13 votes

Is Tolkien's prose really that bad?

Recently I was reading through a discussion on Reddit in which Tolkien's writing and prose were quite heavily criticised. Prior to this I'd never seen much criticism surrounding his writing and so I was wondering what the general consensus here is.

The first time I read through The Lord of the Rings, I found myself getting bored of all the songs and the poems and the large stretches between any action, I felt that the pacing was far too slow and I found that I had to force myself to struggle through the book to get to the exciting parts that I had seen so many times in the films. Upon reading through The Lord of the Rings again recently my experience has been completely different and I've fallen in love with his long and detailed descriptions of nature, and the slower pacing.

Has anyone else experienced something similar when reading his works? Are there more valid criticisms of his prose that extend beyond a craving for the same high-octane action of the films?

21 comments

  1. [7]
    Thunder-ten-tronckh
    Link
    Reddit is weirdly overcritical of just about everything under the sun, often holding things to universal standards that do no justice to a work's unique merit or the context with which it was...

    Reddit is weirdly overcritical of just about everything under the sun, often holding things to universal standards that do no justice to a work's unique merit or the context with which it was created.

    I'm sure there are perfectly valid critiques of his prose, but I wouldn't put too much stock into reddit's version of it.

    12 votes
    1. [2]
      DanBC
      Link Parent
      Reddit also occasionally fetishises some things - cast iron pans are good for some things, but if you listen to Reddit CAST IRON == GOD TIER.

      Reddit also occasionally fetishises some things - cast iron pans are good for some things, but if you listen to Reddit CAST IRON == GOD TIER.

      4 votes
      1. tomf
        Link Parent
        Cast iron only reaches it's full potential if you're wearing Darn Tough wool socks.

        Cast iron only reaches it's full potential if you're wearing Darn Tough wool socks.

        4 votes
    2. [4]
      that_knave
      Link Parent
      It’s like people in literary circles who want to bash Shakespeare. His works would not be that famous if they were not remarkable.

      It’s like people in literary circles who want to bash Shakespeare. His works would not be that famous if they were not remarkable.

      1. [3]
        iiv
        Link Parent
        Just because they are remarkable (I don't know who'd deny that Shakespeare's works were remarkable) doesn't mean the prose/poetry/stories are good. Good is subjective.

        Just because they are remarkable (I don't know who'd deny that Shakespeare's works were remarkable) doesn't mean the prose/poetry/stories are good. Good is subjective.

        6 votes
        1. [2]
          that_knave
          Link Parent
          I suppose my view is colored by my training as an actor and not a scholarly one, but, I always found Shakespeare's works to be much more accessible when presented properly. Even doing them in the...

          I suppose my view is colored by my training as an actor and not a scholarly one, but, I always found Shakespeare's works to be much more accessible when presented properly. Even doing them in the classical style, if played with clear intentions the words seemed to make so much more sense to an audience than the works of his contemporaries. I suppose that is what makes them so remarkable, and not the quality of the writing.

          4 votes
          1. Akir
            Link Parent
            That's basically the one thing that irritates me about that defense of Shakespeare (it's better in performance). It's understandable in performance because talented actors and stage crews add a...

            That's basically the one thing that irritates me about that defense of Shakespeare (it's better in performance). It's understandable in performance because talented actors and stage crews add a shipload of context and body language. Some (honestly pretty bad) performers even go so far as to pantomime what they are talking about just to make sure the audience understands them.

            1 vote
  2. [3]
    gpl
    Link
    LOTR are some of my favorite books, but I unfortunately don't have the time right now to offer a fuller defense of Tolkien's prose (I'm at work), which I think is largely quite good. I want to...

    LOTR are some of my favorite books, but I unfortunately don't have the time right now to offer a fuller defense of Tolkien's prose (I'm at work), which I think is largely quite good. I want to leave an excerpt here I find particularly good in the hopes that it will spark a nice discussion, and hopefully I can come back later and discuss a bit more.

    This is from the chapter In The House of Tom Bombadil in the Fellowship of the Ring:

    He then told them many remarkable stories, sometimes half as if speaking to himself, sometimes looking at them suddenly with a bright blue eye under his deep brows. Often his voice would turn to song, and he would get out of his chair and dance about. He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.

