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The Middle-earth weather is...

noWizardme
Valinor


Feb 17 2017, 5:50pm

Post #1 of 12 (1666 views)
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The Middle-earth weather is... Can't Post

...very often beautifully described. It's also pretty realistic, I think - both what is happening 'now' and also a realistic build-up to some change in the weather, such as the approach of a storm, or the change in the weather that causes fog. And sometimes the weather seems to comment upon the mood or meaning of a scene.

I thought it would be fun to collect some examples - please contribute!

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


noWizardme
Valinor


Feb 17 2017, 5:56pm

Post #2 of 12 (1630 views)
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The Middle-earth weather is commenting upon Theoden's situation [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote

"From the porch upon the top of the high terrace they could see beyond the stream the green fields of Rohan fading into distant grey. Curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down. The sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder, and lightning far away flickered among the tops of hidden hills. But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the East was receding, rolling away southward to the sea. Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass. ‘It is not so dark here,’ said Théoden."


The Two Towers, LoTR Book 3, Ch 7, Helm's Deep


It's a beautiful description. I've certainly stood on a hillside and seen 'Curtains of wind-blown rain' (it's especially nice to see if you're out of the rain yourself!) The weather here seems to offer a summary of Theoden's situation. Aragorn is from the North, repelling the darkness from the East. Gandalf recently used what has appeared to be thunder and lightning to quell Grima, Naturally this being LOTR, it's completely unclear whether Gandalf caused the storm, made use of it, or whether the noise and the flash that defeats Grima is nothing to do with the weather that is now described. Now the healing King Theoden is with Gandalf, observing this brightening weather.

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm

(This post was edited by noWizardme on Feb 17 2017, 5:57pm)


CuriousG
Half-elven


Feb 17 2017, 6:10pm

Post #3 of 12 (1629 views)
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More the condition of the sunset than exactly "the weather", but close: the end of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields [In reply to] Can't Post


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Hard fighting and long labour they had still; for the Southrons were bold men and grim, and fierce in despair; and the Easterlings were strong and war-hardened and asked for no quarter. And so in this place and that, by burned homestead or barn, upon hillock or mound, under wall or on field, still they gathered and rallied and fought until the day wore away.
Then the Sun went at last behind Mindolluin and filled all the sky with a great burning, so that the hills and the mountains were dyed as with blood; fire glowed in the River, and the grass of the Pelennor lay red in the nightfall. And in that hour the great Battle of the field of Gondor was over; and not one living foe was left within the circuit of the Rammas.

Even the grass (green, or maybe brown this time of year while dormant) was turned red by the sunset. Either the sky was reflecting the bloodshed it had witnessed that day, or Manwe was acknowledging it himself.

This stands in contrast to the beginning of the battle, when the cock crowed, completely indifferent to war, politics, slaughter, etc, but moving instead to the rhythms of nature beyond the artificial world:

Quote
And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.



Eruonen
Valinor


Feb 17 2017, 8:10pm

Post #4 of 12 (1617 views)
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Those examples of writing are big reasons why so many of us are [In reply to] Can't Post

drawn so deeply into his world.


squire
Half-elven


Feb 18 2017, 2:26am

Post #5 of 12 (1625 views)
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'Then the wind died away and the rain came streaming down' vs 'biggish swollen clouds to be seen as the night increased and the weatherwise poring up at them and some sheet lightnings at first' [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree that Tolkien uses weather often and well, to set a mood or introduce a new setting. Less frequently, as noted already here, his weather descriptions seem to convey agency, so that the weather becomes a character in the plot. I could think of a dozen favorite Tolkien ‘weather bits’ quite quickly. But you got me to thinking – is Tolkien’s grasp of ‘realistic’ weather particularly remarkable among writers? I thought of one obvious type of weather, rain (he is English, after all!), and two of the more obvious ways that rain can convey a mood in fiction: the beginning of a gentle rainfall (depression, sadness, weariness), and the sudden onset of a thunderstorm (tension, shock, fear). Here are four examples from The Lord of the Rings that I’m sure we all remember:
A. The leaves blew upwards in sudden gusts of wind, and spots of rain began to fall from the overcast sky. Then the wind died away and the rain came streaming down. They trudged along as fast as they could, over patches of grass, and through thick drifts of old leaves; and all about them the rain pattered and trickled. They did not talk, but kept glancing back, and from side to side. – J. R. R. Tolkien. (1954). The Lord of the Rings. I.4

