Sunday, April 29, 2007

My Review of The Children of Húrin

This review was just published here, in the Providence Journal, if you want to read it with a nice cover image from the book and a more attractive layout.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Children of Húrin.
Edited by Christopher Tolkien.

Houghton Mifflin. 313 pages. $26.

By Michael D.C. Drout
Special to The Journal

More books by J.R.R. Tolkien have been published since his death in 1973 than appeared during his lifetime, but The Children of Húrin, painstakingly edited by Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher, is the first since The Lord of the Rings that is both a self-contained story and set in the same Middle-earth as Tolkien’s great work. Because Christopher Tolkien has now incorporated contextualizing passages that he had omitted from the version of the story given in Unfinished Tales (1980), this book is the most reader-friendly of Tolkien’s posthumous works.

It is also physically beautiful, from the cover, color plates and line drawings by artist Alan Lee, to the fold-out map by Christopher Tolkien, to the design itself. But readers should be forewarned: there are no hobbits in The Children of Húrin, but there is murder, inadvertent brother-sister incest, and suicide. It is a dark story, a meditation on fate, pride, and that virtue Tolkien called “Northern courage,” the refusal to stop fighting even when a cause is hopeless and defeat certain.

The Children of Húrin is set 6,000 years before the action of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when the immortal Elves are locked in a hopeless war with Morgoth, the diabolic first Dark Lord. In this struggle, some mortal men have chosen to fight on the side of the Elves. The mightiest of these is Húrin, who is valiant in battle but is eventually captured and brought to Morgoth. When Húrin refuses to submit to the Dark Lord, Morgoth curses him and his family. This curse drives the intricate plot: although Húrin’s children may temporarily evade their doom, in the end it finds them.

But not before Húrin’s son Túrin, the book’s real protagonist, has accomplished many deeds of heroism. In his greatest triumph, Túrin slays Glaurung, the first of all dragons, which, until this point, had seemed to be the Dark Lord’s invincible weapon. But, countering his heroism, Túrin’s pride and arrogance lead to multiple disasters. The seed of the Túrin story was the tale of Kullervo in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. But Tolkien is also engaged in a revision of the Germanic legend of Siegfried the dragon-slayer. Túrin may be as brave and valorous as Siegfried, but Tolkien’s damaged hero is no Nietzchean uber-mensch dominating through will and power. Instead he is a psychologically scarred and tragic hero.

Stylistically, The Children of Húrin is between The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, whose elevated style reads more like the King James Bible than a 20th-century novel. The Children of Húrin has more dialogue than The Silmarillion, and significant portions of the story happen at a novelistic rather than historical pace, but aspects of the style will nevertheless be a challenge for readers who assume all writing should conform to traditions of modernist realism. Much dialogue is filled with archaisms. Characters, and the narrator, use grammatical inversions. Words from Tolkien’s mellifluous invented languages appear frequently, usually only translated the first time (there is a helpful glossary). “To Brethil three men only found their way back at last through Taur-nu-Fuin, an evil road” is characteristic.

For those who already love Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin will be a chance to return there. For others, it may be an opportunity to question some deeply rooted assumptions and to learn that literature that rejects the canons of modernism and realism can nevertheless have great emotional power.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Beowulf Aloud: Now Shipping
[updated, with buying info]

(this paypal link is for domestic US shipping only)

Finally, my long labor of love is ready to send out into the world. Beowulf Aloud, my dramatic reading of the entire poem in Old English, has finally arrived from the studio and copies are sitting right in front of my as I type this.

Having now gone over all the expenses, I see I can sell the 3-CD collection, which includes every single line of the poem plus an introductory lecture, for 15 dollars US. Packaging and shipping to anywhere in the US is 3 USD, so the total would be $18.00. Overseas shipping will whatever it costs me, checked on an individual basis. You can use the button above for my PayPal account or use my PayPal address, I am also happy to take personal checks, and for overseas folks who want to buy a CD, we can use the very clever system devised by Walking Tree Press (involving exchanges of gift certificates) if need be.

If you are enjoying Anglo-Saxon Aloud, I think you will like Beowulf Aloud even more, as the sound quality is somewhat better because it was recorded, edited and mixed professionally. (this is also the the reason I am charging for the latter and not the former: I had to pay for studio time, editing, art design, etc., for Beowulf Aloud, whereas I've done everything for Anglo-Saxon Aloud on my own, with only the investment of hundreds of hours of my labor [and how much could that be worth, really?]).