    As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home. Moving constantly in and out of his talk was Old Man Willow, and Frodo learned now enough to content him, indeed more than enough, for it was not comfortable lore. Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs.

    Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind.’ Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight.

    The hobbits shuddered. Even in the Shire the rumour of the Barrow-wights of the Barrow-downs beyond the Forest had been heard. But it was not a tale that any hobbit liked to listen to, even by a comfortable fireside far away. These four now suddenly remembered what the joy of this house had driven from their minds: the house of Tom Bombadil nestled under the very shoulder of those dreaded hills. They lost the thread of his tale and shifted uneasily, looking aside at one another.

    When they caught his words again they found that he had now wandered into strange regions beyond their memory and beyond their waking thought, into limes when the world was wider, and the seas flowed straight to the western Shore; and still on and back Tom went singing out into ancient starlight, when only the Elf-sires were awake. Then suddenly he slopped, and they saw that he nodded as if he was falling asleep. The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted; and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars.

    10 votes
    1. Tyr
      Link Parent
      In the House of Tom Bombadil is one of my favourite chapters within FotR and one of the chief examples of a chapter that I only came to appreciate in my second read-through. The safe and cosy...

      In the House of Tom Bombadil is one of my favourite chapters within FotR and one of the chief examples of a chapter that I only came to appreciate in my second read-through. The safe and cosy atmosphere that Tolkien creates within the chapter is incredibly vivid, and I can't help but feel that I myself am under the same protection and safety that Tom and Goldberry provide for the hobbits when I read through the chapter, which I feel really speaks to Tolkien's ability to immerse the reader within the world of Middle Earth.

      5 votes
    2. nothis
      Link Parent
      That excerpt flows so nicely. I need to finally read the books!

      That excerpt flows so nicely. I need to finally read the books!

      5 votes
  3. [6]
    mrbig
    Link
    Just jump the songs. They don’t make any sense if you don’t know the melody.

    Just jump the songs. They don’t make any sense if you don’t know the melody.

    5 votes
    1. EditingAndLayout
      Link Parent
      In the audiobooks, the narrator (Rob Inglis) sings all of the songs . . . and I still skip most of them.

      In the audiobooks, the narrator (Rob Inglis) sings all of the songs . . . and I still skip most of them.

      6 votes
    2. [3]
      Bal
      Link Parent
      When I'm alone and reading some book that has songs, I always try to make up melodies for them. They're consistently horrible but I have a lot of fun.

      When I'm alone and reading some book that has songs, I always try to make up melodies for them. They're consistently horrible but I have a lot of fun.

      3 votes
      1. gpl
        Link Parent
        I always love reading the songs and making up melodies that fall apart when a stanza ends two bars early. But actually, the songs and poems add so much depth to the story!

        I always love reading the songs and making up melodies that fall apart when a stanza ends two bars early. But actually, the songs and poems add so much depth to the story!

        3 votes
      2. Tyr
        Link Parent
        Haha, I always find myself doing the same thing, though I usually end up forcing the same horrible melody upon every song.

        Haha, I always find myself doing the same thing, though I usually end up forcing the same horrible melody upon every song.

        1 vote
    3. Tyr
      Link Parent
      I skim through most of the songs, but after reading the Silmarillion I'm able to pick up on references within them here and there, which has helped me appreciate the songs and poems more.

      I skim through most of the songs, but after reading the Silmarillion I'm able to pick up on references within them here and there, which has helped me appreciate the songs and poems more.

  4. skybrian
    Link
    It seems a bit strange that we should try to achieve consensus on whether a novel is good or not with semi-anonymous strangers? If some people enjoy it, that seems good enough, even if there are...

    It seems a bit strange that we should try to achieve consensus on whether a novel is good or not with semi-anonymous strangers? If some people enjoy it, that seems good enough, even if there are others who don't like it much.

    It's somewhat more useful to point out specific things you like or don't like. Every author has strengths and weaknesses. But deciding whether those weaknesses are important or not is up to the reader.