B. The upper wind settled in the West and deeper and wetter clouds rolled up to spill their laden rain on the bare heads of the Downs. Nothing could be seen all round the house but falling water. Frodo stood near the open door and watched the white chalky path turn into a little river of milk and go bubbling away down into the valley. – J. R. R. Tolkien. (1954). The Lord of the Rings. I.7

C. It was now past midnight. The sky was utterly dark, and the stillness of the heavy air foreboded storm. Suddenly the clouds were seared by a blinding flash. Branched lightning smote down upon the eastward hills. For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and the Dike lit with white light: it was boiling and crawling with black shapes. some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields. Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach. The dark tide flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff. Thunder rolled in the valley. Rain came lashing down. – J. R. R. Tolkien. (1954). The Lord of the Rings. III.7

D. The hurrying darkness, now gathering great speed, rushed up from the East and swallowed the sky. There was a dry splitting crack of thunder right overhead. Searing lightning smote down into the hills. Then came a blast of savage wind, and with it, mingling with its roar, there came a high shrill shriek. – J. R. R. Tolkien. (1954). The Lord of the Rings. IV.1

It wasn’t too hard to find some examples of ‘rain prose’ or ‘storm prose’ in some other writers from late 19th and early 20th century Britain, thanks to the Gutenberg project. I picked a range of English authors, from the popular fantasists that Tolkien admitted to as influences in his youth, to the literary masters that he claimed to shun as being not his cup of tea. I’ve ordered them from 1886 to 1929, what I think of as the formative years of Tolkien’s career as a writer. See what you think: is the weather of Middle-earth similar to, better than, or in another world from, the following excerpts?
1. The morning came. The sky, which had been remarkably clear down to within a day or two, was overcast, and the weather threatening, the wind having an unmistakable hint of water in it. Henchard wished he had not been quite so sure about the continuance of a fair season. But it was too late to modify or postpone, and the proceedings went on. At twelve o’clock the rain began to fall, small and steady, commencing and increasing so insensibly that it was difficult to state exactly when dry weather ended or wet established itself. In an hour the slight moisture resolved itself into a monotonous smiting of earth by heaven, in torrents to which no end could be prognosticated. – Thomas Hardy. (1886). The Mayor of Casterbridge. Ch. 16.

2. And indeed the morning had grown mirky and grey and threatening, and from far away the thunder growled, and the face of the Kite’s Nest showed pale and awful against a dark steely cloud; and a few drops of rain pattered into the smooth water before them from a rag of the cloud-flock right over head. – William Morris. (1889). The House of the Wolfings. Ch. 19.

3. As I returned over the moors in the evening, the wind was blowing in short, angry puffs, and the western horizon was heaped with sombre clouds which stretched their long, ragged tentacles right up to the zenith. Against their dark background one or two livid, sulphur-coloured splotches showed up malignant and menacing, while the surface of the sea had changed from the appearance of burnished quicksilver to that of ground glass. A low, moaning sound rose up from the ocean as if it knew that trouble was in store for it.
At nine o’clock a sharp breeze was blowing, at ten it had freshened into a gale, and before midnight the most furious storm was raging which I can remember upon that weather-beaten coast.
I sat for some time in our small, oak-panelled sitting-room listening to the screeching and howling of the blast and to the rattle of the gravel and pebbles as they pattered against the window. Nature’s grim orchestra was playing its world-old piece with a compass which ranged from the deep diapason of the thundering surge to the thin shriek of the scattered shingle and the keen piping of frightened sea birds. – Arthur Conan Doyle. (1889). The Mystery of Cloomber. Ch. 11.

