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Nobels: Tolkien's prose doesn't measure up

Discussion in 'J R R Tolkien' started by J-Sun, Jan 6, 2012.



    Oct 23, 2008
    Tolkien's 1961 Nobel snub

    I have to agree with both points mojboze makes in the comments but thought it was interesting and figured I'd "light fuse and get away". ;)
    River Boy

    River Boy Well-Known Member

    Jun 6, 2010
    Encountered many literature academics that don't understand where Tolkien is coming from with his prose, accusing him of having no stylistic purpose.

    He is writing a mock-translation in order to achieve the authenticity of an ancient text and pulls it off brilliantly. I've known people who haven't read any other books at all until they've read Lord of the Rings; Tolkien's done a lot more for people's reading habits than critics who seem to think their job is to tell the public they shouldn't be reading his work, while offering nothing but acute tastes themselves.

    JandenHale Litus of the Red Helm

    Feb 19, 2012
    Author of Everwind, a dark sci-fi series of post-a
    I agree with the Nobel committee. LOTR is not Nobel-worthy. It is fantastic for a number of other reasons - many other reasons, in fact - but the writing and the plot and the essential elements of craft are not up to snuff. I think that's why it got snubbed by the committee. Don't get me wrong, I LOVED the books. They took me to a whole other world, which I needed at that point. Be that as it may, I wouldn't consider the writing excellent at all.
    Peter Graham

    Peter Graham Well-Known Member

    Apr 10, 2007
    Depends entirely on what you think a novel is about. If it's about telling a story which transcends age and genre and catches the imagination of millions, I'd say LOTR is worthy of any prize you care to mention.

    If a novel is about showing off one's clever word play, let's just give the prize to any first year English Lit undergrad who's had an hour with Derrida.



    BluePhoenix711 Bloody Scribbler

    Aug 9, 2011
    Nashville, Tennessee, USA
    What peter said. :) I read the Lord of the Rings when I was twelve years old. That was even before I went on to my Brian Jacques "Redwall" series addiction. The Lord of the Rings MADE me read. Ever since, reading is my most favorite hobby. Well, writing is a close second.

    I don't intend to comment on his prose. I remember enjoying every minute of that story, and that is all that I care about.

    Abernovo Well-Known Member

    Sep 13, 2011
    Personally, I found Tolkien's prose a touch heavy-handed, but I have to disagree with Nobel judge Anders Österling's comment:
    I think LotR succeeds in what Tolkien was trying to achieve in creating a story reminiscent of the early Anglo-Saxon myths.

    At the same time, I think it's necessary to remember that this was 1961, with some very different views on the table. Look who else they passed over: Lawrence Durrell, EM Forster and Robert Frost; the last two because they were too old, Durrell because he had a lot of sex in his work.

    I don't think Tolkien was a great writer in many ways, but he was a good storyteller.
    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

    Nov 1, 2004
    I would imagine that, just like the rest of us, the judges on the committee had their own prejudices when it comes to good prose.
    David B

    David B Well-Known Member

    Oct 3, 2011
    Ivo Andric won the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature.

    On the goodreads website his book The Bridge of the Drina was reviewed by 1,506 people, giving it an average rating of 4.18 (47% of them rating it with 5 stars).

    By comparison the Lord of the Rings was reviewed by 110,733 people, giving it an average rating of 4.38 (58% of them rating it as 5 star).

    Not very scientific but then neither are the views of a few academics.
    The Ace

    The Ace Scottish Roman.

    Jun 6, 2006
    Don't blame me, I voted, "Yes."
    Of course LOTR isn't Nobel-worthy - people actually read it.:p

    devilsgrin Well-Known Member

    Sep 27, 2006
    i think it important to mention as a World Builder, Tolkien has no equals. As a writer however, is where he stumbles. His prose is meandering and as much as we may be compelled to trudge through to get to the story, its also a distraction. And sadly, its a distraction that is probably needed.
    I find Tolkien's story-telling, especially in Return of the King, to be thoroughly 2nd rate. Fellowship is magnificent from start to finish, excepting the ridiculousness of Tom Bombadil (could there be a segment of ANY book of Fantasy fiction as entirely irrelevant to the story as the chapters involving this cartoonish waste of pages?). Two Towers is also a very good story. Return of the King seemed to become very rushed at the end. And it wasn't simply a matter of pacing. The Scouring of the Shire was another issue. Its a very anticlimactic finale to such an epic work of fiction. I can understand its meaning, and did so, immediately, even at 13 when i first read it. But its also infuriating for some reasons, and incredibly childish due to others.
    River Boy

    River Boy Well-Known Member

    Jun 6, 2010
    Tolkien wanted readers to follow the story and had absolutely no ego-related problems about wanting the reader to hear his 'voice', which so many other writers seem to take as their primary motivation.

    Because of this, his use of language was delicate an unobtrusive, but there are no lazy sentences in LOTR. Every sentence is there to fit his philosophy and has great depth not always seen on first reading. Pick a random sentence/para and I'm confident we can come up with something those who doubt his writing ability won't have noticed. Happy to accept the challenge?

    Clansman Lochaber Axeman, QC

    Feb 9, 2008
    River Boy, sounds like you should start a new thread? The trivia challenge has slowed in the last year or two, maybe this new one will perk up some interest.

    Have at 'er, River Boy.

