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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Why do some people say that Tolkien wasn't a writer?


Feb 2 2013, 1:19am

Post #1 of 16 (3124 views)
Why do some people say that Tolkien wasn't a writer? Can't Post

Look here: http://www.mmo-champion.com/...Frost-and-Forster%29

This person says:

Tolkien's style of writing, even at the time, was incredibly old fashioned and dull. He was greatly influenced by poets like William Wordsworth who specialized in pastoral poetry hundreds of years previously. Even in the 1950s, writing that drones on and on about shrubbery and forestry details was viewed as uninteresting. And the reason the LoTR films are better than the books is just that. The story was great, but it was buried in a mountain of long-windedly-bad writing.

What? Tolkien had a great mastery of the English language, I'm sure he made his prose that way on purpose (and it's not boring, I think people's attention spans are dwindling year by year). The guy was a perfectionist.


(This post was edited by Rane on Feb 2 2013, 1:20am)


Feb 2 2013, 2:38am

Post #2 of 16 (2155 views)
No accounting for taste. [In reply to] Can't Post

Apparently that year's Nobel literature committee was largely composed of people whose taste was strongly in the camp of modern, contemporary prose. That is far from a universal assessment, as evidenced by the extraordinary popularity of LotR even well before the movies. As the article notes, Tolkien was in good company, with several other much loved authors in the "not modern enough" reject bin. Similarly, there are plenty of film critics who prefer Quentin Tarantino to Peter Jackson.

Tom Shippey dealt with these issues well in "J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century".


Feb 2 2013, 6:31am

Post #3 of 16 (2119 views)
He has certainty lasted a long time! [In reply to] Can't Post

I think all the attention to details is what makes Tolkien's writing so realistic!


Feb 2 2013, 10:39am

Post #4 of 16 (2916 views)
What is great literature? [In reply to] Can't Post

I certainly don't know. Nor do I really care. I read what interests me. Some of what critics tell us is great literature I find mind-numbingly boring and eye-rollingly pretentious. As will all Arts, it is a matter of taste. One man's Art is another man's garbage...

Tolkien may not pepper his narrative with big words, but the man nevertheless was a genius in my opinion. Not only did he tell wonderful tales with strong, interesting characters, he invented a whole world with its own mythology and not one but several languages. And his books are still around and are being read and enjoyed by many people. And they will be for many years to come. Besides, waht's wrong with being influenced by writers like William Wordsworth?

I wonder if perhaps some of the people who do not think Tolkien a good writer picked up the books only after watching the LOTR movies, expecting a ripping tale of adventure and found books that were differently paced and written than they expected. I can certainly see them rejecting the books on those grounds.


Feb 2 2013, 9:19pm

Post #5 of 16 (2056 views)
I wonder if they regret their decision [In reply to] Can't Post

Either way, I never heard of the other guy who won the prize. So big words make you a writer now? Huh, that's funny, because I thought sticking with your story to the end did. Especially if it took 12 years to write!



Feb 2 2013, 10:01pm

Post #6 of 16 (2080 views)
What makes a writer... [In reply to] Can't Post

... is indeed to write a story, beginning to end. What makes a great writer is to write a story that grabs the reader and moves them, and that they remember afterwards. It may be a matter of taste, but I know who I think of as a great writer, and it's not the guy who won the prize... (he might be a great writer, for all I know, of course, but fact is that I had never heard of him before)

This is why I don't listen to critics or look for books that have won prizes. If a book sounds interesting, I will read it, no matter what other people say.


Feb 3 2013, 8:01am

Post #7 of 16 (2047 views)
What about it? [In reply to] Can't Post

In Reply To
Tolkien had a great mastery of the English language, I'm sure he made his prose that way on purpose (and it's not boring, I think people's attention spans are dwindling year by year). The guy was a perfectionist.

Having a great mastery of language doesn't mean one could write well, or even that one is well-read in literature.
Tolkien for sure wrote his prose the way he did on purpose - but that does not mean that he chose correctly. The critic is as entitled to his/her opinion as the purest fan we have between us is entitled to his/her own.

