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Lord of the Rings Books

JRR Tolkien Denied Nobel Due To Low Quality Prose 505

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-so-precious dept.
Morty writes "In 1961, C.S. Lewis nominated JRR Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tolkien did not receive the prize. 50 years later, the archives for that year have been made available, so now we know why. Tolkien's prose was viewed as low quality."
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JRR Tolkien Denied Nobel Due To Low Quality Prose

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  • Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bonch (38532) * on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:15PM (#38643058)

    I can understand that criticism, actually. As the story progresses beyond the hobbit-focused beginning and begins to link with the Silmarillion, the style of writing and characterization becomes more archaic, in the vein of the kind of ancient heroic epics that Tolkien studied, like Beowulf. There's also an enormous focus on the description of landscapes, which can become repetitive, and the constant unexplained references in foreign languages can feel wearisome and arbitrary if you're not already familiar with any of it.

    The Silmarillion was written as a mythological history for England, starting with the fall of Númenor, analogous to the myth of Atlantis, and growing from there as Tolkien kept adding to it. The Hobbit, however, was an unrelated story that was later linked to the existing mythology, and if I had to decide, I'd say I'm a bigger fan of the Hobbit because of its lighter tone and sense of adventure. It feels more fun and relatable to me. Lord of the Rings is a long, dense epic that I always plan to read "sometime" but never get around to because it's practically a quest itself just to read the damn thing.

    • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

      by hedwards (940851) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:19PM (#38643104)

      Part of the problem is that JRR Tolkien used probably the least efficient method of writing ever devised. He would start writing until he hit a brick wall and then he would start over from scratch. It's not necessarily wrong to do it like that, but it does take a lot longer than doing it the more standard way.

      That being said, he did write more than just the LOTR trilogy and in recent times we've had much stronger writers being passed over for what will almost certainly be even more trivial crimes against literature.

      • by JSBiff (87824) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @08:46AM (#38649590) Journal

        . . . that lots of great writers will never get the Nobel Prize (or Great Scientists, etc). They can only give one per year (in each category), they can't award it to the dead. Which means, that some years (probably most) you'll have a number of nominees who really are "Nobel-material", but who get disqualified in favor of whoever gets chosen. That's the nature of arbitrary, number-limited awards.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I have always found Tolkien's books hard to read. (Not enjoyable reading)

      The only one I have actually finished was The Hobbit, as it was a relatively short one and seemed a bit lighter than the others. Others I have started but never completed.

      That's when I was younger though, maybe I should try those books again now that I'm a middle aged geezer.

      • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Baloroth (2370816) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:36PM (#38643426)

        I've found after reading a lot of ancient Greek and Roman authors that his prose style starts to make a lot more sense. As the OP said, he really wrote more in the style of the ancient epic writers, which makes it a bit... dry, I suppose, at times. The Silmarillion shows this quite strongly, as it basically was a Greek-style mythic tale, while on the other side the Hobbit was basically a kids book. I wouldn't call Tolkien's writing "low quality", exactly, it just doesn't have the kind of flow you expect from a novel.

        C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, has amazingly easy to read prose, but none of his works have nearly the epicness of Tolkien's. A trade-off, I suppose.

        • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Informative)

          by idontgno (624372) on Monday January 09, 2012 @07:21PM (#38644082) Journal

          Right idea, but wrong mythos.

          Anglo-Saxon literature [wikipedia.org] and its Scandanavian [wikipedia.org] cousins [wikipedia.org], plus the ancient lore of his own childhood neighborhood [wikipedia.org] are the roots of Tolkien's legendarium. Undoubtedly, the epics of the various Mediterranean cultures were there too, since they were completely unavoidable to anyone studying Oxford "Greats". But the epic-ness of the Silmarillion and the Ring are pretty much Saxon and Brythonic in character.

          • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @12:02AM (#38647102) Journal

            It sounds a bit silly when you never think about media but just consume it but all the types of story telling, even story telling itself were at one time inventions made by a person and then carried on. The ancient greeks had theather, had comedy, had musical performance but they would be amazed if they were transported to our time, amazed and probably very confused. Same if you put us back in their time. You would be wondering what the fuck is going on on stage. You can see an example of it with black and white silent movies. The story telling, the acting, the presentation, they are alien to a modern audience. The only reason they survive is because some of the actors made the cross-over to talkies and longer movies and they been parodied enough that we think we get it. Except when the exaggerated acting was done back then, it was not meant to be a parody.

            Lord of the Rings Online reads like an old novel, older then it even really is but it has managed to lodge itself so firmly in our modern culture that we are willing to make an exception for it. It reads just like most older novels, one were modern pacing has yet to be invented. It is NOT an action novel. It reads closer to a travelogue. A lot of people that like the general setting have never actually read the book because... well... it ain't all that interesting.

            The novel of The Princess Bride is a bit different from the movie as in that the writer tells it as if he is rewriting a novel written by an older person whose description doesn't half match that of Tolkien and how he loved the book when his father read it to him but then finds out later that his father edited the book to only have the good bits as the REAL book has a lot of dry passages where the original author describes the currencies used or court procedures.

