Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tolkien's prose

In preparation for seeing the Hobbit movie -- which I have now seen -- I have reread the book. I am now reading The Children of Hurin, one of his posthumous works. This leads me to reflect on how good Tolkien could be as a writer when he wasn't trying too hard.

But first a story about beer.

Twenty years ago and more, soon after we had moved to the Near North, some friends came to visit. When I came home from work, there they were sitting in my living room. "There is something in the refrigerator for you." I looked, and there was some Creemore beer, then a new brand I had never had; and in fact this was Creemore fresh from the brewery that very day. I opened a bottle and had a drink and it was like all the bad lager I had ever drunk was stripped off my tongue and I could taste beer again.

Not too long after that I read the Hobbit to my son. He liked it so much that I ended up reading the entire Lord of the Rings aloud. And I had a similar experience. I thought I knew the book well, but reading it aloud -- the big book, not the one I knew was meant to be read that way -- was a revelation.

It was like all the bad prose I had ever spoken was stripped off my tongue and I could taste English again.

The pseudo-archaic language of the Children of Hurin does not have that effect. It is a barrier between me and the First Age, when it should be a bridge. It is Tolkien trying too hard.

A quarter of a century later, he knew better, and he used the ordinary language of the mid-20th century to work his magic.

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