4. You know how these squalls come up there about that time of the year. First you see a darkening of the horizon—no more; then a cloud rises opaque like a wall. A straight edge of vapour lined with sickly whitish gleams flies up from the southwest, swallowing the stars in whole constellations; its shadow flies over the waters, and confounds sea and sky into one abyss of obscurity. And all is still. No thunder, no wind, no sound; not a flicker of lightning. Then in the tenebrous immensity a livid arch appears; a swell or two like undulations of the very darkness run past, and suddenly, wind and rain strike together with a peculiar impetuosity as if they had burst through something solid. – Joseph Conrad. (1900). Lord Jim. Ch. 9.

5. A silence even greater than before fell upon them. They did not move. It was so still in the room that it might have been empty. The breathlessness of the air increased, so that it was horribly oppressive. Suddenly there was a loud rattle of thunder, and a flash of lightning tore across the heavy clouds. Susie thanked Heaven for the storm which would give presently a welcome freshness. She felt excessively ill at ease, and it was a relief to ascribe her sensation to a state of the atmosphere. Again the thunder rolled. It was so loud that it seemed to be immediately above their heads. And the wind rose suddenly and swept with a long moan through the trees that surrounded the house. It was a sound so human that it might have come from the souls of dead men suffering hopeless torments of regret. – W. Somerset Maugham. (1908). The Magician. Ch. 16.

6. Later it began to rain. The pine-trees smelled very strong. Paul lay with his head on the ground, on the dead pine needles, listening to the sharp hiss of the rain—a steady, keen noise. His heart was down, very heavy. Now he realised that she had not been with him all the time, that her soul had stood apart, in a sort of horror. He was physically at rest, but no more. Very dreary at heart, very sad, and very tender, his fingers wandered over her face pitifully. Now again she loved him deeply. He was tender and beautiful.
“The rain!” he said.
“Yes—is it coming on you?”
She put her hands over him, on his hair, on his shoulders, to feel if the raindrops fell on him. She loved him dearly. He, as he lay with his face on the dead pine-leaves, felt extraordinarily quiet. He did not mind if the raindrops came on him: he would have lain and got wet through: he felt as if nothing mattered, as if his living were smeared away into the beyond, near and quite lovable. This strange, gentle reaching-out to death was new to him. – D. H. Lawrence. (1913). Sons and Lovers. Ch. 11.

7. The room grew suddenly several degrees darker, for the wind seemed to be driving waves of darkness across the earth. No one attempted to eat for a time, but sat looking out at the garden, with their forks in the air. The flashes now came frequently, lighting up faces as if they were going to be photographed, surprising them in tense and unnatural expressions. The clap followed close and violently upon them. Several women half rose from their chairs and then sat down again, but dinner was continued uneasily with eyes upon the garden. The bushes outside were ruffled and whitened, and the wind pressed upon them so that they seemed to stoop to the ground. The waiters had to press dishes upon the diners' notice; and the diners had to draw the attention of waiters, for they were all absorbed in looking at the storm. As the thunder showed no signs of withdrawing, but seemed massed right overhead, while the lightning aimed straight at the garden every time, an uneasy gloom replaced the first excitement. – Virginia Woolf. (1915). The Voyage Out. Ch. 27.

8. The rain had declined to a fine drizzle, but a tearing wind from the south-west scoured the land. Beyond the shelter of the trees the moor was a battle-ground of gusts which swept the puddles into spindrift and gave to the stagnant bog-pools the appearance of running water. – John Buchan. (1922). Huntingtower. Ch. 8.

9. But by and by, as said, this evening after sundown, the wind sitting in the west, biggish swollen clouds to be seen as the night increased and the weatherwise poring up at them and some sheet lightnings at first and after, past ten of the clock, one great stroke with a long thunder and in a brace of shakes all scamper pellmell within door for the smoking shower, the men making shelter for their straws with a clout or kerchief, womenfolk skipping off with kirtles catched up soon as the pour came. – James Joyce. (1922). Ulysses. Ch. 14.

10. … high above them a wild tempest started, confined at first to the upper regions of the air. Gusts of wind mixed darkness and light, sheets of rain cut from the north, stopped, cut from the south, began rising from below, and across them struggled the singers, sounding every note but terror, and preparing to throw God away, God Himself, (not that God can be thrown) into the storm. – E. M. Forster. (1924). A Passage to India. Ch. 36.

