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SIDNEY-SPENSER  February 2004

SIDNEY-SPENSER February 2004

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Subject:

Re: Theorizing J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

From:

Gavin Alexander <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Sidney-Spenser Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 19 Feb 2004 11:36:45 +0000

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Well, I feel (much as I share Steven Willett's admiration of Tolkien and
applaud his assertion of the power and importance of LotR) that he has
nicely cleared the way for Sidney.  Perhaps the Arcadia is, then, the only
place to go for 'engaging, sparkling, entrancing style', a pleasing lack of
'literary and conceptual limitations', and large-scale ethical and
political purposiveness.  Hazlitt, of course, would not agree.

Gavin Alexander


At 19:21 19/02/04 +0900, you wrote:
>On Thu, 19 Feb 2004 09:00:17 -0000, Colin Burrow wrote:
>
> >                   When reading the Narnia books aloud to them I felt
> > every word counted, even if some of the words had palpable designs
> > on their souls in a way I find a bit unpalatable; reading Tolkein I
> > found that not only could I skip clauses, sentences, and (yes
> > indeed) lots of stanzas of songs, but that I KNEW in advance which
> > clauses were going to be skippable because of the shape of the
> > sentences.
>
>I take this as a pretty representative criticism of Tolkien's
>narrative style.  The parameters can swing rather more toward a
>dyslogical or eulogical judgment, but Burrow's take on his clumsy,
>predictable prose is probably average for those who think he's
>essentially a failed imaginative writer.
>
>What then would count as a powerful narrative style?  Cervantes, who
>wrote what is arguably the West's greatest novel, has been repeatedly
>charged with boredom by modern English readers and a fair number of
>Spanish ones.  One of the most distinguished members of the American
>Philological Association has publicly declared he simply cannot
>stomach either the dreary prose or the often vicious treatment meted
>out to various characters in Quixote's quest.  The novel's enormous
>popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had nothing
>whatsoever to do with Cervantes' command of Spanish idiom and
>everything with its satiric violence and ironical assault on medieval
>romances. Even the new translation by Edith Grossman is unlikely to
>overcome the inherent resistance by modern readers to the satire of
>this most postmodern and selfreferential of all baroque novels.  "Don
>Quixote" is probably an even more unread great book than "War and
>Peace."
>
>Do we find an engaging, sparkling, entrancing style in "Ulysses"?  All
>those clever rhetorical imitations can pall pretty fast, especially in
>something like the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode.  Then again Joyce
>embeds references in references like Chinese boxes as Gifford's
>"'Ulysses' Annotated" documents in over 600 pages.  Sections of the
>novel can certainly be read easily, but much is opaque unless one
>knows both the "Odyssey" and a vast repertoire of allusions and
>symbols.  Now I love the book, but it makes inordinate demands on the
>general well-educated reader let alone a Classicist who can identify a
>lot of what he took for granted.  For most readers, the ore is not
>worth mining.  Certain strands of his style also seem pretty dated to
>me, especially his forays into imagist description, which read rather
>like poor versions of the awful "Poems Pennyeach."
>
>For much of his work, with the exception of "Great Expectations,"
>Dickens is as predictable and clumsy as Tolkien is taken to be.
>Lawrence is now dethroned and Conrad has taken many hits from the
>po-mo crowd, but his greatest work--"The Nigger of the Narcissus,"
>"Heart of Darkness," "Lord Jim," "Nostromo," "The Secret Agent" and
>"Under Western Eyes"--will never appeal to a large audience because of
>the demands his prose places on the reader.  Then there's Woolf, whom
>I personally find much overrated and dreary, pinched and hysterical in
>the extreme.  Not to mention life-denying.  So much for de gustibus.
>
>For real perfection, perhaps we have to turn to Austen's "Pride and
>Prejudice" and "Emma" or James' "The Portrait of a Lady," but then
>each has been lambasted for various literary and conceptual
>limitations.  No one tackles James last three masterpieces lightly,
>and a good case can be made that "The Golden Bowl" is the most
>difficult novel simply to read in all English literature, easily
>beating "Ulysses."  Nothing sparkling, entrancing or immediately
>engaging there.  Yet, they are transcendent works of the ethical
>imagination.
>
>So what is my point in this little tour?  To carp at Tolkien's lapses,
>which to me are pleasant idiosyncrasies, is to miss his enormous
>success in constructing a vast, intricate and moving polyphonic
>narrative, the greatest since Spenser in my view.  Within that
>developing polyphony is surely the finest depiction of the corrosive
>effects of hubris and power in English.  The only parallel is the long
>fall of Redcross into despair.  More immediately, the Fellowship
>precisely delineates the criminal ambitions of the current US
>administration like those that preceded and will follow it throughout
>the world.  We should be grateful for what we have, whether in
>Cervantes or Tolkien.  Perfection in style probably does not exist,
>certainly not in Spenser with his faux Chaucerian vocabulary.
>
>
>
>
>-------------------------------------------------------
>Steven J. Willett
>Shizuoka University of Art and Culture
>1794-1 Noguchi-cho, Shizuoka Prefecture
>Hamamatsu City, Japan 430-8533
>Japan email: [log in to unmask]
>US email: [log in to unmask]

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