And owning a copy of my chanting/singing Finnsburg has to be worth something, if only for the opportunity to use it as embarrassing material at just the right occasion years from now...

Monday, April 23, 2007

Reviews and Critics

I haven't posted the second part of my Children of Húrin review for a couple reasons. First, this was the first weekend of spring weather we've had in New England, so I was outdoors from sunup to sundown for the past couple of days, cutting up trees for firewood, planting and teaching my kids to hit a wiffle ball (my son bats lefty!!). Second, the Red Sox swept the Yankees in three amazing games, so my evenings were pretty full of baseball. Finally, the Providence Journal asked me to do a review for their Sunday book section, and I had to write that (I'll post it here once the ProJo publishes it).

But in snorkeling around the web I've come across a variety of reviews and criticism, and I wanted try to grab a minute before classes to address one of them.

I came across [correction, I had Time, but as N. E. Brigand notes, it was actually in ] Entertainment Weekly review, in which the critic calls Tolkien's prose "swampy." This is a perfect example of what I've called "hand-waving" in a bunch of other places (in fact, I need to stop using that phrase). I am a professor of English and one of my interests of study is prose style and I have no idea how I would formally characterize "swampy" prose (sentences long and tangled? Too many adjectives? Sentences, like those used by politicians, that can't hold up to logical scrutiny -- i.e., they sink beneath your feet?). I was wondering if this is some kind of specialized vocabulary like that for wine-tasting, but at least for wine-tasting, people basically agree on what the smells and tastes are. I don't know of any such agreement about "swampy" prose, so really all that phrase says is that the critic doesn't like it.

Now in one sense there’s nothing wrong with this approach. You don’t like something, so you come up with a term to express your displeasure, ( “swampy,” whatever it means in this context, is at least obviously not a compliment). And if the purpose of the review is simply “I liked/disliked this book/movie/play and you will, too” then imprecise language is perfectly acceptable. Such reviews are valuable in guiding a reader towards things he or she might like or dislike, and they may be useful in giving a quick snapshot of the lowest-common-denominator of what a certain class of people think (and I guess you can extrapolate and argue that they indicate what the “culture” thinks of something), but that’s about it.

It is a mistake to take them too seriously, just as it is a mistake to take too seriously anything by Edmund “Bunny” Wilson (I use his ridiculous nickname to indicate my derision for his kind of old-boy, in-the-club, puffed-up book review masquerading as scholarship). Wilson’s infamous “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” doesn’t actually say anything beyond “I didn’t like it,” but it dresses up that dislike as if it were some kind of analysis. Tolkien scholars, present company included, should probably stop jousting with the shade of Bunny Wilson. Book reviews (mine included) are what Schopenhauer said of newspapers in general: the second hand of the clock of history “it is not only made of baser metal than those which point to the minute and the hour, but it seldom goes right.”

Nevertheless, we sometimes want to look to see just what second it seems to be.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Corrections and Clarifications

Because I'm still learning how to do live radio, I made a few slip-ups in this story on Here and Now on NPR. None majorly significant, I think, but I just wanted to correct that I knew Unfinished Tales was published in 1980, not 1983. Also, the request to "speak Elvish" threw me for a loop, so the pronunciation probably wasn't perfect.

I also wanted to correct This St. Petersburg Times piece. I must have been unclear to the reporter, because, although I have corresponded with Christopher Tolkien (with regard to Beowulf and the Critics, it is not at all accurate to say that I have "long corresponded with him." Not unless you define "long" and "corresponded" in some very weird way. And I think he is now 83, not 82.

Hopefully I will get the second half of my review finished later.
Daniel Complete over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud

We are now most of the way through the Junius Manuscript over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud, with the final installment of Daniel (which includes the "writing on the wall" incident) posted this morning. Tomorrow I'll start posting podcasts of Christ and Satan, the weird poem that is the final one in the manuscript. Lots of good lamenting by the Devil.