Tol Eressea

Feb 3 2013, 9:47am

Post #8 of 16 (2070 views)
I think it's a matter of opinion - [In reply to] Can't Post

- here's a post from that forum:

Originally Posted by Callace Tolkien's style of writing, even at the time, was incredibly old fashioned and dull. He was greatly influenced by poets like William Wordsworth who specialized in pastoral poetry hundreds of years previously. Even in the 1950s, writing that drones on and on about shrubbery and forestry details was viewed as uninteresting. And the reason the LoTR films are better than the books is just that. The story was great, but it was buried in a mountain of long-windedly-bad writing."

to which another poster, Hollowhisp, replies:

"I'd disagree, the attention to detail is what allowed lord of the rings to feel like such a fully fleshed out world. The writing style is meant to appear old, he was paying tribute to the entire catalog of English story telling. You have references to mulitple anglo-saxon poems, Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, the pastoral epic... the list goes on. "

Now my opinion coincides with that of Hollowhisp, and not at all with that of Callace; not least because Hollowhisp's is an informed opinion and Callaces's is not. There's no evidence that Tolkien was 'influenced' by Wordsworth who, incidentally, was not writing 'hundreds of years previously' to Tolkien, but who would have been regarded by JRR as a modern writer (but then Tolkien regarded Shakespeare as modern).

Like any good writer, Tolkien wrote to his strengths. His prime motivation for writing LotR was, as he said in his Foreword to the 2nd edition, to 'try his hand at a really long story that would hold readers' attention, to excite them and deeply move them'. (paraphrase from memory). He also noted that, from a look at his fanmail, the results were a bit mixed - some of his readers didn't like certain parts of the book, while others found the same parts specially appealing.

I think that his references to the natural world are part of Tolkien's strengths - he loved botany as a child. (in a piece for 'Attacks of Taste' - (a book about which books influenced writers) - he mentions a book on the flowers of the Cape as one of his favourites). Tolkien also enjoyed history as an art - he says in his foreword that he prefers history over allegory; history ' whether true or feigned'. And let's not forget language or, as Tolkien might have written, Language with a capital 'L'. I seem to recall that Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter summed up JRR as one whose greatest influences in life were his family, his faith and Language. I say, influences in his life; this doesn't necessarily mean that we can dutifully trawl through TH and LotR looking for definite examples of these three; but they are there all the same.

To my mind Tolkien's greatest strength was that he was not a 'Great Writer' - whatever people mean by that. But he was a great story-teller, and also a teller of great stories, from the large and magnificent (LotR) to the small and exquisitely made (Smith of Wootton Major; 'Beorhtnoth' ; and esp. Leaf by Niggle) But that's just my opinion.


(This post was edited by geordie on Feb 3 2013, 9:53am)


Feb 3 2013, 12:05pm

Post #9 of 16 (2059 views)
Unfortunately, Tolkien will never win it. [In reply to] Can't Post

While he is loved here, he does not have the status of a "great writer" among the Academy folks.

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.

Tol Eressea

Feb 3 2013, 12:48pm

Post #10 of 16 (2067 views)
Tolkien never will win the Nobel Prize for Literature [In reply to] Can't Post

because it isn't awarded posthumously.


Feb 3 2013, 2:21pm

Post #11 of 16 (2037 views)
Well put [In reply to] Can't Post

I think your defense of Tolkien as a writer is about as good as can be made, against the accusation that he is not a "great" writer such as is taught in advanced English Literature classes in high school and college.

Another point, perhaps, is to consider who he is being compared to: those authors currently taught and celebrated by academically-trained and employed critics. As his defenders (like Shippey, Drout, and Rosebury) have noted, Tolkien's accusers are not as sure about what good writing is, as they are sure that Tolkien's writing is not it. But these three Tolkien-studies critics, who are modern professors of English, have speculated that modern educational tastes in reading and writing world-class literature tend to favor authors who use English in a highly artful way to explore the inner selves of characters, and how those characters experience the world they live in (squire's attempt at summing up the argument that what makes Tolkien a "bad writer" is that he doesn't do this).

Tolkien fans, if they are attentive, should recognize that this is almost a prescription of what Tolkien does not do in his writing. His language is relatively plainly structured and his narratives are straightforward third-person accounts of events and dialogue. His exploration of emotions is restrained and often follows generic models from early 20th century heroic adventures or romances. Only his use of vocabulary seems artful to us in terms of actual composition, and I would say that many of the words he uses were much better known to his readers in the mid-20th century than they are even now. His manipulations of syntax and style to evoke a medieval-era setting are quite artful (as Drout and Shippey have written), but that kind of accomplishment is downplayed by critics who believe writers should engage the present day in a more direct manner.