            Gosh, sound familiar? The fans would scream bloody murder but what if the Tolkien books were reworked by a movie novelist into a more condensed, fun version?

            I wonder how many Tolkien fans love the books because they don't quite get it and think it must be better then them. No it isn't. The books aren't hard to read because they are so good, they are hard to read because they were written for a different era. That doesn't make them better anymore then classical music is better then modern music. Yes, there is a lot of crap in modern music but so there was in ancient times. just that only the good bits survived.

            Tolkien wrote an intresting bit of lore that caught a lot of peoples imagination indirectly (they read other peoples work based on Tolkiens fantasy) but that doesn't mean the books are anything else but not so good writing that goes on far to long and fails the simplest lesson of writing: Less is More.

            Some people complain that the movies ruined their imagination... but Tolkien never left any room either. Pratchett is a far greater writer by leaving gaps for your imagination to fill in. If Tolkien ever wrote a one-liner he would next spend three chapters explaining it.

      • by sycodon (149926)

        Melville's Moby-Dick was like that too...the last I remember of that book was the detail in which he described the Tavern in the first several pages. The book didn't even sell out the first printing.

        Now, that book is "hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature"

        But then, he didn't get a Nobel Prize either.

        Crap! Does that mean Lady Gaga will be considered a musical genius in a few hundred years?

        • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Volante3192 (953645) on Monday January 09, 2012 @07:24PM (#38644122)

          Ahh, yes, Moby-Dick.

          Damned if I can remember *anything* about the plot of that story, but if I somehow get thrown in a time warp back to the 1800s on a whaler, by God I'll be able to strip a whale and bubble the fat off like a BOSS.

          • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

            by jackbird (721605) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:15PM (#38645526)

            Nah, you wanna do that, you need to read Two Years Before the Mast.

            If I hadn't read the book for a college class with a fantastic professor, I probably would have thought the same thing.

            As I learned, though, Moby Dick isn't about the story of the Pequod - it's about the inadequacy of language to convey the awe and terror that [the whale|nature|god|death] embody. Melville tries to examine the whale from every angle - biological descriptions, literary narrative, discussion of the economic system whaling sits within, etc. and they all fall short. The only glimmer of hope he holds forth is in the human companionship and camaraderie seen in the chapter "The Squeeze of the Hand," and more narrowly, in Queequeg's cheerful [defiance of death|acceptance of fate] in the business with the floating coffin at the end.

      • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

        by F.Ultra (1673484) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:44PM (#38643552)
        And you found the other Nobel Price winners much more readable ;-) ?
        • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

          by catmistake (814204) on Monday January 09, 2012 @10:20PM (#38646306) Journal

          And you found the other Nobel Price winners much more readable ;-) ?

          Ever read Camus? Even in the worst possible translations from the French I find his works to be filled with incredibly beautiful prose. Every one of the man's sentences is a masterpiece. And Camus was a little upset at winning the Nobel, as he saw it as a lifetime achievement award, and he was still young when he received it (ok, well... middleyoungish, 44, and was killed 2 years later in a car crash).

          Tolkien's work of course is quite wonderful from the big picture vantage point. He created an entire world (though borrowed much from Finnish mythology), and a world of allegory and metaphor that has such depth to its texture, the interpretations are manifold, unlike Camus who was a very focused and disciplined writer. However, at the molecular level, so to speak, Tolkien is sort of clumbsy with his prose. A few of his poems do stand out as folky perfection, such as the One Ring poem, and the Silmarillion is quite lovely, but, again, its in the broad strokes and metaphorical interpretation of major themes where Tolkien really excelled. You kind of have to live a life or two before you can fully appreciate Tolkien's genius... but even considering this, I'd have to agree with the assessment of low quality prose. Regradless, Tolkien is God.

      • by CCarrot (1562079)

        I have always found Tolkien's books hard to read. (Not enjoyable reading)

        The only one I have actually finished was The Hobbit, as it was a relatively short one and seemed a bit lighter than the others. Others I have started but never completed.

        That's when I was younger though, maybe I should try those books again now that I'm a middle aged geezer.

        Thank you for that...I thought I was all alone!

        Maybe we should start a support group: "Middle-aged nerds who have never read LOTR"?

        I'm told it gets better about halfway through the Two Towers, but I have never been able to make myself get that far. I really don't know why, I am a rather voracious consumer of sci-fi and fantasy from many, many other authors...and I simply adored The Hobbit, first read it in fourth grade and I re-read it about every five years or so. It's odd, and I always feel a little bit

      • I get a kick out of all kinds of writers and works that others consider dry or painful to read--Faulkner, Forster, Hemingway, James, Butler, and various non-fiction that many might consider painfully dull (the ancient historians like Herodotus--though that may be better classed as fiction--,a whole bunch of books by and/or about philosophers, E.T. Bell's Men of Mathematics, etc). I do enjoy fantasy, though. The point being:

        I was unable to finish Fellowship. I got to somewhere under 100 pages from the end

        • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

          by demonlapin (527802) on Monday January 09, 2012 @10:12PM (#38646222) Homepage Journal
          I have reread Tolkien once or twice. I recommend a policy of skipping all songs and poems out of hand. Every time you get bored, read only a few lines from each page until you realize that you've hit the meat of the action or you've switched to a new scene.