Also, finally, Beowulf Aloud shipped from the studio yesterday, so I should have copies to tell by tomorrow. I think I have a list of everyone who wants one, but if you have asked, and haven't heard from me by, say, Friday, drop me another email, please, and we can make arrangements. Price is $15 plus shipping (which shouldn't be much) for the 3-cd set.

Later today I'll post a few links to other materials related to Children of Húrin, and I hope to have the second part of my review done tomorrow (Thurs).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Children of Húrin Review

##Below Contains Some Minor Spoilers##

My hypothesized reconstruction in this post was wrong. As could be inferred from the table of contents that came out later, The Children of Húrin is not all the Túrin / Húrin material from all the previous published works gathered in one place, but rather a somewhat different version of the "Narn i Hîn Húrin" published in Unfinished Tales in 1980. As Christopher Tolkien explains in the very useful and interesting appendix, the biggest additions are the account of Huor and Húrin in Gondolin and the part of the story of The Fifth Battle, Nirnaeth Arnoediad (but only the western portion of the battle) as well as some changes and expansions in the section on Túrin among the outlaws. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote versions of these episodes for inclusion in the "Narn," but Christopher Tolkien left them out of the version in Unfinished Tales because very similar material had already been used in The Silmarillion. (More on this editorial practice later).

We have here, then, a straightforwardly chronological treatment of the lives of Húrin and children from Húrin's birth through Túrin's death. However, the narrative does not include Húrin's attempt to reach Gondolin (which gave Morgoth a general idea of the location of the hidden city), nor his journey to Nargothrond, his killing of Mîm the petty-dwarf there, and his return to Doriath with the Nauglamír, the Necklace of the Dwarves (which is indirectly responsible for the death of Thingol and the destruction of Doriath).

Like the "Narn," the story is quite readable, and like the "Narn," it is somewhat of a hybrid between the historic/annalistic style of The Silmarillion and the novelistic style of The Lord of the Rings. In this particular form, as a stand-alone book, the "feel" of the style and structure is very like that of Ursula Le Guin's recent short novel Gifts, though it obviously deals more with kings and princes and matters of greater import in its sub-created world. Also like Gifts, it is basically a novella published a stand-alone volume due in great part to the author's reputation.

There are not a lot of surprises and not much previously unknown material, but I was surprised at how much pleasure I got out of the book. I've read The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales many times, but I still thoroughly enjoyed reading The Children of Húrin and felt that treating the material as a single narrative brought out the emotional power of the Túrin story. It also helps, I'm sure, that it's a beautiful book: I'm more of a Ted Nasmith than an Alan Lee fan, but give Lee his due here: his illustrations are beautiful and atmospheric. The book design as a whole is very good also: the typeface, size and layout all work (and work partially to conceal the relative brevity of the book). Editors and producers should think more about the physical pleasure that well-designed books can give, and in particular academic presses might want to think about making their books beautiful.

Analysis: Form and Sources

I am more convinced than ever that Gergely Nagy's article, "The Great Chain of Reading," in Jane Chance's Tolkien the Medievalist is the most effective explanation of how Tolkien's writings create their aesthetic effects. Nagy shows how Tolkien's incorporation of poetry, annals, key turns of phrase, stock tableaux--from his own previous writings--creates the "mythopoeic" effects of the writing: Tolkien's work feels like myth rather than invention because it contains the same bricolage of previously existing texts that long-established mythological traditions seem to contain. A reader comes across a bit of writing from a previous source and, even without knowing the existence of the previous source, recognizes that the text he or she is reading is some kind of assemblage. Tolkien is unique, however, in having all the separate and recognizable pieces coming from one mind rather than from centuries of separate writers and adapters.

I found Tolkien's engagement with the Sigfried legend more obvious in this version of the story than in others, though that may reflect my own reading rather than the text itself. Of course the seed of the Túrin story is the Kullervo cycle from the Finnish Kalevala, but I think that at least one impulse in Túrin is to tell the story of a dragon slayer who isn't some kind of Nietzchean/Wagnerian "ubermensch" (a bit piece of evidence, I think, is the inclusion of a dwarf named Mîm). Tolkien detested the kind of heroism that Wagner drew out of the Nibelungenlied and the Völsungr Saga: the hero who is superior in some existential way to everyone else and thus somehow deserves to crush everything in his path. By taking the physically most powerful hero, the original dragonslayer, but putting him under the curse of Morgoth and showing how he suffers, Tolkien approaches the Sigfried story in a very different, and more humane, way.

