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PostPosted: Wed Oct 23, 2013 10:48 pm 
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I've never found fault with Tolkien's storytelling, or how he shapes themes; portions of LOTR in particular, though, suffer from a kind of British Garden Club mentality when it comes to the level of detail imposed on narration. In some of the more florid passages, if you listen closely, you can hear the story grind to a halt, the engineer, fireman and conductor go out for a beer, and the boiler begin to rust.

The Sil, on the other hand, is a collection of themes and motifs in search of a novel or eight to appear in. The Sil as published, or even taking into account UT et al, has always read to me as if it's a dozen synopses stapled together.

It's telling that the parts universally agreed to be the best (what became the Children of Húrin, for example) are the parts where the camera actually stays close and lingers. Dialog ceases to be vestigial. You care about Túrin, lunkhead that he is: Tuor, on the other hand, is never more than a functional and symbolic character, more suitable for stained glass than the printed page.

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 1:08 am 
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Agree to disagree. That's a large part of what I find so immersive about reading Tolkien.


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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 1:19 am 
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The Sil, on the other hand, is a collection of themes and motifs in search of a novel or eight to appear in. The Sil as published, or even taking into account UT et al, has always read to me as if it's a dozen synopses stapled together.

It's telling that the parts universally agreed to be the best (what became the Children of Húrin, for example) are the parts where the camera actually stays close and lingers. Dialog ceases to be vestigial. You care about Túrin, lunkhead that he is: Tuor, on the other hand, is never more than a functional and symbolic character, more suitable for stained glass than the printed page.

I don't think Túrin vs. Tuor is really a fair comparison. The Fall of Gondolin is underdeveloped because it's the only major Elder Days story that never got a detailed treatment after both the mythos (and Tolkien's writing style) had matured. The prelude to a full Fall of Gondolin that we have in Unfinished Tales is promising though.

Obviously, The Silmarillion feels unfinished and collage-like because it is. I think it's still a rather compelling work, though. Unfinished Tales only has a small fraction of what didn't make it into the Sil, too. I do want to read the relevant source material in HoME and Voronwë's book one day.


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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 2:27 am 
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There are glorious moments in the First Age and Second Age stories that deserve an equally glorious setting. But what I was also thinking of was how LOTR at its most mythic is not as remote as the Sil stuff at its most mimetic. It's like watching a pitched battle through a telescope--once in a while you may catch a glimpse of a moment of humanity, but mostly you're going to see a confusing blur.

As more than one person has noted over the years, the Sil suffers from a distinct paucity of Sam, and all the baggage he carries on our behalf.

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 2:33 am 
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I don't think The Sil factors in on this conversation since it's an unfinished book.....

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 3:00 am 
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I think what we're discussing is, at heart, the reason it stayed unfinished. After TH and LOTR going back to the rarefied levels of The Fall of Gondolin must have felt terribly, terribly strange. Easier to endlessly revise than to face up to the fact that the First and Second Age material was (with a few notable exceptions) basically a half million words of writing to the beginning.

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 6:01 am 
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Ax wrote:
The Sil, on the other hand, is a collection of themes and motifs in search of a novel or eight to appear in. The Sil as published, or even taking into account UT et al, has always read to me as if it's a dozen synopses stapled together.


Yes! This! I read it and it feels compressed, like something that wants to explode over thousands of pages. It feels like the Bible. "Just the facts, ma'am." When I want to see Tolkien unpack it and build a dozen LotRs out of pages that, on the surface, add up to far less.

In a way it's far more frustrating than the Star Wars prequels, which are a wonderful story wretchedly told. The Sil is many wonderful stories that, for my money, never get told. I love the moments that come close, there and in the UT. But he never lets go and gives us all of it.

It was, rightly, his choice. What I would want has nothing to do with what he chose to create.

But I would so love that other book.

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 12:05 pm 
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Passdagas the Brown wrote:
Agree to disagree. That's a large part of what I find so immersive about reading Tolkien.


I also don't like this as a form of critical analysis. It essentially amounts to "I like it so it's not bad". That argument doesn't hold water and it's very easy for me to see that there are many works of art that I like even though they're not really very good. IOW, one can like bad art while still acknowledging it's bad. And one can say "I like the flaws" while still acknowledging that they really are flaws.

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 1:33 pm 
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one can like bad art while still acknowledging it's bad


I do this all the time. Embrace the cheese! Or perhaps the Velveeta...