11. One flash followed another and then there were three tremendous crashes of thunder and a lot of little ones as if the sky were breaking into solid bits and rattling down a steep iron roof. … There was a gust of wind and then a heavy pattering of rain on the tents and after that it was as if the rain were coming down in solid lumps of water that splashed and broke on the thin canvas. – Arthur Ransome. (1929). Swallows and Amazons. Ch.30.




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noWizardme
Valinor


Feb 20 2017, 10:20am

Post #6 of 12 (1534 views)
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A good range of examples! [In reply to] Can't Post

Nice to see these other British writers ad their rain scenes. I'm not sure I could compare or rank them - to me they all seem like writers who are making good use of including weather in writing. I'm not too sure abut EM Forster's parentheses though: to me it rather throws away his effect.

As you say, there are many possible effects to be had- with the weather foreshadowing events or seeming to comment upon them. All this in addition to the role of weather as a hazard, or discomfort, or inconvenience, or military factor (and so on). One thing that is nowadays mostly restricted to fantasy is the idea that the weather might have been deliberately produced by some 'Power' or another: The Fellowship can earnestly discuss whether the snow that prevents them crossing the pass of Caradhras is being caused by an enemy (and if so, by which enemy). As with other occasions where someone or something might have been working the weather Tolkien is careful not to come to any firm conclusion - but clearly from the Fellowship's talk, it is popularly supposed that such things are possible in Middle-earth.

Such an idea elsewhere in twentieth-century literature is more likely to be pathetic fallacy I think. It's been a while since odd weather events were widely considered to be sent by God to punish the activities of that handy minority, Those-Scapegoats-Over-There.

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


noWizardme
Valinor


Feb 20 2017, 10:30am

Post #7 of 12 (1531 views)
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The weather is carefully building up a fog to help the Fellowship escape [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote

The air grew warm and very still under the great moist clouds that had floated up from the South and the distant seas. The rushing of the River over the rocks of the rapids seemed to grow louder and closer. The twigs of the trees above them began to drip. When the day came the mood of the world about them had become soft and sad. Slowly the dawn grew to a pale light, diffused and shadowless. There was mist on the River, and white fog swathed the shore; the far bank could not be seen. ‘I can’t abide fog,’ said Sam; ‘but this seems to be a lucky one. Now perhaps we can get away without those cursed goblins seeing us.’

FOTR, The Great River


The Fellowship have just been shot at by orcs of the East bank, and this fog allows them to escape. I like not only the description of it, but the way in which Tolkien describes its approach (with, I think, meteorological accuracy). Much better, I think, than just having the Fellowship wake up in the morning to find the fog there.

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


FarFromHome
Valinor


Feb 20 2017, 3:40pm

Post #8 of 12 (1513 views)
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Definitely a nice selection of the wet and wild! [In reply to] Can't Post

It's a fine selection of wet weather that your Gutenberg searches have come up with! It's interesting that four of the 11 (Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Woolf and Forster) describe not English but foreign, tropical weather, depicted not for being something readers would relate to, I think, but primarily to impress with their alienness.

Of the others, three (Conan Doyle, Buchan, Ransome) are using storms to add to the excitement and mystery of their story. Two others (Lawrence and Joyce) beautifully describe ordinary English/Irish rain, but their focus is on the reactions of the characters in response to it.

Only one, to my mind, hints at all that the weather has agency. In the extract from The Mayor of Casterbridge, the weather does seem to have a baleful, fateful effect, as it often does in Hardy (Far From the Madding Crowd springs to mind). But it's an implacable, impersonal effect that seems to care nothing for the suffering it causes. It's not the kind of complex, intimate sense of agency that weather often has in Middle-earth.

I agree with noWizardme that it's the sense of living, sentient weather (and living, sentient landscape too) that makes the difference in LotR. I can't see anything in the descriptions themselves, though, that differentiates Tolkien's weather from the other authors' weather. The difference seems to be mostly in the way that the weather descriptions are used, not just to convey a mood but to give a sense of its active, purposeful role in the story.