    5 votes
  5. that_knave
    Link
    I have read through the books twice in my life. Once as a teen and the second time in my twenties. The first time I read the books rather ravenously with the exception of the songs and such. On my...

    I have read through the books twice in my life. Once as a teen and the second time in my twenties. The first time I read the books rather ravenously with the exception of the songs and such. On my second read through I was more careful and took in every last drop.

    The second time seemed to be more enjoyable, and I think like most pleasurable things you learn to savor those moments more as you mature. Sure I can eat this whole cherry pie in one sitting and enjoy it, or I can take my time and notice how the crust compliments and contrasts the tart cherries. That being said, I’m not a scholar and cannot speak to the quality of the prose.

    3 votes
  6. Staross
    Link
    I've read it in French when I was a teenager, bought the English version recently but I haven't really started so I can't comment specifically. That said I think It's a matter of perspective ; if...

    I've read it in French when I was a teenager, bought the English version recently but I haven't really started so I can't comment specifically.

    That said I think It's a matter of perspective ; if you compare Tolkien to all the literature giants (whoever you think they are), I think you'll have a hard time finding his prose amazing, even though it's certainly serviceable. For something published in mid 20th century it also sounds quite outdated (which I guess is part of the charm though).

    1 vote
  7. Neyvermore
    Link
    I had a very similar experience. I tried to read the Lord of the Rings 3 times. The first, I got bored at Concerning Hobbits. I was 14 I think. It was just too long for me, and I wanted to get to...

    I had a very similar experience. I tried to read the Lord of the Rings 3 times. The first, I got bored at Concerning Hobbits. I was 14 I think. It was just too long for me, and I wanted to get to the exciting parts.
    Second time, I got bored after Tom Bombadil's rescue.
    Third, I fell in love with the writing for some reason. I thought it was like reading some book of old, like a medieval piece. And I just read it through and through. My 1st language is French, but I've been reading mostly in English for five years now. And I gotta say, it's a very beautifully written books to me, only topped, so far, by Rothfuss and Allan Poe in terms of prose. (This is all subjective, I'm in no way an expert in literature)
    I'll say this though : even though some parts of the books made a lot more sense than the movies, I still preferred the movies because of how they create empathy with characters, which is something that, in my opinion, is lacking in the books.
    One part I regret especially is the one where Gandalf must choose between the two kings. Basically, he abandons Theoden and goes for Denethor. It is never said nor shown in the movies, but this was such an important choice for Gandalf in the book. If I remember well, he says something like "Something very bad will happen if I come with you Pippin, but I will come nonetheless".

    All of this to say that I agree with some of the criticism :

    1. Character development is not bad, but empathy is not conveyed in the best way imo. I didn't have any strong feeling while reading the books.
    2. The long dialogs can sometimes be nice (like the speech of Eowyn before she fights the Witch King", but sometimes, it lacks impact. "I'm no man !" is much more efficient, I think, than "A man I am not, I am Eowyn, daughter of Eomund..." Same thing applies for "I cannot carry it for you, but I can carry you !" which has such a big impact on me. I thought the book version of this scene was pretty dull compared to the movies'.
    3. Pacing is pretty broken too. But that's a matter of tastes : Tolkien wrote for lore, and you can feel his love for it. So even though the pacing could be improved, learning about Middle Earth was nice. It could do with fewer songs though !

    So overall, great read, but I'll remember the movies more, as sacrilegous as it can be. The Tolkien family can bitch all they want about Jackson, he did a fucking great job.

    ... just noticed I ended up writing my longest post in here. Sorry for the big thing, the subject is interesting !

    1 vote
  8. Arshan
    Link
    I haven't read tolkien in years, but I used to be a HUGE fan in high school. By huge I mean, I read LOTR at least 6 times and the Silmarillian a dozen times. The reason I loved his work was the...

    I haven't read tolkien in years, but I used to be a HUGE fan in high school. By huge I mean, I read LOTR at least 6 times and the Silmarillian a dozen times. The reason I loved his work was the world-building, the bigger stories. His writing was in service to that goal, not to be excellent in its own right. Also, his work is fairly heavily influenced by the standards of his time, so I can understand why modern audiences find him slow.

    1 vote