the word to express hope of victory because of the great number of ghosts.

2. Legolas quotes Aragorn using "Lo!" when he perceives that Minas Tirith is on fire.

3. Gimli uses the word when he notes that Aragorn had taken command of the corsair fleet.

Also, I assume you deliberately omitted the appendices, where Aragorn twice uses "Lo!" -- when he foretells that the time of Elrond's departure approaches, and when he informs Arwen that his own death is near.

A side note on the emergence from the Paths of the Dead in "The Passing of the Grey Company". That section reminds me of the end of Dante's Inferno: in both cases a stream is heard before it is seen in a tunnel, and emerging to the open air, the characters see the stars.

*Or expansion? I wasn't quite sure if your eighth example from RotK referred to one or two uses of "Lo!"

The Overgrown Hobbit said...

...also, the greater use of "Lo!" in ROTK is part of the gradual shift in language from beginning to end. At the start Tolkien gives us the merely quaint (Edwardian?) in FOTR; wherein we are merely hearing a tale from our grandfather's time. As the story moves across Middle Earth it moves further back away from history and into legend.

This is why if you read the Eagles calling to Faramir on the return from the triumph at the Black Gate it sounds merely... odd. If you get to it by way of the long road, reading from FOTR through the TT, it sends chills up one's spine.

Great post, btw.