    Catswold Active Member

    Sep 26, 2011
    I don't know about the quality of the prose, but I have never read any author in the genre who comes close to the quality of story-telling. Tolkien's tale stands head and shoulders above the rest.

    There are a number of second tier authors; Eddings comes to mind, but his return again and again the the same basic story-line is a big mark against him. The Mallorean and the Belgariad are practically the same tale with a few differences in characters. Then there's Kurtz's Deryni series, an excellent foray into the world of magic and fantasy. Feist made his own excellent effort but fails if for no other reason that his melding of fantasy and sci-fi. Brooks' Shannara series was also entertaining though very derivative of Tolkien's work.

    Then there are the really dreadful like Jordon (Rigney). The man wrote what has to be the most interminable, confused, and meandering series in history. Having, with grim determination, managed to get all the way through vol. 10, by which point I was skipping whole chapters, I can only surmise that he knew he had written a novella and decided that, with enough irrelevant dross, he could expand it into an epic spanning volume after volume and sucker people into buying them.

    There's just something about LOTR that keeps me returning to re-read and re-visit his world.

    His descriptive powers varied from mediocre (usually in his descriptions of characters) to "Conradian" in his detailed descriptions of the world around his characters.

    Of course Tolkien was trying to build a "national mythology" for Britain reminiscent of the Eddas, rather then just telling a fantasy tale. Remember, unlike any of the other authors, his story came about from his love of languages and the need to build a world in which to house his invented languages.

    Everytime I read another author, I am forced to sit in awe of what Tolkien achieved . . . and the influence he had in essentially creating an entirely new genre of fiction.
    Isildur's Heir

    Isildur's Heir Member

    Jun 21, 2012
    What is amazing about Tolkien for me is that he didn't just write the books, he created a genre, and a world, then even created the history of the world.
    Sure, they may not be the easiest books to read, and I wouldn't have left the hobbit chapters in one big block, but intersperce them amongst the others, especially in the two towers, but it is still readable.
    And I can't think of any other author who wrote in a much depth as he did. It's almost as if he aimed to leave not a single question unanswered (he did leave a couple, but only to create a sense of mystery). Whether he was to get a prize or not, he was an outstanding author.
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

    Jan 22, 2008
    Michael Moorcock attacked Tolkein for sounding too much like A A Milne, and while I don't agree with all of Moorcock's critique, I do see his point. The problem I have here is that LOTR isn't really about the real world in the way that, say, 1984 is (ok, there's a few parallels, but it's pretty tenuous), nor is it an attempt to create amazing new prose or talk about "great issues". For all its achievements, it doesn't move literature forward. In a way, by sounding like a turn-of-the-century novelist in parts and a translation of Mallory in others, Tolkein just looks back and away.

    In terms of prose, and only of prose, LOTR is an excellent pastiche. This probably makes me sound like a terrible intellectual snob, but if the question is whether a Nobel prize requires something more than that, then I'd say yes, it does.

    For me, LOTR is a little like Gormenghast. Gormenghast is better written, while LOTR has a more comprehensive background/world-building. But both are peculiar, off-on-a-tangent entertainments, brilliant in their own ways. Ultimately I wouldn't give a Nobel prize for that. (To counter the argument about creating a mythology for Britain, I always thought Britain had plenty of mythology anyhow).

    However, I would say the same about plenty of writers critics rave about. "Literature" is full of artificial, stilted prose far more awkward and unreal than Tolkein's, even among up-to-the-minute, hard-hitting novels. Cormac "Verily I wish I'd written the King James Bible" McCarthy, I'm looking at you!

    JWREmmett Science fiction fantasy

    Dec 28, 2004
    Criticism can be about the highest and greatest. It has no respect for it.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2013
    Keri Ford

    Keri Ford Member

    Nov 23, 2013
    I've read a lot of Tolkien and Moorcock and I'll take Tolkien any day on pretty much every level. Tolkien has a very clear idea of what he is doing but he has an entirely different mission maybe even diametrically opposed to the outlook from Moorcock, which I suspect is why Moorcock so dislikes his work. Moorcock I would put philosophically, emotionally, intellectually as a centrist in 20th century literature, his work embodies irony, anti heroes & disillusion. Tolkien is a deeply religious writer who is sincere, mythological and visionary. Tolkien is not trying to write a political commentary of current events he is trying trace the nature of the human spirit and the divine. If you don't accept the existence of the spirit then when you look into the depths of Tolkiens work you will not agree with what you see. As for Tolkien's prose and writing skills I think too much nonsense has been said about this. Tolkien was a philologist he was deeply knowledgeable in the study of words and he knew how to handle language. Middle earth was mainly invented from Tolkien's intense study of language, the world of Middle Earth is intensely textual and very sophisticated literature. Tom Shippey's book JRR Tolkien Author of the Century really opened my eyes to the excellence of the craft of Tolkien and also how engaged Tolkien was with 20th Century themes. It is a serious study that needs to be read in full but I found it utterly fascinating.

    Tolkien has been one of the biggest influences on 20th Century writing, the modern fantasy genre owes i think more to him than any other writer. I will also say that the darkness at the heart of WWI that Tolkien saw first hand is expressed through his works as boldly and strongly as any of other 20th Century writer.
    Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer author of novels

    Dec 22, 2009
    Tolkien's prose is rather clunky in places, but the thing with it is - the overall effect is more than the sum of its parts. Cumulatively it works - on a sentence level, maybe less so. Some of his prose though is brilliant, e.g. the last ride of the Rohirrim.

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