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 6:28 pm 
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yovargas wrote:
Passdagas the Brown wrote:
Agree to disagree. That's a large part of what I find so immersive about reading Tolkien.


I also don't like this as a form of critical analysis. It essentially amounts to "I like it so it's not bad". That argument doesn't hold water and it's very easy for me to see that there are many works of art that I like even though they're not really very good. IOW, one can like bad art while still acknowledging it's bad. And one can say "I like the flaws" while still acknowledging that they really are flaws.


Your comment makes an assumption that I find very problematic. That the definition of a "flaw" in literature is settled and agreed upon. Opinions of art and literature are subjective, no matter the attempts to systematize the good and the bad. No offense to those who make literary criticism their lives, but one simply cannot fully professionalize the practice of writing and criticizing literature.

I do not find Tolkien's detailed descriptions of places, including natural environments, to be flaws at all. In fact, I find them to be a fundamental part of the creation of a believable secondary world, which is essential, IMO, for verisimilitude. It is only a particular school of modern literary criticism which contends that "terseness" is superior to the florid (though I would not describe Tolkien's prose as "florid" in the way that some less adept romantic writers are guilty of).

Furthermore, I believe many fantasy authors have failed to capture the imagination on the scale of Tolkien because of a tendency to be "lean" with descriptions of their respective secondary worlds, which ultimately renders them feeling a bit false. Like an under-decorated set.

This is very different from "I like it, so it's good." I don't just like it. I think it's large part of why LOTR succeeds as a story, and as a work of literature.

The truth is that Tolkien wrote in a romantic idiom that the modern literati have deemed "dead," and generally irrelevant to the modern human condition. As Tolkien was aware, their version of "lit" beat out his version, which was more firmly placed in "lang." That's at the core of the dismissal.

And they have every right to hold that opinion. Perhaps Tolkien's works are not "literature," as we understand it. Perhaps they are just elaborate exercises in language.

If so, I find it to be an immensely refreshing tonic. And something the modern world could use more of.


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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 9:10 pm 
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I think that oversimplifies things. What makes JRRT possibly unique among not only fantasy authors but authors in general is that, despite himself, he wrote a great modern novel disguised with romantic trappings.

As far as detail goes: a certain extra level of attention to physical detail is necessary when describing elements either wholly unfamiliar, or which seem familiar but may not be. We do not know what a Hobbit or Orc or Ent looks like the first time we encounter one, and the Elves, Dwarves, Trolls et al are, while not purely idiosyncratic, at least sufficiently distinct as to require some elucidation. The trees of Lórien, the mines of Moria, the layers of Minas Tirith pose similar demands for detail...but not, say, the vale of Ithilien, which sounds like a lovely place, but not inherently more fantastic or magical than any number of Mediterranean river valleys.

The same can be said for most of the locations in LOTR. That we know more about the flowers in the vale of Anduin than we do the appearance of the Paths of the Dead (and "too dark to see" is a cop-out) strikes me as an example of places where a firmer editorial hand might have yielded a superior result.

As a rule, terseness is only superior when one has a point. :D

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 9:38 pm 
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axordil wrote:
I think that oversimplifies things. What makes JRRT possibly unique among not only fantasy authors but authors in general is that, despite himself, he wrote a great modern novel disguised with romantic trappings.

As far as detail goes: a certain extra level of attention to physical detail is necessary when describing elements either wholly unfamiliar, or which seem familiar but may not be. We do not know what a Hobbit or Orc or Ent looks like the first time we encounter one, and the Elves, Dwarves, Trolls et al are, while not purely idiosyncratic, at least sufficiently distinct as to require some elucidation. The trees of Lórien, the mines of Moria, the layers of Minas Tirith pose similar demands for detail...but not, say, the vale of Ithilien, which sounds like a lovely place, but not inherently more fantastic or magical than any number of Mediterranean river valleys.

The same can be said for most of the locations in LOTR. That we know more about the flowers in the vale of Anduin than we do the appearance of the Paths of the Dead (and "too dark to see" is a cop-out) strikes me as an example of places where a firmer editorial hand might have yielded a superior result.

As a rule, terseness is only superior when one has a point. :D


Agreed - though much of the criticism I have seen centers on the "romantic" portions of the story - essentially the ones not involving hobbits. Which is also why many critics prefer the Hobbit, despite it being a children's book.