          Not only does it take a lot less time, it's actually a reasonably entertaining story.
      • by Goaway (82658)

        I think I found them easier to read when I was younger. Maybe I was more easily entertained then.

      • I have always found Tolkien's books hard to read. (Not enjoyable reading)

        The only one I have actually finished was The Hobbit, as it was a relatively short one and seemed a bit lighter than the others. Others I have started but never completed.

        That's when I was younger though, maybe I should try those books again now that I'm a middle aged geezer.

        I re-read LoTR ~10 years after the first reading, and found it *incredibly* boring.

        Ditto with The Mote in God's Eye, which kept me on the edge of my seat the first time through.

        I suspect that the reason is that on first reading I was focused on where the story was going, to the near exclusion of everything else. But if you know where the story's going, there has to be good prose, atmosphere, characterization, dialogue... something to keep your interest up.

        I can read Jack Vance's whimsical stories again and

      • I've tried to read LOTR about 3 times, because so many people give the impression it's a must read. Every time it's felt more of a bore. I certainly won't try again. It's not as if there's any shortage of books that are an enjoyable read.

        I found the films to be boring too. It's a tedious story that goes on for far too long.

        Yes the Hobbit is far better. A similar story told in a much more snappy and adventurous way.

      • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Darinbob (1142669) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:58PM (#38645354)

        If "easy to read" is a criteria for the Nobel Prize in Literature, then they've been doing it wrong for a very long time.

        The prize in literature is a lot like the peace and economics prizes; not really scientific and dominated by politics and social issues. They really shouldn't have had the "Nobel" name attached to them.

    • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

      by DrEldarion (114072) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:25PM (#38643244)

      Agreed.

      Tolkien's strengths were never in the quality of his writing. (though it's still tons better than a lot of authors)

      His strengths were always in his ability to build a world - to make a place and its inhabitants so memorable that they'd be remembered for ages. He succeeded greatly in that, and has likely influenced the fantasy genre more than everybody else combined.

      • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Improv (2467) <pgunn@dachte.org> on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:59PM (#38643776) Homepage Journal

        Kind of like H.P. Lovecraft, really. Imaginative world, writing is meh.

        It's amusing that Tolkien was nominated by CS Lewis, another person whose religious commitments made his work far more shallow and one-dimensional than it could've been.

        • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

          Kind of like H.P. Lovecraft, really. Imaginative world, writing is meh.

          First thing I thought of. I've been reading Lovecraft straight through, and it's boilerplate stories which overlap and reference each other. You can make a general outline of every story ever, including the ones he ghost-wrote for someone else.

          But when you close your eyes and imagine the story, and the richness of the mythology, it's magnificently organized.and impressive.

          If I had better writing skills, I would love to be the one to re

          • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Insightful)

            by dbIII (701233) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:56PM (#38646038)
            A lot of Lovecraft's stories were intended for magazines and a short shelf life. Some of his better short stories later were reused as the seed for novels and some of his worst were rewritten with improvements. Taken in small doses as intended when published a lot of them stand up well. Reading decades worth of work in one hit they look repetitive, lose their impact and even begin to look substandard and formulaic since you've read a lot of it before. It doesn't help that there's a lot of stuff later written by others in the style of Lovecraft.
            It's not really a "formula", more along the lines of evolving stories based on their discarded predecessors. It was also a time when there were unexplored places Lovecraft could use for his settings which is hard to do now.
          • by dwye (1127395)

            If I had better writing skills, I would love to be the one to re-write all of the stories.

            skipping ...

            Kinda like the modernization of the Bronte sisters with vampires and such, I've seen those in the bookstore.

            I cannot wait to see the great works of high art that you would produce. .sarc off

            Anyway, the fun of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith is in the language, then the richness of the background. The plots and characterization were about what one would expect from a hack writer working for the pulps, which oddly enough is exactly what HPL would have called himself.

    • by msobkow (48369)

      I agree. While Tolkien's stories are detailed and entertaining, it's not "great literature" in the critical sense.

    • by Fluffeh (1273756)

      Lord of the Rings is a long, dense epic that I always plan to read "sometime" but never get around to because it's practically a quest itself just to read the damn thing.

      Actually, I found that it is an amazing read. I read it first when my father gave me a copy, when I was around ten or twelve. I do however think that it will likely more appeal to quick readers, or readers who are really able to immerse themselves in a book. If I am reading, I find that I get totally inside a book. I can sit down and start, then look up and a few hours have gone by.

      If you find that you are not enjoying it as there is too much description of landscapes and it bores you, I can only suggest tr

      • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Interesting)

        by brentrad (1013501) on Monday January 09, 2012 @07:53PM (#38644568)
        I completely agree with what you've said in your post. Could the difference in what styles of prose one likes to read have something to do with the type of leisure activities you enjoy?