As has been noted already, Tolkien's use of "setting" is incomparable. He creates entire worlds, including races, languages, and customs, that are engaging and self-contained. In our Rosebury discussion last year (sample here), we talked at length about Rosebury's argument that Tolkien's greatness as a writer really should be argued in terms of his world-creation, and his use of English to convey that world in terms that engage the average reader. But that kind of creation, in a fantastical setting, is not really highly-valued by the critics who as I have said are looking for something else, however poorly they define it, in art literature.

squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Footeramas: The 3rd (and NOW the 4th too!) TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary

= Forum has no new posts. Forum needs no new posts.


Feb 3 2013, 3:40pm

Post #12 of 16 (2043 views)
The Nobel Prize has been awarded posthumously [In reply to] Can't Post

(Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Sweden, 1931.) However I think you may be right that he cannot be awarded the prize now, as they changed it (I believe) in 1974.

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.


Feb 3 2013, 6:59pm

Post #13 of 16 (2020 views)
Also well put. [In reply to] Can't Post

*Bookmarks both posts*

These two posts succinctly encapsulate a discussion that has been repeated many times, though rarely articulated so well.


Feb 7 2013, 3:07am

Post #14 of 16 (1995 views)
Some critical reviews... [In reply to] Can't Post

Criticism of playwright William Shakespeare:

"The undisputed fame enjoyed by Shakespeare as a writer...is, like every other lie, a great evil." -- Count Leo Tolstoy

"With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare..." -- George Bernard Shaw

Criticism of John Milton's Paradise Lost:

"This obscure, eccentric and disgusting poem." -- Voltaire

"Our language sunk under him." -- Joseph Addison

"Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure." -- Dr. Samuel Johnson

Criticism of poet John Keats:

"Here [is] Jonny Keats' piss-a-bed poetry...No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don't I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the Mankin." -- Lord Byron

"Fricassee of dead dog." -- Thomas Carlyle

Criticism of author James Joyce:

"The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." -- Virginia Woolf

"My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old f**s and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness." -- D.H. Lawrence

Criticism of composer Richard Wagner:

"I like Wagner's music better than any other music. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage." -- Oscar Wilde

"Wagner's music is better than it sounds." -- Mark Twain

"Wagner has beautiful moments but awful quarter hours." -- G.A. Rossini

"Wagner is evidently mad." -- Hector Berlioz

"Is Wagner human at all? Is he not rather a disease?" -- Friedrich Nietzsche

"I love Wagner but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws." -- Charles Baudelaire

And there you have it, several eminent critics famous for their own works, utterly trashing equally famous artists. Everyone has an opinion, but the one that counts the most is your own. Unless, of course, your opinion goes against my beliefs, in which case you are dead wrong.

Please visit my blog...The Dark Elf File...a slighty skewed journal of music and literary comment, fan-fiction and interminable essays.

(This post was edited by Morthoron on Feb 7 2013, 3:16am)

NZ Strider

Feb 11 2013, 7:27am

Post #15 of 16 (1980 views)
Just a minor, supplementary point: The Nobel Prize Committee [In reply to] Can't Post

has also scorned a large number of authors whose high status in the "academy" is by now well-established: Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, and Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) all failed to win a Nobel. No committee of critics is perfect, and with hindsight it becomes ever clearer what egregious mistakes the Nobel Prize Committee has made over the decades. On the other hand, a large number of its choices has stood the test of time: Thomas Mann, Rudyard Kipling, and William Faulkner come to mind. So it's not all bad; and Tolkien is in very good company with Hardy, Conrad, Kafka, and Baroness von Blixen-Finecke to talk to.


Feb 27 2013, 5:31pm

Post #16 of 16 (2588 views)
I heard that too [In reply to] Can't Post

I heard many times that Tolkien isn't the ''conventional'' type of writter. That he did his stories in a peculiar way. Like typing them all over again form the start if it wasn't like he wanted them to be. Some say he was more interested by the languages in themselves as a Philologist and so that he wasn't the typical author.

I am not sure what to think of all this to be honest. The fact of the matter is that he did writte excellent tales and that he is my favorite author. His stories are still read and reread and debated decades after they were published. That's what really matters.


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