Mythology and History: A Stylistic Analysis of the Lord of the Rings

By Reid, Robin Anne | Style, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Mythology and History: A Stylistic Analysis of the Lord of the Rings


Reid, Robin Anne, Style


In their essay, "Tom Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and a Look back at Tolkien Criticism since 1982," Michael D. C. Drout and Hilary Wynne argue that the "biggest failing in Tolkien criticism ... is its lack of discussion of Tolkien's style, his sentence-level writing, his word choice and syntax" (123). The irony of this situation lies in the context, in the extent to which formalist and aesthetic methodologies of literary criticism have given way in the last few decades to the perceived dominance of what Drout and Wynne call the methodology of "political exegesis." Despite the downplaying of aesthetics in contemporary literary studies, modernist and post-modernist critics still tend to base their dismissal of Tolkien's work as unworthy of study on his supposedly "poor writing" (123). As Drout has argued in "Tolkien's Prose Style and its Literary and Rhetorical Effects," the result of Tolkienists ignoring the question of style "has had the unfortunate effect of ceding important ground to Tolkien's detractors, who, with simple, unanalyzed quotations, point to some word or turn of phrase and, in essence, sniff that such is not the stuff of good literature" (137).

The existing stylistic or applied linguistic scholarship on Tolkien's novel is limited, although there is a strong sub-field of Tolkien linguists who study Tolkien's invented languages. Linguistic methodology covers a range of approaches, from intensely specialized philological work on the development of modern English from Old English, to a focus on the meanings of words (historical or contemporary). Most Tolkien linguists are primarily interested in the invented languages, but literature scholars with an interest in rhetoric, semiotics, or other linguistic theories and fields have published scholarship on Tolkien's style of writing, primarily but not exclusively on The Lord of the Rings. The stylistic scholarship consists primarily of monographs by Verlyn Flieger, Brian Rosebury, and Tom Shippey. (1) A handful of articles have also been published, ranging from Burton Raffel's dismissal of The Lord of the Rings as not being literature to the more useful linguistic work of Elizabeth Kirk and Drout on Tolkien's style that draw similar conclusions about what Drout calls the "appropriateness, elegance, and power" (124) of Tolkien's stylistic choices. (2)

One reason for the persistent stylistic gap in Tolkien scholarship may be found in the historical episode that Shippey describes in The Road to Middle-earth: the Lit and Lang battle that took place in American and British universities during the years between the two World Wars (6-8, 24-7). As faculty members in languages, Tolkien and Shippey participated in this conflict but tailed to shape the literature curriculum to include philology, or linguistics, whether historical or contemporary, and to institutionalize the language study of Anglo Saxon as part of the required curriculum. The curricular principle that won focuses literary studies on publications from Shakespeare forward, that is, texts produced in modern English. The Lit and Lang battle resulted in literature and literary study becoming a separate discipline from linguistics during much of the twentieth century. As a consequence, the majority of academics trained in literary study during most of the 20th century did not receive any training in linguistics. The decision not to teach any systemic methodology of analyzing style to those who would become professional literary critics has a direct bearing on the prevailing scholarly evaluation of Tolkien's work by most modernists and post-modernists. While claiming to analyze style, most seem to be instead responding to a type of subject matter or genre deemed by Modernism to be unworthy of serious literary treatment. (3)

Stylistics, the application of linguistic theories to literary texts, however, does exist as one approach among many in literary studies and has, in recent years, begun to grow, especially with the advent of computer programs to assist in data collection and analysis. …

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