Analysis: Editorial Practice

I'll have more to say when everything has sunk in more, but let me close on a word about Christopher Tolkien's editing. I think nearly all critics of Christopher Tolkien have been exactly, precisely, 180-degrees wrong. The idea that Christopher Tolkien is churning out the same material over and over or is desperate to squeeze out profits from his father's work, or that the Tolkien Estate needs to drum up sales, is to me silly (and smacks of jealousy when I hear it said). It is clear from his published comments that Christopher Tolkien's consistent purpose has been to complete his father's dream of publishing his Silmarillion material. Obviously great, great pains have been taken not to put forth Christopher Tolkien's words as being those of J.R.R. Tolkien. But this extremely rigid editorial practice has, in the past, made texts somewhat less "readable" than they otherwise would be.

It seems to me that the republishing of previously published material (exactly what Christopher Tolkien was unfairly excoriated for) would in fact (as it does in this book with Huor and Húrin and the Fifth Battle) make the story easier to follow as a self-contained whole (as self-contained as it could be given the required background knowledge from the Silmarillion tradition). Thus The Children of Húrin shows that Tolkien's unpublished works can be put into forms that are less scholarly and easier to read: I think this is a good thing, both because it will introduce more people to the literature and because it will produce more pleasure in more readers. I am grateful for the scholarly editions, but I also love the pleasure of just reading the text. And now that we have the scholarly editions, I would more than welcome Christopher Tolkien "re-cycling" or "re-publishing" the other Great Tales (Fall of Gondolin, Beren and Lúthien, Nauglafring) in similar, one-volume, readable forms. And if he needs to write bridging material, I'm happy to read it (as long as there's an end-note somewhere). In fact, I would have liked to see Children of Húrin continue through to Húrin's death, although I understand why this was not done (we can assume that there is not a version of the "Narn" that does so continue). The story would have been even better, and we can at least theorize that J.R.R. Tolkien would have liked to have it complete. So, contra some traditions in Tolkien criticism, I say "More Christopher Tolkien, please."

In my next post I'll talk about themes and prose style. But I want to end on a summarizing note: Good book. Enjoyed it much more than I expected to. I think a great many readers will as well, despite the lack of hobbits.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

How to Critique Tolkien's Prose Style

[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.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Exodus complete, Daniel beginning

Just a quick update to note that over at Anglo-Saxon Aloud, I've finished posting the podcasts of the entire poem of Exodus and, today, started posting the next poem in the Junius Manuscript, Daniel. Thus all of Exodus should be available for download on iTunes any time now.

When you listen to Exodus you'll find, at various part of the poem, lines that are more closely similar in style to Beowulf than any other lines in Anglo-Saxon poetry (except the lines in Andreas that are almost direct quotes, but that's another kettle of fish, which I'll talk about when I get to Andreas). You'll also hear the poet having just a grand old time with the destruction of the Egyptian army.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

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]

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Breath Pauses and "swa" Clauses

After I record passages for my podcasts of Old English poems at Anglo-Saxon Aloud, I go back and use Garage Band to do some quick editing. No processing, pitch-changing, etc., but I do eliminate nasty saliva noises, hard breaths, the sound of turning pages, etc. When I was editing Exodus (which, by the way, should be completely posted by Monday and on iTunes by the following day), I noticed that I almost always had to edit out a heavy breath intake right before a "swa" clause. I wonder if that is a linguistic marker of some kind and if it might be related to pointing (or lack of pointing) in the manuscript.

Now I am reading the poetry as prose, attempting to inflect it for the story rather than emphasizing alliteration or even the caesura (which Tolkien called a "breath-pause" in "On Translating Beowulf," which is still the easiest-to-understand treatment of basic metrics for Beowulf, and which I use for my students). I'm guessing that if I chanted or sung the Anglo-Saxon (which I did for Finnsburg in Beowulf Aloud, so you can hear my singing/chanting there if you are in need of amusement), it might be different. Still, it is an observation of possible linguistic interest that there aren't a lot of places to breathe running right up to a "swa" clause. I wonder if we should consider punctuating those clauses as starting new sentences.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In which I mock the use of "imbricated" in literary and cultural studies

[update: link fixed. Also, the more I think about this, the worse I think "imbricated" is. Don't all discourses overlap to one degree or another? So it's not a case of using "imbricated" to mean "partially overlapping" (which would save words). I can't think of any discourses that would be "tesselated," so I don't think there's a useful distinction being made. I guess the point is that the "imbricated" discourses are held to be those that overlap more than other discourses do, but I'm not sure about how one goes about deciding when two discourses are "imbricated" and when they are not.]