I always find myself going back to On Fairy Stories when it comes to Tolkien's sense of how these things work:
... it is asking a question without much meaning, if we inquire: Which came first, nature-allegories about personalized thunder in the mountains, splitting rocks and trees; or stories about an irascible, not very clever, redbeard farmer, of a strength beyond common measure, a person (in all but mere stature) very like the Northern farmers, the bœndr by whom Thórr was chiefly beloved? To a picture of such a man Thórr may be held to have “dwindled,” or from it the god may be held to have been enlarged. But I doubt whether either view is right—not by itself, not if you insist that one of these things must precede the other. It is more reasonable to suppose that the farmer popped up in the very moment when Thunder got a voice and face; that there was a distant growl of thunder in the hills every time a story-teller heard a farmer in a rage.
In Middle-earth, seen as it is through the eyes of characters whose world worked as described above, the thunder is always bound up with the Thunderer, rain may always be "Goldberry's washing day", sudden storms may always be a sign that one is under attack from a malevolent force (whether stone giants in The Hobbit, or servants of Sauron in LotR). The characters don't always glimpse the intelligence behind the natural event, but it's always potentially there, and that makes every experience, even the most mundane, all the more vivid.

(I realised I left out the William Morris extract, but having now read it in context I think it too has a sense of "mythic" agency. There's a song right before the passage, describing gathering storm-clouds of war, and the weather "indeed" (as the story says) starts to echo the weather of the song. Whether the song is conjuring the weather or not, it's reflecting the mythic mindset that Tolkien too creates, although in LotR he does it in a much more subtle way than Morris is doing, I think.)

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



(This post was edited by FarFromHome on Feb 20 2017, 3:40pm)


noWizardme
Valinor


Feb 20 2017, 4:14pm

Post #9 of 12 (1501 views)
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Another difference is that Middle-earth has a 'moral compass' [In reply to] Can't Post

I've been thinking that two of the compass directions in Middle-earth are associated with the Great Powers. Sauron is in the East, and the Valar are in the West. Both of these Powers are sometimes given names involving those directions (e.g. Sauron and his works are 'The Shadow of the East'). This gives the directional winds of Middle-earth a good/evil connection.

I would argue that this notion is there in the world view of the characters, whether or not. Middle-earth winds are literally sent by these Powers. Consider, for example the funeral song that Aragorn and Legolas make for Boromir, and their discussion with Gimil about why there should be no verse about the east wind. Wind direction (along with seasonality) also comes into the ballad that Treebeard sings of the Ents and Entwives. Such ideas seem a perfectly reasonable component of Middle-earth folklore, if not Middle-earth meterology. And, as Far From Home has nicely pointed out, the two are very intertwined.

It might be relevant that the weather in the British Isles (or in England at least) does depend a lot on the wind direction. The prevailing winds from the South West bring us mild, cloudy wet weather. Cold weather is usually driven down by winds from the North, and hot summer weather comes up from the Continental South. When I lived in Cambridge (Eastern England) the wind from the East tended to be unpleasantly strong, cold and damp in winter, having just come overland from the North Sea. Clashes between air masses give us weather fronts that make the weather changeable, and are quite noticeable to anyone awake to cloud forms, wind direction and the feel of the weather. I mention this because Tolkien's experience of British weather might quite naturally lead to his ideas of 'directional' weather for Middle-earth, and because I expect that Reading Room members who live elsewhere are used to quite different directional patterns.

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


FarFromHome
Valinor


Feb 20 2017, 9:05pm

Post #10 of 12 (1487 views)
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Very good point about the winds [In reply to] Can't Post

They do seem to have characters of their own, based very much on how the winds are experienced in the British Isles. As you say, the East and West winds reflect the very clear "moral compass" (nice phrase!) of Middle-earth, but I especially love the way the North wind, strong, clear and cold, acts as a character in the arrival of the Eagles and the rescue of Frodo and Sam, as both Gandalf and Sam, from their own perspectives, look to the northern sky:

“As if to his eyes some sudden vision had been given, Gandalf stirred; and he turned, looking back north where the skies were pale and clear. Then he lifted up his hands and cried in a loud voice ringing above the din: The Eagles are coming!”

“There came Gwaihir the Windlord, and Landroval his brother, greatest of all the Eagles of the North.... Behind them in long swift lines came all their vassals from the northern mountains, speeding on a gathering wind....”

“The North Wind blows, but we shall outfly it,’ said Gwaihir.”