Honestly, I like to read about the flora and fauna of these places, and think it enhances those parts of the story where we are meant to get a firm sense of our environment. Yes, the vale of Anduin is a place that could exist in our world. But without it being described as a place that could very much exist in our world, then it's just a strangely-named place in an odd world called Middle Earth. Tolkien's extended descriptions, at least for me, serve to affirm the "normalization" of these places, which makes the elves and dwarves and hobbits and wizards running through them more believable. It also makes these environments feel less like set-dressing, and more like a character in and of itself. It's a very uncomfortable thing, however, to ask a literary critic to accept the natural world as a character! Tolkien's world is not as anthropocentric as most literature, and that causes some squirming.

IMO, this level of detail also serves to make a reader comfortable (at least me) when she or he should be comfortable. I feel very comfortable in the Shire, and in Ithilien (which I have a strong positive memory of), largely because I am given a sense of being enveloped by an ecology that I can identify with.

The opposite is true with some of the dark places, which are meant to elicit discomfort. With the Paths of the Dead, I have to admit that part of the reason the place is so haunting, in my own imagination, is that we only saw glimpses of it. To me, Mordor is far less scary because Tolkien describes it too extensively. So if I have any criticism, it is that I feel far too comfortable with walking through Mordor with Frodo and Sam!

This is all subjective, of course. My positive reaction to these lengthy descriptions may simply be related to me being a lover of the outdoors. In my life, the Appalachian mountains, and rivers of the Chesapeake, and the rolling green fields of the Mid-Atlantic, are just as important as my friends and family. In that context, I appreciate getting to know the environment in a story. Not as a set for actors to play their dramas on, but rather, as a living entity in and of itself. Those passages are very meditative, in a way, because they take the emphasis away from the psychological, and into the realm of the cosmic.

Had Tolkien been less descriptive, I honestly may have never gotten very interested in his stories.


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PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2013 12:57 am 
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One can certainly make a case for the less detail, the better when it comes to the horrific: but that prioritizes the mental and emotional state of the characters stuck there over the actual evocative quality of the description. If that's the case, then shouldn't that pattern hold true for the "normal" landscapes as well?

The problem with the "landscape as character" notion is that landscape doesn't generally have needs, or fears, or goals, or any of the things that pretty much define character--leaving aside the very special cases of Fangorn and the Old Forest, both singular creations. Even without Treebeard as personification, Fangorn would qualify as a minor character.

The impression I have of the longer descriptions is that Tolkien loved writing them, so instead of us encountering the emotions the characters might feel there, we're getting the emotions the author feels. The author, though, isn't in the story...and even the best travelogue is a poor substitute for actually being outdoors somewhere.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2013 1:59 am 
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True. But there's a bias in your comments for "character" driving everything. As a reader, I enjoy getting away from those characters from time to time. There's something refreshingly anti-anthropocentric about the way in which Tolkien pulls us away from the protagonists and their posses, and simply lays out the land as if it was just as important a player as the humans and humanoids. On a cosmic scale, the land (and other non-human animate and inanimate entities) may indeed be more significant players than these characters, who are simply passing through for a while. In this context, Fangorn, the Anduin, the Emyn Muil, Ithilien, Mordor, etc, may not be characters, but they may be just as important as those characters (or even moreso).

This brings to mind Aragorn's response to Eothain in Rohan:

''. . . The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!''

I strongly contend that this somewhat meditative quality of much of LOTR - where the reader is pulled away from human drama and into a somewhat pristine and quiet contemplation of our surroundings - is part of what makes LOTR so enduring. It's refreshing, and something that humans generally seem to yearn for.

But I understand why literary critics might have a beef with that. Their role is to recognize the illumination of new insights into the human condition, and such an inattention to "characters" (or a diminution of their roles in their own lives - which is exacerbated by Tolkien's treatment of "fate") does not sit well with them.

I would argue that Tolkien reveals the most about the human condition not through his treatment of character, but through his creation of a secondary world. It's a familiar world with deep echoes of our own, but exotic enough to inspire our sense of exploration and adventure. To me, the reaction to his stories by such a broad audience says far more about the human condition than many a character from the modern novel. People seem to "need" his kind of story, much like so many seem to "need" religion, or at least an ethic or science that provides "elegant" or profound explanations (which is why, IMO, general relativity has such a high reputation in the public, while quantum theory does not!).