I was at a wedding this weekend and was listening to my father (a physician) and my brother (an emergency room nurse) talk about injuries to the spleen and pancreas. It was very interesting, and, having grown up in a medical household, I followed most of the jargon. But at one point they started talking about "itp." After that went back and forth for a while, I had to say "acronymn, please?" and they told me that ITP stood for "idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura" (explained here). I could follow the "idiopathic" (unknown cause) and "purpura" (purple spots), but "thrombocytopenic" was, at least in conversation, lost on me. But once they explained, I followed the discussion.

That got me thinking about jargon in different specialities. There may be problems with medical jargon, but most of the time it works: once you know what the words mean (and if you have Latin and some Greek), they are pretty straightforward. Look up the term, and it is yours. This is not the case all of the time in English, and I think it illustrates a failing.

Which is why I will continue to mock the use of "imbricated" in literary studies. As I said in this post:
"imbricated discourses" aren't things--they're metaphorical descriptions of things. And that if "imbricated" is a better description than overlapping, you should explain why either metaphor has more explanatory power.
I knew the word "imbricated" from icthyology: there are a fair number of fish with the species name "imbricatus" which describes their scales. But as a quick search will demonstrate, there are also starfish, mushrooms and plants that are "imbricatus." In each case, the word is being used precisely: the scales or plates overlap just like shingles on a roof (as opposed to sitting next to each other like, say, tiles on a floor (which would be tesselatus).

In literary studies the word is obviously used metaphorically, which is fine: metaphors carry ideas from one place to another (according to Stephen J. Gould, the luggage carts at Athens airport say "metaphoros" on them); they are, to use Daniel Dennett's term, "intuition pumps" (which is itself a metaphor). I have no problem with using metaphors to explain complex ideas.

But the problem with "imbricated" is that it is a bad metaphor. When you use "imbricated," you're saying, I think, that discourses overlap partially but not completely. Ok, I guess, though when we say other things "overlap" we almost always mean that they don't overlap completely. But the discourses do not overlap the same amounts for every single one (single what, anyway? Discourse?) the way shingles do on a roof. I'm also not sure if discourses do overlap that way, anyway: they seem more intertwined rather than imbricated. And when you listen to people use "imbricated," it's pretty clear that they are not being precise at all, but using the word instead of "intertwined" or "connected."

I am being pedantic (and since I'm a teacher and professor, I think that's a good thing, kinda my job), but if the metaphor is imprecise and confusing (because most normal people don't know what "imbricated" means even in a literal sense), then we shouldn't use it. In fact, I think people who do use "imbricated" are using the word to indicate that they are members of an in-group, or to show that they are smarter than the average bear. At least for me, this doesn't work, which is why people who use "imbricated," especially in casual conversation, deserve a good mocking.

The difference between medical jargon (which can be just as "in-group" and alienating as "imbricated") is that the medical jargon is at least perfectly clear when you look it up in a regular old dictionary or know your Latin and Greek. Medical jargon also uses metaphor ("iliac," for instance), but the purpose is to illustrate and the effect is precision. The same can't be said for literary jargon, and I think that is unfortunate: again, we should be the strongest supporters of precision and detail in language use.

In Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (a completely under-rated work by him, by the way; much better than Henderson the Rain King), there's a little passage about how it's an error to call a person "dilapidated," which means "having had stones removed from it." We fight a losing battle against fossilized metaphor and imprecise language, but it is a long defeat worth fighting, because when we preserve the specific meaning of "dilapidated" as "having stones missing" or "imbricated" as "overlapping like shingles on a roof," rather than allow these words to decay into just dead metaphors for "old" or "entwined," we keep the language richer and more powerful, more able to communicate specific, concrete ideas in only a few words.