....

[Sam's] eyes still strayed north, north into the eye of the wind, to where the sky far off was clear, as the cold blast, rising to a gale, drove back the darkness and the ruin of the clouds. And so it was that Gwaihir saw them with his keen far-seeing eyes, as down the wild wind he came...”

- The Field of Cormallen


They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



squire
Half-elven


Feb 21 2017, 4:39am

Post #11 of 12 (1483 views)
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Very nice commentary. A few other things I noticed ... [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for the neat distinctions you've made between the various passages!

I also noted the three foreign settings of tropical weather (the Maugham storm is actually set in England) and took it as indicative of how thoroughly English literature in that period was soaked in the Empire. Although I don't doubt the effects were alien, as you put it, to many readers, I wonder how many of the educated classes who would have read Conrad, Woolf, or Forster might well have spent time in the tropics in the course of imperial duties. Even Tolkien, as homebody an English writer as we could wish for, claimed to remember the South African climate of his early youth.

One other aspect of this exercise struck me, that you may not have focused on: Tolkien's passages show a remarkable economy compared to almost all the others. It's not that he isn't artful - his word choices and images have pungency and power in their own ways, but look how restrained his sentences are. The closest equivalents in the list are Buchan and Ransome, and of course Morris - the three whom I knew he had mentioned as inspirations or models for his own prose. But even Morris and Buchan are a bit lusher than Tolkien in his prime (i.e., in The Lord of the RIngs; Morris was one of his inspirations for The Silmarillion, of course, and it shows). And it may be my own prejudice but Ransome's piece, explicitly written for (quite literate) children, does not seem to have quite the reach of Tolkien whether as here in LotR or even in the better comparison, The Hobbit.

Along with his almost quaint economy, which may be part of the reason literary critics have not classed him among the masters in this assortment, I notice two other things about Tolkien's weather writing compared to the other authors. One, he avoids including his characters' reactions to the storms, so that the weather stands more as a part of the setting than of plot per se and we are reminded again that the inner life of characters was never his main focus; and then in three of the four clips I used, he inserts an element of horror or menace, reminding us that LotR is, if not a 'mere thriller', a thriller never the less.

No author should be hanged on the basis of a single book, much less a single passage, but I was shocked at Conan Doyle's self-indulgence. And tickled pink at reading Joyce, who I am quite unfamiliar with. This project has actually inspired me to attempt once more to tackle the moderns, who I generally have a hard time with!



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FarFromHome
Valinor


Feb 21 2017, 4:51pm

Post #12 of 12 (1428 views)
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Thoughts on your thoughts [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree with pretty much everything you said, but I can't resist adding a few more thoughts that your post inspired ...


Quote
I also noted the three foreign settings of tropical weather (the Maugham storm is actually set in England) ...

Whoops! I didn't know The Magician, but having read a lot of Somerset Maugham stories at one time, I associate him mostly with exotic settings, so I jumped to conclusions there! Having now checked the quote in its context, I can see it should have been in a different category, maybe the one with Conan Doyle, since it invokes a strange and otherworldly atmosphere in a story about (as I should have guessed from the title!) magic.


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...and took it as indicative of how thoroughly English literature in that period was soaked in the Empire. Although I don't doubt the effects were alien, as you put it, to many readers, I wonder how many of the educated classes who would have read Conrad, Woolf, or Forster might well have spent time in the tropics in the course of imperial duties.

That's an interesting question. I don't know what percentage of educated readers might actually have been abroad on "imperial duties". Although his storm is presumably set in the UK (maybe Scotland? I didn't check), John Buchan also carried out "imperial duties" - I know he was Governor General of Canada anyway, though that's not as exotic as some places in the Empire! But even if many of the readers were familiar with these exotic places, I bet they still liked reading about them as exotic, so the writers have every reason to emphasize the unusual, un-English climate etc. I'm thinking of George Orwell in Burmese Days, evoking the strange, hot, musty, stifling atmosphere in the oh-so-British club rooms of Burma. The weather is experienced as being different, oppressive, alien, something that the Imperial Englishman observes and tolerates but doesn't make the mistake of thinking is "normal" - going native is frowned upon, after all (as poor Lord Jim finds out to his cost).