        I personally very much enjoy getting out in nature just to enjoy...well, nature. The stillness, the beauty, the beautiful found in a group of tiny flowers growing in a field. My wife and I get out in our canoe to commune with nature, and have recently taken up hiking. I believe if you go out into nature, you should leave your internal combustion engines behind and soak in the quiet. Once a year I take a "pilgrimmage" to my uncle's land about 5 miles inland of the Oregon Coast, deep in old growth forest at the edge of Tenmile Creek. It's IMO the most beautiful place on earth - I take a lunch and my camera, and spend all day just hanging out with nature.

        When I recently re-read The Hobbit followed by the LOTR trilogy, I was aware of how many people complained about the lengthy description of the flowers and the trees they were passing through. In contrast, I loved this kind of detail - it made the whole world more real to me. I think the beauty of Tolkien's world is not necessarily the amount of plot, but the depth of the story, detail, etc.

        The thing is, LOTR is not a plot-heavy action story. The events in the books take place VERY slowly over time, which really befits a land where speed is measured in how fast a horseback-rider can ride in a day, but the most common way to get around is to walk. When you're moving 5 miles per hour, what do you see a whole lot of? Scenery, plants, the world around you. LOTR would be very boring (and jumpy) if Tolkien were to leave out all the beautifully detailed descriptions of the land his characters were traveling through.

        And I totally agree with what you say about letting yourself get immersed in the prose - if you're reading a novel, and you find yourself really seeing the words and aware that you're reading, you're not really immersed in the story. If you completely forget you're reading, and suddenly you find 2 hours have gone by - that's the mark of a good writer IMO.

        Thoughts?
    • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

      by DanDD (1857066) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:33PM (#38643380)

      I find it disturbing that you critique LOTR the way you have, yet admit you've not read them. My 10 year old children have read and loved both the Hobbit and LOTR.

      Tolkien's prose does assume a higher level of reading comprehension than is common today, this is very clear. Compare any Tolkien to JK Rowling. She tells nice stories, but with such stark simplicity that I find them painfully droll.

    • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Insightful)

      by vlm (69642) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:36PM (#38643434)

      The Silmarillion was written as a mythological history for England

      Have you ever stopped to think how weird it would be if Tolkien had tried to pull a L Ron Hubbard Scientology move and turn the LOTR into a "real religion"?

      I stopped to think about it, and it was weird, let me tell you.

      • The Silmarillion was written as a mythological history for England

        Have you ever stopped to think how weird it would be if Tolkien had tried to pull a L Ron Hubbard Scientology move and turn the LOTR into a "real religion"?

        I stopped to think about it, and it was weird, let me tell you.

        Not sure I agree with the GP's claim, however, if you are not aware that Tolkien was devoutly Catholic, you should be. In its simplest, most basic metaphorical interpretation, LotR has always clearly been Christian allegory. Ain't THAT a kick in the pants? LotR is a real religion: Christianity! And further than this, researchers know Tolkien borrowed and adapted a lot of Finnish mythology (like Gandalf). And we know mythology is really just old religion. So, bang... you were right twice and thought you were

    • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Insightful)

      by should_be_linear (779431) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:37PM (#38643442)
      And there is zero sense of humor in the whole thing. Like if it was written by an accountant.
      • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:44PM (#38643548)
        The one time Tolkien tried to be light hearted during LOTR gave us Tom Bombadil. I'm quite glad he only tried it the once (and frankly, he should have self-edited Tom out at the start).
      • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Insightful)

        by BlueStraggler (765543) on Monday January 09, 2012 @07:10PM (#38643938)
        If you're talking about the Hobbit, you must be the biggest sourpuss who ever lived, so you must be talking about The Lord of the Rings. And it's entire first chapter is nothing but hobbit humour. Granted, they are just a bunch of half-drunk, weed-smoking, cabbage farmers whose sense of humour might not be up to your sophisticated standards, but they seem to be having a pretty good time without you.
    • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:4, Insightful)

      by digitig (1056110) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:48PM (#38643608)
      Yes, it makes sense. The derogatory term "Wardour Street English" might almost have been invented for Tolkien (Wardour Street in London used to be mainly shops selling fake antiques, and so the term "Wardour Street English" is used -- or used to be used -- to describe the fake-archaic style that Tolkien and countless Tolkien wannabies affect).
    • by chispito (1870390)
      I agree with you, although I would say that much of what you describe suggests a failure of editing than of good prose. The editor should have tossed out entire passages for sure.
    • by Radical Moderate (563286) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:51PM (#38643654)
      ...is to skip over all the songs. Read that once on a blog somewhere, and I'd say it's good advice. I've read the series two or three times, and just pretending the damn songs weren't even there would have enhanced the experience.
      • by Pontiac (135778)

        I've read the series 5 or 6 times.. One time through I chose to only read the chapters with Hobbits in them.. It's a bit more entertaining that way but it leaves vast holes in the story line.. Much like the movies. I only bothered to read the songs one time.. That was enough for me..

