Tolkien's Prose and Machen's


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
For years I have felt there was some affinity between Tolkien's writing, which simply means more to me than that of any other fantasist, and certain passages of Arthur Machen's. I recently managed to complete a second reading, after almost 40 years, of his Hill of Dreams. For me, the best of the book comes right at the beginning, in description of a 12-year-old boy's wanderings in the lanes and hills of his Welsh home region:

-----Then he climbed again, and went up between limestone rocks, higher and higher, till the noise of waters became indistinct, a faint humming of swarming hives in summer. He walked some distance on level ground, till there was a break in the banks and a stile on which he could lean and look out. He found himself, as he had hoped, afar and forlorn; he had strayed into outland and occult territory. From the eminence of the lane, skirting the brow of a hill, he looked down into deep valleys and dingles, and beyond, across the trees, to remoter country, wild bare hills and dark wooded lands meeting the grey still sky. Immediately beneath his feet the ground sloped steep down to the valley, a hillside of close grass patched with dead bracken, and dotted here and there with stunted thorns, and below there were deep oak woods, all still and silent, and lonely as if no one ever passed that way. The grass and bracken and thorns and woods, all were brown and grey beneath the leaden sky, and as Lucian looked he was amazed, as though he were reading a wonderful story, the meaning of which was a little greater than his understanding. Then, like the hero of a fairy-book, he went on and on, catching now and again glimpses of the amazing country into which he had penetrated, and perceiving rather than seeing that as the day waned everything grew more grey and somber. As he advanced he heard the evening sounds of the farms, the low of the cattle, and the barking of the sheepdogs; a faint thin noise from far away. It was growing late, and as the shadows blackened he walked faster, till once more the lane began to descend, there was a sharp turn, and he found himself, with a good deal of relief, and a little disappointment, on familiar ground.----

A few phrases ("like the hero of a fairy-book," etc.) would have to be edited out, but otherwise this seems to me akin, say, to passages in Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major, etc.

Now how does this kind of prose work? Well, an essay by John Rateliff, from Tolkien Studies #6, seems to me to get closer than about anything else I have seen. Rateliff writes:

....first I want to draw attention to Tolkien’s own description of how his prose works, of what he was trying to achieve. In one of the endnotes appended to “On Fairy-stories,” he includes the following revealing passage setting forth his narrative method, in which he makes clear his goal of writing in such a way as to draw in his readers, making them participate in the creation of the fictional world by encouraging them to draw on their own personal memories when reading one of his evocative passages:

[quoting Tolkien:]..... If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but specially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word. ....

Rateliff continues:

Tolkien’s contrast here of a single image presented to the passive viewer with the internal personalized visualization of a reader, who thus participates in the (sub)creation of the work, is of a piece with his championing, in the Foreword of the second edition to The Lord of the Rings, of what he calls applicability: his refusal to impose a single authorial or “allegorical” meaning on a work.8 I would argue that the style in which he chose to write, which he painstakingly developed over several decades until it reached its peak in The Hobbit and Farmer Giles of Ham and The Lord of the Rings and some of the late Silmarillion material, is deliberately crafted to spark reader participation. That many readers do get drawn in is witnessed by the intense investment so many people have in these books, the strong personal connection they form with the story, the almost visceral rejection of illustrations or dramatizations that do not fit their own inner vision of the characters, the returning to reread the books again and again to renew our acquaintance with the imaginary world.

[Rateliff quotes a Tolkien passage and a John Bellairs passage. He comments:]

note that in the passage from Tolkien, he does not describe every detail—what color were the rocks? who was on either side of Frodo as he sat huddled against the bitter cold? But Tolkien does tell us everything we need to know, in general terms with just enough specific detail to bring the scene home, to guide the reader’s imagination, to draw on our own memories of being cold and frozen, exhausted and miserable. We do not need to know what Frodo looked like, because we are looking through his eyes; too much detail would actually limit the applicability......

.....he often describes a scene not as you would experience it but as you would remember it afterwards. That is, his prose assumes the tone of things which have already happened, as they are stored in our memory. Thus the “walking bits,” which have so annoyed impatient readers who are only reading for the plot, do not in fact detail every day of Frodo’s year-long journey but instead are rendered down to a relatively few vivid images, such as would linger in the memory long after the event. After you have read these passages and think back on them, they very strongly resemble your actual memories of similar events (in fact, the very ones that provided the mental images that flashed through your mind when reading them) : a general recollection of where you were and what you were doing anchored by a few sharp, vivid, specific details that stand out. Thus the memory of reading the story gains the associations of events in the reader’s own life, because the one has already drawn upon the other.

I've put that last bit in boldface because it seems especially insightful. Here, it seems to me, a Tolkien scholar (one of the best) has just about nailed it for me, not just on how Tolkien's prose works, but the best Machen prose too.

Perhaps this topic is too idiosyncratic, too personal, but perhaps others will have something to say. Among other things, these musings have helped me to understand -- maybe -- why a little that Machen wrote has affected me so much, while a great deal else (especially in The Hill of Dreams) is dross, such as this clotted mass of got-up lusciousness, from the reveries of the novel's protagonist:

He knew perfectly well that for his present purpose the tawny sheen and shimmer of the tide was the only fact of importance about the river, and so he regarded the city as a curious work in jewelry. Its radiant marble porticoes, the white walls of the villas, a dome of burning copper, the flash and scintillation of tiled roofs, the quiet red of brickwork, dark groves of ilex, and cypress, and laurel, glowing rose-gardens, and here and there the silver of a fountain, seemed arranged and contrasted with a wonderful art, and the town appeared a delicious ornament, every cube of color owing its place to the thought and inspiration of the artificer. Lucian, as he gazed from his arbour amongst the trellised vines, lost none of the subtle pleasures of the sight; noting every nuance of color, he let his eyes dwell for a moment on the scarlet flash of poppies, and then on a glazed roof which in the glance of the sun seemed to spout white fire. A square of vines was like some rare green stone; the grapes were massed so richly amongst the vivid leaves, that even from far off there was a sense of irregular flecks and stains of purple running through the green. The laurel garths were like cool jade; the gardens, where red, yellow, blue and white gleamed together in a mist of heat, had the radiance of opal; the river was a band of dull gold. On every side, as if to enhance the preciousness of the city, the woods hung dark on the hills; above, the sky was violet, specked with minute feathery clouds, white as snowflakes. It reminded him of a beautiful bowl in his villa; the ground was of that same brilliant blue, and the artist had fused into the work, when it was hot, particles of pure white glass.

[Yes, I recognize that it could be argued that Machen intends the passage to seem unsavory, as a reflection of the incipient morbidity of Lucian Taylor's imagination. Perhaps he intends the reader to be alarmed by the way Taylor's youthful consciousness of the Welsh countryside is giving way to an unwholesomely self-pleasing habit of inner conjuration.]
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I read The Hill of Dreams may years ago. It's unlike anything I've ever read , Dreamy, surreal and haunting. Very rich prose. If i had never read anything Lovecraft, I never would have discovered Machen.
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