Friday, January 20, 2012

Tolkien Aloud

As the previous post suggests, we do a lot of reading aloud in our house even though both children like to read on the own. My daughter may be 11-going-on-17, but if you are wise, you won't mess with her bedtime reading, and my son likewise thinks it doesn't matter what else has gone on that night, where we've gone or how tired he is: if he doesn't get reading, something is wrong.  I hope we can hold on to this family tradition as they continue to grow up.

A while back I published a piece in the journal Silver Leaves about reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to a four-year-old. That was my daughter, and we read the books again when she was six. Since then she's wanted to read other things (unlike me, who would force my father to start right in again on The Hobbit as soon as we got to the end of Return of the King), and we've done a lot of fantasy and science fiction. Over the past two years we've read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising; Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books (just the original trilogy. I'm not reading Tehanu to my daughter, well, ever); the Anne McCaffrey Harper Hall dragonrider books; the Lloyd Alexander Chronicles of Prydain (she loved these more than anything else); some of the Heinlein "juveniles"; and the first two Hitchhiker's Guide books by Douglas Adams.

My son wasn't interested in The Lord of the Rings books when he was four, though he did like The Hobbit and we read it a couple of times, but last year, after he turned seven, we started on Fellowship and are now to the very end of The Two Towers.

So I've read Tolkien's work aloud two and a half times, plus probably four times for The Hobbit, and have a pretty good comparison group of other writers. Tolkien is by far, massively by far, the easiest of the major fantasy and SF authors to read aloud and the one whose work gains the most from oral presentation (Lloyd Alexander would probably be a fairly distant second).

Now that's the kind of evaluative statement that needs something to back it up. But one of the problems with trying to defend such an evaluation is that we have no agreed-upon metric, and so people end up quoting particular passages, pointing, and saying "See!  See how great that is!" But often passages that are great out loud are also great when read silently, so the argument is hard to make in detail.

I think, though, that I've come across one minor technique in Tolkien that really makes a difference, and I think this aspect of his work arises from his having read so much of The Lord of the Rings to the Inklings: you never, when reading Tolkien, are in any doubt about who is talking in dialogue. There is always some kind of information, either in the set-up, the dialogue itself or the description, so that you never have the experience of reading a block of text and then realizing "Wait! That's Eomer talking, not Gandalf."

In contrast we might look at Frank Herbert's Dune.  I just finished reading this out loud to my daughter, and almost every night there would be some large passage of dialogue that I'd start reading, thinking it was one character, and then, after it was finished, you'd get a bit of description or a "said X" that showed  that it was an entirely different character speaking.

I'm particularly sensitive to this because I do "voices" for most of the characters in a text, and so when you start a passage thinking that it's in Gurney Hallek's accent, and it turns out to be Duke Leto or Stilgar, you have to go back and re-read the whole thing in the correct accent.  Many of these passages in Dune are too long to scan to the end and find out who is speaking without losing focus on the part being read and drifting.

But this disorientation never happens in Tolkien, even in minor works like Farmer Giles. It's always easy to read his texts aloud, not only because you know who is talking, but because the writing--even the description of landscape--has a rhythm to it, and rise and fall that keeps you from having to stay at one pitch and speed all the time.  There are rushing passages, but then also slower, more graceful ones.

Perhaps this orality (both in terms of oral roots and ease of oral presentation) is another aspect of Tolkien's work that makes it appealing to such a wide range of readers and draws people back to re-read the books over the courses of their lives.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Actual Dialogue at the Drout House This Evening

Dad: Time for bedtime reading.

Daughter: Now we can start Life, the Universe, and Everything. It's going to be awesome.

Dad: Yes, well, about that, sweetie: the print in Life, the Universe, and Everything is really small.

Daughter: So?

Dad: I can't find my reading glasses. We'll have to read the Iliad until they turn up.

Daughter: This is so not fair...

Dad: Sing in me, O Muse, the wrath of Achilles...

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Tolkien and the Nobel Prize

Many of my friends are talking about the revelation that C.S. Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize for Literature and that JRRT was rejected in part because a jury member argued that The Lord of the Rings "has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality."

Many people are getting a good laugh at the "storytelling" critique, and deservedly so. Tom Shippey has long documented the ability of Tolkien's work to cause supposedly intelligent critics to make fools of themselves. There's a long list of names and examples in Author of the Century, and you can tell that Tom enjoys finding obvious contradictions between what the critics say is good writing in other contexts and how they judge Tolkien.