        Try reading The Similarion.. It makes the rings series seem like light reading..

    • Re:Tolkien's prose (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Donwulff (27374) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:38PM (#38645066)

      “Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

      The matter of "quality of prose" is, I believe, very much a question if preference. It is also important to understand and reflect on the context of said Nobel judgement. A kind of realistic modernism was about only form of literature the then influential literary critics considered "true art". Fantasy, in particular, had no place in the hallowed halls of great literature. It's thus somewhat likely that when members of the Nobel committee wrote "second rate prose", they were not as much making a judgement on the quality of the writing and storytelling, as simply affirming their regard of the genre as "juvenile trash".

      Another important point for many vocal net-critics to realize is that as the parent poster implies, Tolkien was intentionally choosing an archaic and at places longwinded style; indeed the astute and careful reader will notice him switching from one prosaic style to another as the situation and intent of his storytelling calls for. He was, also, not intentionally setting out to create a fast and light action-paced thriller in a franchise, as is the formula for so much modern fantasy series, but imitating many classics and epics. Indeed the fantasy genre as we know it was created by Tolkien, but his was more an artistic exploration.

      One thing that's never ceased to amaze me is the eagerness at which people will, at any online discussion of Tolkien's works, declare that they were not able to even read them - sounding quite proud of it, as if it makes them eligible for some grand elite club or something. How many here would declare "I tried to read Donald Knuth, but I fell asleep before the end of the first chapter", or perhaps "I picked up the Bible, but had to put it down after the first page" right after a dozen other rewordings of the statement? Well, what were you expecting! It might also be revealing and likely more useful if people who make such blanket declarations provided a list of books they have actually enjoyed.

  • I can believe that (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 0123456 (636235) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:18PM (#38643090)

    As someone who's never managed to get more than a few chapters into the Lord of the Rings books, I can see why they wouldn't want to give him a prize. It's a good story, but there are only so many thirty-page digressions on Elvish folk dancing that I can stand before my brain turns to mush.

    • by cidersylph (2549274) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:22PM (#38643172)
      Tolkien had a lot of beautiful imagery and ideas, and that invited the reader to make up their own fascinating thoughts of what the world looked like, simply because the prose was really difficult to read. As a trilogy that forces the reader to envision Middle Earth in their mind, it succeeds brilliantly beyond the bad prose.
      • by PsychoSlashDot (207849) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:59PM (#38643766)

        Tolkien had a lot of beautiful imagery and ideas, and that invited the reader to make up their own fascinating thoughts of what the world looked like, simply because the prose was really difficult to read. As a trilogy that forces the reader to envision Middle Earth in their mind, it succeeds brilliantly beyond the bad prose.

        Huh? Sorry, but after the third exquisite description of a cloud, his beautiful imagery made me learn how to scan paragraphs to skip to extraneous bits. Kind of like porn in a way. The first thrust is arousing to watch. The second through tenth are titillating. The eleventh through ninetieth are increasingly routine. Eventually you may find yourself desperately bored, hoping the actors change position or fall in a vat of boiling lead, or something interesting.

    • by stms (1132653)

      After the first movie my parents got me the books for Christmas. I was 12 at the time and I'm actually pretty proud of the fact that I made it just past Tom Bombadil.

    • by ISoldat53 (977164)
      Perhaps the mush was already there.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...because his storylines fit in with the sort of thing nerds stereotypically like. And he really did write compelling stories.

    But his prose, as the archives note, is not that great. He doesn't display a technical mastery of the language.

    I see no problem with this judgment.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      DIDNT DISPLAY TECHNICAL MASTERY?????

      The man was not just a writer but the Don of English at Oxford, in other words he was THE authority on how the language worked, its history and how words are used. And in LOTR, it showed, not just in English but in the other languages he invented. The Nobel judges were rank amateur hacks in comparision

      • by digitig (1056110) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:54PM (#38643704)

        DIDNT DISPLAY TECHNICAL MASTERY?????

        The man was not just a writer but the Don of English at Oxford, in other words he was THE authority on how the language worked, its history and how words are used. And in LOTR, it showed, not just in English but in the other languages he invented. The Nobel judges were rank amateur hacks in comparision

        There's a huge difference between being able to do detailed analysis as a theorist and produce academic monographs and being able to write good prose fiction. In fact, they tend to be mutually exclusive.

      • by MrHanky (141717)

        He was a linguist, not a stylist. His prose is utter shit.

      • by Rui del-Negro (531098) on Monday January 09, 2012 @07:35PM (#38644282) Homepage

        Being a neurologist doesn't mean you'll have a lot of creative ideas. Being a linguist doesn't make you a stylish writer.

        I read LotR three times (first time when I was 9 or 10) and I loved the epic story and the consistent universe, but the language is rather bland. Tolkien was certainly very meticulous, but anyone who praises him for writing style probably hasn't read anything else. Terry Pratchett or Will Self (to name only two) can often get more out of a sentence than Tolkien managed to get out of a whole chapter.