To paraphrase Tolkien, people desire to plumb the depths of space and time, and see beauty and meaning in those depths. They are not satisfied by just watching someone struggle through familiar human dilemmas.

So, yeah. That's why I like Tolkien's descriptions of landscapes. ;)

Of course, without Frodo and Sam walking us through it all, LOTR would simply be an ecological and archaeological textbook. But too often, IMO, the land is treated as just a stage upon which humans act out their titanic dramas. I think literature, and art, can push well beyond those restrictions. And I think Tolkien did just that.


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PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2013 4:09 am 
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I'm not of the navel-delving school of character (non) development. People live places. Those places shape them, and are shaped by them, for better or worse. Without place, all we have are talking heads. And as you note, without characters, we are blind to the vision of the secondary world. The scope of M-E, spatial and temporal, beckons us beyond the margins; this is one of the things so many imitators fail at. I may skip a page or two when the wall of text on flowers comes...but I don't put down the book.

But as to what we learn of the human condition from LOTR...that's Frodo and Sam and Gollum for me. I didn't always get that. Perhaps I had to be somewhat damaged myself before I appreciated what it is to be utterly razed and still function. Of course, without the Shire at one end and the Sammath Naur at the other, the descent and recovery--such as it is--would not carry the force it does.

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axordil wrote:
I'm not of the navel-delving school of character (non) development. People live places. Those places shape them, and are shaped by them, for better or worse. Without place, all we have are talking heads. And as you note, without characters, we are blind to the vision of the secondary world. The scope of M-E, spatial and temporal, beckons us beyond the margins; this is one of the things so many imitators fail at. I may skip a page or two when the wall of text on flowers comes...but I don't put down the book.

But as to what we learn of the human condition from LOTR...that's Frodo and Sam and Gollum for me. I didn't always get that. Perhaps I had to be somewhat damaged myself before I appreciated what it is to be utterly razed and still function. Of course, without the Shire at one end and the Sammath Naur at the other, the descent and recovery--such as it is--would not carry the force it does.


I feel exactly the same way about Frodo and Sam, and the eucatastrophe that emerges from the bitter despair that is the seeming end of their struggle. It doesn't take much more than a serious loss, or serious a challenge (exogenous or endogenous), to identify with that kind of journey.

On a lighter yet related note, here is Heinrich, my favorite Norwegian playing a German, on "identifying" with male protagonists in popular films:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4ELcAmdqoY


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PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2013 12:53 pm 
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This is just a drive by post since I am out of town and don't have a lot of time, but just wanted to say that I knew that this topic would generate some excellent discussion, and I am quite pleased to see that I was right!

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Passdagas the Brown wrote:
Your comment makes an assumption that I find very problematic. That the definition of a "flaw" in literature is settled and agreed upon. Opinions of art and literature are subjective, no matter the attempts to systematize the good and the bad. No offense to those who make literary criticism their lives, but one simply cannot fully professionalize the practice of writing and criticizing literature.


This is something that almost always comes up in discussions of art and the logical endpoint of this perspective is that criticism becomes meaningless and anything can be art if you want it to be. While some people will argue that this is a legitimate view of art, the end result of it is the modern-day phenomena of museums filled with nonsense being passed off as something people should care about. I don't buy it one bit.

Art needs honest attempts at objective criticism (such as your last few excellent posts in response to ax) or art descends into emptiness.

(Also, your quote goes very much against the grain of recent statements like "I really have no respect for the criticism of the dwarven singing." If it's all subjective, you should respect all viewpoints!)

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2013 1:12 pm 
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It doesn't take much more than a serious loss, or serious a challenge (exogenous or endogenous), to identify with that kind of journey.


Or with the price of "victory," the depiction of which throughout contains some of the most deeply felt moments, culminating with wounded Frodo's bittersweet departure from the landscape he saved.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2013 2:36 pm 
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axordil wrote:
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It doesn't take much more than a serious loss, or serious a challenge (exogenous or endogenous), to identify with that kind of journey.


Or with the price of "victory," the depiction of which throughout contains some of the most deeply felt moments, culminating with wounded Frodo's bittersweet departure from the landscape he saved.


Indeed. And that is an element to the story that is woefully under-appreciated amongst critics, if they even bother to look that deeply.


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