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One other aspect of this exercise struck me, that you may not have focused on: Tolkien's passages show a remarkable economy compared to almost all the others. It's not that he isn't artful - his word choices and images have pungency and power in their own ways, but look how restrained his sentences are.

I really like this observation, and I have to admit I did try to focus on it, but in the end wasn't sure that I wasn't imagining the difference. That's because I've had a theory for a while based on this sense of economy and simplicity, and so I thought maybe I was just biased and imagining it here!

I'm sure I've mentioned it on the board before (probably at some length!), but I believe that one of Tolkien's hidden techniques is to use simple, generic language in his descriptions. Unlike the "mainstream" literary descriptions of his day, where the fashion of "novelistic" description was to evoke something specific that the author has imagined or observed, and to recreate that special, unique experience in the reader's mind, Tolkien takes a step back and doesn't impose himself on the reader. Instead he allows the reader to bring their own imagination to flesh out the simple, archetypal words. It's a truism in linguistics that the most generic words ("ship", "river", "hill"), because they are so open-ended, cause the hearer (or reader) to imagine whatever version of those things is most natural and vivid to them. We can't help putting images to words (as in "don't think of an elephant!"), and Tolkien, instead of insisting that we see the images his way, allows us (you could almost say forces us, by not giving us the highly-specific, unique descriptions that modern novelists strive for) to see them our way - our ideal "river" or "hill", rather than some specific scene.
I think that is one of the secrets to his descriptive style, and it's what makes every reader feel that he's describing their ideal river or hill. I used to think he was describing exactly the kind of landscapes I loved the most, in the countryside of my childhood, then I came here and found that everyone thinks that, no matter what their favourite landscape is!


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Along with his almost quaint economy, which may be part of the reason literary critics have not classed him among the masters in this assortment, I notice two other things about Tolkien's weather writing compared to the other authors. One, he avoids including his characters' reactions to the storms, so that the weather stands more as a part of the setting than of plot per se and we are reminded again that the inner life of characters was never his main focus...

Agreed. And I'd say that the weather as "a part of the setting" is also one of the ways he makes the weather seem like a character in its own right, rather than just something to be observed or used in the service of the plot or characters of the story. I agree too that the inner life of the characters isn't his main focus - we have to observe them from the outside and draw our own conclusions, again unlike standard modern novelistic practice. (It's less true for the hobbits, I find - they are more modern and treated in a more modern fashion). But overall, I think you could say that the characters are a part of Middle-earth, part of a whole, living, breathing natural world. This is a pre-Christian world where Men (dwarves, hobbits, elves etc...) are not the masters of nature, but see themselves as an element of it.


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and then in three of the four clips I used, he inserts an element of horror or menace, reminding us that LotR is, if not a 'mere thriller', a thriller never the less.

I don't get menace in B., although I do get a sense of the weather having a "purpose". But in C. and D., for sure, there's horror and menace here. But unlike in most of the other writers' storms, they are not just something for the characters to observe or react to. These storms are menacing on their own account - they have a purpose of their own, influenced it seems by the powerful forces that have harnessed them, and indicative of something having gone wrong with the world.


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...tickled pink at reading Joyce, who I am quite unfamiliar with. This project has actually inspired me to attempt once more to tackle the moderns, who I generally have a hard time with!

I just love the fun he's having here - "
biggish swollen clouds ... and the weatherwise poring up at them". I love that image of the weatherwise, clever folk "poring up" at the rainclouds, just as the rainclouds are about to "pour down" on them! I've read Ulysses once, not trying to understand everything but just enjoying the clever, evocative, impressionistic things you can get without taking it all too seriously. It helps that I live in the Dublin area so can imagine a lot of the scenes, in fact I now find myself remembering Joyce's scenes whenever I'm in the places from the book. He's a beloved author in the city, and there's a "Bloomsday" every 16 June, the day on which the novel is set, when people dress up in costumes, visit the locations, and (if they are real fans) eat the famous grilled kidneys! But he also wrote a couple of books that are a much easier read - a book of short stories called Dubliners, and a semi-autobiographical early novel (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), both of which I would heartily recommend.


They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings


 
 

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