      • by Rogue Haggis Landing (1230830) on Monday January 09, 2012 @07:42PM (#38644396)

        DIDNT DISPLAY TECHNICAL MASTERY?????

        The man was not just a writer but the Don of English at Oxford, in other words he was THE authority on how the language worked, its history and how words are used. And in LOTR, it showed, not just in English but in the other languages he invented. The Nobel judges were rank amateur hacks in comparision

        I think the original statement that Tolkien "didn't display technical mastery" isn't correct. However, just because he had as much knowledge of the functioning and (especially) history of the English language as anyone on the planet doesn't mean that he was going to be a technically proficient writer. My partner is getting a PhD studying English Renaissance literature and I spend almost all of my time hanging out with literature students and professors. These people know an incredible amount about language, far more than I ever will, and some of them couldn't write their way out of a paper bag (and some of them are brilliant stylists). The writing is always "technically masterful" in the minimal sense that it has proper grammar and so on, but demonstrating an ability to write correctly is much different from true technical mastery. True technical mastery is the ability to deploy the elements of language in ways that are incisive and surprising and exactly correct for whatever purpose the writer has in mind. This requires knowledge, but it also requires talent.

        So, in this case, you can't merely appeal to Tolkien as literary authority, you have to give examples in his writing. Fortunately, this is trivial to do. He wasn't a constantly great stylist, but he has moments of real greatness. A simple one is the bit of Rhyme of Lore that Gandalf recites to Pippin:

        Tall ships and tall kings
        Three times three
        What brought they from the foundered land
        Over the flowing Sea?
        Seven stars and seven stones
        And one white tree.


        (The 2nd, 4th, and 6th lines should be indented, but I can't figure out how to do that.)

        This is a very simple little poemlet, and yet it does a good job of evoking the Old and Middle English remnants in our language and literature that Tolkien is always interested in bringing up. It has two fine alliterative lines ("Three times three" and "Seven stars and seven stones"), reminding us of Old and some Middle English poetry. We read the indented line breaks almost like a caesura [wikipedia.org], making this more of a three line poem with a break in the middle of each long line, the second half of each long line modifying the first half, just like Old and some Middle English verse.

        The second and sixth lines are very short and staccato. If we again look at the poem as three double lines, we have pretty staccato first and last lines -- in my reading, 7 of the 8 syllables in the first double line are accented, and 7 of the 11 in the last double line are. There are precious few places for the tongue to rest, to easily tumble into the next syllable. In the middle is a wonderfully flowing double line. "What brought they from the foundered land" is straight iambic tetrameter, a verse form that just hurtles off of the English tongue. "Over the flowing Sea?" is an iambic trimeter (with a trochaic [wikipedia.org] inversion at the beginning). Put the two lines together and you have a line of ballad verse [wikipedia.org], a "fourteener", which was the great English verse line before they took up the iambic pentameter in the 16th century. The contrast of this flowing central part with the first and last double lines is startling and works to emphasize especially the last double line

        Also, and most importantly, the little poem just sounds good.

        This is how you argue that Tolkien was a technical master. This is just a tiny little poem, six lines only, but it evokes the whole of English poetry before it fell completely under Frenc

        • by scrimmer (229387) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @01:07AM (#38647514)

          True technical mastery is the ability to deploy the elements of language in ways that are incisive and surprising and exactly correct for whatever purpose the writer has in mind. This requires knowledge, but it also requires talent.

          you have to give examples in his writing. Fortunately, this is trivial to do. He wasn't a constantly great stylist, but he has moments of real greatness. (And yes, I know I should really be writing about Tolkien's prose here, but poetry is so much easier to go into depth about.)

          Nice explication, and to help out, I'll supply the prose:

          And far away, as Frodo put on the RIng and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-Dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.

          From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.

          The Return of the King, second edition, 1955, p. 223

          Though many here malign his style, Tolkien's prose here is purposeful and effective. Note that Sauron's recognition and ensuing panic are reflected rhetorically in the cadence of the sentences, aided by polysendeton, parallelism, and a combination of varying sentence lengths--telegraphic, medium, and long. Syntactically purposeful, the prose also includes a smattering of lyricism reminiscent of the epics he attempts to emulate.

          Form married to function is a touchstone of quality prose.

      • by igb (28052)
        No, he really wasn't. Firstly, a "Don" is used of any Oxbridge lecturer; there is no such thing as "the Don ". Secondly, he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon (ie, not English) for many years, and then latterly a professor of English more generally but whose research, teaching and other interests were entirely based around Anglo-Saxon. He was most certain not an expert on how "the language" worked, etc, if by "the language" you mean anything written subsequent to Chaucer (if not earlier). Tolkein may have
    • There is a saying, "You have to know the rules to break them."

      It was always clear to me that Tolkein did both.

  • by assertation (1255714) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:19PM (#38643114)

    I disagree, but 50 years ago, by the standard of those times, the quality of prose was probably lower.

  • Agreed (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:20PM (#38643126)

    He is the dictionary definition of "purple prose". Pages upon pages of superflouous descriptions of every blade of grass in the Shire.

    His poetry is even worse.