But although we can just laugh at close-minded, self-contradictory critics, it's also useful to try figure out where people are coming from. Although I have never agreed with the idea that Tolkien's prose is bad, I think it is important not to deny that it is different from what mainstream literary taste and scholarship thought was good in the 1950s. Here my critical approach goes in a different direction than Tom's. He is saying "here's what you said is good literature according to your theory, and Tolkien fulfills every one of those qualities on the checklist, so you should admit that it's good literature." This is rhetorically very effective, and I'm grateful that Tom has done it, but I have less faith in mainstream theories of literary greatness.  In the end, I think the contradictions do not show so much that Tolkien is great literature, but that the abstract theories of "what makes good literature" are pretty much useless.

The style of Tolkien's prose isn't bad.  It's merely discontinuous (mostly) with the stylistic conventions that were in place at the middle of the twentieth century.  Modernist were trying to make their prose seem new and different--the meta-instruction for all Modernist prose could be conceived of as: "never write a sentence that has previously existed. Try not even to use pre-existing phrases.  If you must use a pre-existing collocation, only do so ironically." Tolkien was attempting to make his prose connected to long traditions in English.  High-culture Modernists just don't understand Tolkien because he violates that fundamental convention. The irony is that Tolkien is discontinuous from Modernism in the same way that Modernism was attempting to become discontinuous from the pre-existing tradition.

Modernism wants a reader to feel that there is no tradition, no pre-existing set of conventions and cliches (though there is, as you can easily see by reading a bunch of second-tier mid-century Modernist works). Tolkien was quite deliberately linking with the traditions of English literature (particularly medieval literature), resurrecting popular poetic forms (i.e., no blank verse, almost no pentameter in his poems), and making his text appear as if it is part of a long-standing tradition. The aesthetics are completely different, and it's hard to see the Nobel committee being willing--or able--to get beyond their comfort zone in the Modernist style.

The great contribution of the "Theory Wars" was to cast doubt on the pronouncements of the literary establishment and even on the wisdom of taking that establishment very seriously.  The drawback is that political interpretations end up colonizing all analysis of texts because politics is a lowest common denominator for criticism: you don't have to analyze in much detail if all you are talking about is politics and ideology. Political analysis is easy compared to aesthetic analysis when aesthetics are divorced from "this is what my friends and I like," an ideology that is, unfortunately, quite well enough established in literary studies to maintain its hegemony over the ever-shrinking field.

Friday, January 06, 2012

A Return to Blogging (?)

I started this blog in June of 2002, nine and half years ago, and for the first few years it was great fun. The "blogsphere" itself was a lot of fun then, much like USENET back in the late 1980s: although a lot of people were participating, there was an intimacy to discussions and the trolls, spammers and hustlers hadn't yet taken over. Surprising people would reply to posts and the debates we got into could be quite interesting. I derived a lot of intellectual energy from Wormtalk.

But as time went on blogging became less fun. The advent of group blogs and monetized blogs and then group monetized blogs made individual blogs less personal.  The movement from blogging to FB and Twitter reduced the number of interactions that happened on the blog itself, and the further development of coterie blogs with their hierarchies and cross-linked promotions further reduced the element of spontaneity that had been so much fun.  Sometime in 2008 or 2009 I found myself dreading posting to Wormtalk and that, coupled with the effort that Anglo-Saxon Aloud required, saw me significantly reduce my posting of new material. Then came the economic crisis, when pretty much all my energies department chair energy was spent trying to shuffle around resources so that no one's jobs (we were successful, but at great cost of time and effort). I thought I would get back to blogging when I was on sabbatical, but during that time I ended up teaching anyway (we gave up the funding for a replacement for me in order to keep a colleague in a different time period) and sabbatical turned out to be more work than regular teaching. Simultaneously Scott Nokes stopped regularly updating his Unlocked-Wordhoard,  which had become a significant source on inspiration, and I got some push-back from people about blogging while a department chair. Then in August 2010 the "Terrible Events" happened to members of my extended family (P.S.: At that time I de-friended pretty much every academic I know on Facebook.  It was nothing personal. I just didn't want family things spreading all over the place, and didn't trust myself not to slip in managing different FB privacy levels for different groups of people). So in 2011 I posted a total of 3 times. Wormtalk was effectively defunct.

But although I find that I dislike, a lot, many things about the internet circa 2012, I miss sharing ideas in the more immediate form of blogging (as opposed to journal articles that take two years to appear and four to see a response).  So I am going to give Wormtalk another whirl and see if I can get back some of the immediacy, energy and pleasure that was so apparent in the "Golden Age of Blogging" from 2003-2007. I plan to talk about Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien, our Lexomics research, the job market, graduate school, teaching and learning.  We'll see what happens.