    The books can be really hard to read in places, though the underlying story is compelling. If you can't see this, you aren't being honest.

    A great storyteller, and a great author, aren't always the same thing.

    • Re:Agreed (Score:5, Informative)

      by Opyros (1153335) on Monday January 09, 2012 @09:50PM (#38645944) Journal
      I've found that his prose improves quite a bit when read out loud. A number of people have observed that it seems to be optimized for speaking rather than silent reading. My advice to anyone who can't get through the prose is to try an audiobook; if you still don't like it, then Tolkien is probably not for you.
  • by bloodhawk (813939) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:24PM (#38643236)
    It was never the quality of his prose that made him so renowned, rather it was the quality, depth and originality of his stories. I remember fighting through those books 20 odd years ago, if it wasn't for such an engaging story line I would have never gotten through even the first one.
  • Meh. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by joshamania (32599) <jggramlich@@@yahoo...com> on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:25PM (#38643246) Homepage

    Meh. I think we know who had the last laugh there.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    IMHO Nobel prize in literature is of low quality...

    Come on, Dario Fo ? Doris Lessing? Elfriede Jelinek ? Jose Saramango ? and many others...

    Nobel Prize in literature is mainly 'crystal tower' thing - no one reads them, no one cares.

    On the other hand Tolkien changed imagination of billions - inspired books, movies, games....

  • by vlm (69642)

    Tolkien's prose was viewed as low quality.

    Low quality plot too. Remember the eagles? Have them grab the ring and drop it into the volcano. Ta Da all done. Shrinks the trilogy down to about three pages.

    I liked the series, but as a ultra loquacious fantasy version of Herodotus Histories or The Odyssey its not really all that great. The originals were better.

    • by F.Ultra (1673484) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:43PM (#38643530)
      And you always loose at Risk or Chess? Have you ever thought what a winged beast would do to your precious eagles, or what Sauron himself would do? There's a reason Tolken let a Hobbit sneak the ring into Mordor.
  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:45PM (#38643566)

    Looking at all the writers who never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I'd say Tolkien is in very good company.

  • by voss (52565) on Monday January 09, 2012 @06:53PM (#38643684)

    List of writers rejected by nobel committee
    Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, Mark Twain, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie,
    and last but not least Karel Capek.

    Who is Karel Capek?

    The author that coined the term Robot(Rossum Universal Robots) , his 1936 work "The war with the newts" was rejected for being too offensive to the German (nazi) government.

    • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Monday January 09, 2012 @07:06PM (#38643874)

      And let us never forget that sterling writer who snatched the Prize from Tolkien's grasp - Ivo Andric.

      Yes, that Ivo Andric, that basically noone has ever heard of, 50 years after the fact....

      • by metlin (258108) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:04PM (#38644702) Journal

        That's a very anglo-centric comment.

        Ivo Andric was, and continues to be, quite popular. In fact, his work influenced both Serbian nationalism to a great extent (and unfortunately, even played a role in the Bosnian conflict and in heightening anti-muslim sentiments in the region).

        I'd strongly recommend that you read his The Bridge on the Drina [amazon.com]. Amazing masterpiece.

        • That's a very anglo-centric comment.

          Yep, surely is. But then, I like Kipling too, another English author whose prose wasn't necessarily the most polished in the world....

          In fact, his work influenced both Serbian nationalism to a great extent (and unfortunately, even played a role in the Bosnian conflict and in heightening anti-muslim sentiments in the region).

          I don't actually think the purpose of great literature is to influence nationalism, Serbian or otherwise. Nor do I consider heightening anti-muslim

    • Many of the authors you listed there, such as Tolstoy and Twain, certainly deserve high praise for their literary accomplishments. But Capek's R.U.R. was absolute dreck, to be quite frank. It was nothing but overacting, gaping plot-holes and general absurdity. The characters seemed like bizarre inhuman caricatures who engage in nonsensical behavior.

      Readers are introduced to "Helena" at the beginning of the play, who all the male characters immediately fall in love with at first sight. In Capek's surreal
  • Without movie special effects, Tolkien used the best special effects machine ever produced. The Human mind. I have read these books numerous times during my pre-teen, teen years and into adulthood. The detail never ceased to amaze me as well as the images conjured in my head. He was a master!
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Monday January 09, 2012 @07:17PM (#38644038) Homepage Journal

    The 1961 Nobel literature laureate [wikipedia.org] was Ivo Andri [wikipedia.org] of Yugoslavia, who wrote his works in Serbo-Croatian during WWII, publishing them all in 1945. He was awarded "for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country".

    A short essay translated by Lazar Pascanovic is Paths [serbiatravelers.org] :

    At the beginning of all roads and paths, at the basis of the very thought of them, lies sharply and indelibly carved the path on which I made my first free steps.

    It was in Visegrad, on those hard, irregular, like gnawed away roads, where all is dry and grievous, without beauty, without joy, without the hope of joy, without the right to hope, where a bitter morsel, which has never been eaten, quivers in the throat with every step, where heat and wind and snow and rain eat the ground and the seed in it, and everything that still sprouts and is born, gets stigmatized and bent and bowed so much that, only if it was possible, its other end would be stuck back into the ground, only to push it back into the shapelesness and darkness from which it broke away and sprouted.

    Those are the endless paths that, like threads and ribbons, streak the hills and slopes around the town, flowing into the white road or disappearing near the water in the green willow groves. Human and animal urge sketched out those paths, and the necessity has beaten them. There, it's hard for one to leave, to go, to return. One sits there on a stone hiding under a tree, in a dry place or in scarce shade, resting, praying or counting the peasant's earnings. On those paths, that are swept by wind and soiled and cleansed by rain, where one meets only tormented cattle and silent, grim faced people, that is where I conceived my idea of the richness and beauty of the world. That is where I, ignorant and weak and empty-handed, discovered the fragrant, swooning happiness, happy for everything that wasn't there, cannot be there and never will be.

    And on all the roads and ways that I passed later in my life, I lived only on that poor happiness, on my Visegrad idea of the richness and beauty of the created world. Because, under all the worldly roads, there has always flowed, visible and palpable only to me, the sharp Visegrad path, from the day I left it, up to this day. Actually, I've used it to measure my step and adjust my walk. And all my life it has never left me.

    In the moments when I felt tired and poisoned by the world in which, by a bad coincidence, I lived and only miraculously stayed alive, when the sight grew dim and the direction turned uncertain, I would spread before me, like a prayer mat, the hard, poor, divine Visegrad path which cures every pain and nullifies every suffering, because it contains them all and surpasses them all. That way, a couple of times a day, using every calm in the life around me, every pause in a conversation, I would travel a part of that road which should never have been left in the first place. And that is how I will, till the end of my days, invisibly and secretly, still manage to walk the destined length of the Visegrad path. And then, with the end of my life, it will also end. And it will get lost where all the paths are lost, where all the roads and wastelands disappear, where there is no more walk nor effort, where all the earthly roads are tied into a meaningless knot and burned away, like a sparkle of salvation in our eyes that are fading out themselves, because they have lead us to the end and to the truth.

    That seems to me the work of a Nobel literature laureate. Though I like Tolkien's writing better, and his stories better than the subject. I expect the Cold War in 1961 gave the Nobel committee the extra reason to nominate a writer in non-Soviet Communist Yugoslavia, who

    • Because the proof of a good writer is the socio-political environment they lived through? Not the actual content of their prose?

      Then again, given the most recent Laureate (a Swedish poet who, due to his being Swedish, had been a front runner for years, with reporters camping outside his house the day of the announcement (which is just embarrassing for everyone involved, I think)), you're probably more accurate on how to predict the Committee.

  • by Greyfox (87712) on Monday January 09, 2012 @08:36PM (#38645038) Homepage Journal
    Take that, 8th grade English teacher Mrs Wright! For the record I would like to reiterate my assertion that Herman Melville was a pratt who only wrote that book because he liked to hear himself talk, and that the writings of George Orwell, CSS Lewis and JK Rowling are sufficient evidence that the British consider consumption of literature to be a masochistic enterprise! And don't even get me started on the insufferable writings of Charles Dickens! I eagerly await the day when age-related dementia erases from the annals of my memory all those books you worked to put there! If there is a bright side to having to wear adult diapers and not knowing who you are, that would be it!
  • by gslj (214011) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @12:40AM (#38647368)

    I'm in shock that so may people here agree that Tolkien's prose is a problem. Far from that being the case, Tolkien is so sensitive to prose rhythm that I use it from time to time to teach how to appreciate rhythm in prose or poetry. Take, for example, the ride of the Rohirrim, at the end of chapter 5 of the Return of the King. It starts off at a walk ("Then suddenly Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt: a change. Wind was in his face! Light was glimmering.") picks up a bit to a trot ("But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath
    the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle: and then as the darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great _boom_.") a canter ("With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains."), and then a full-out gallop ("Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first _éored_ roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken.") Then, once the cavalry has bashed through the enemy lines and the fighting's intensity lags, we slow down to a walk again ( And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.") I could also point out the careful word choice for alliteration ("and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder") and assonance ("the host of Rohan"). Reading this page aloud is a joy. If you appreciate the King James Bible, or Old English poetry, you can appreciate this.

    But he doesn't always write in this style. There are homely conversations between country folk, and orders in the field, and descriptions of landscapes, and "dropped in" details that suggest thousands of years of history that are simply not explained, but make Middle Earth seem real.

    By the way, I would take Ursula Le Guin's opinion on prose quality pretty seriously. She is a fan of Tolkien's writing, too, calling it "a great wind blowing" that could have overwhelmed her own voice if she had read it earlier than she did. (http://greenbooks.theonering.net/tributes/files/ursula_leguin.html)

    So, again, I don't get where this opinion that Tolkien writes badly. The man put more care into a sentence than others do in a chapter.

    -Gareth

You can do this in a number of ways. IBM chose to do all of them. Why do you find that funny? -- D. Taylor, Computer Science 350

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