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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:

"Steven J. Willett" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Fri, 20 Feb 2004 15:33:05 +0900

Content-Type:

text/plain

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text/plain (71 lines)

On Thu, 19 Feb 2004 12:11:03 -0000, Colin Burrow wrote:

> I'm not totally sure that the admirable Willets has quite got what
> I said right before whistling us around most of English literature
> with such a huff and a puff and a house of cards blown down. I said
> T is not good to read aloud, and that his syntactic structures are
> predictable and untight, but that the imaginative edifice is grand.

Admirable or not, Willett thinks he got it right.  Burrow's first
sentence reads: "For what it's worth I read The Hobbit to my seven
year old boys a while back and thought, yes this is greatly imagined,
but oh God it's badly written."  The claim here is that Tolkien didn't
write for the speaking voice and thus the trilogy is "badly written."
The point of my little tour was simply to suggest that lots of great
books aren't particularly written for oral recitation.  That goes
preeminently for the later Conrad or James.  Even if I concede that
Tolkien did not write prose conducive to oral reading (which in fact I
don't for the reasons others have given), this would not in itself
permit us to call the LotR "badly written" tout court.

Burrow then compares the well-weighted words of the Narnia Chronicles
unfavorably with Tolkien and adds: "...reading Tolkein [sic] 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."  This
charge goes well beyond the first: whole portions of the narrative
stream, with the songs singled out for special ellipsis, can be
ignored because "of the shape of the sentences."  Here he is, I think,
pressing too much evaluative authority on (for prose) the narrow
virtue of oral recitation.  I am quite willing to admit that prose
written in a deft oral style is admirable, but that alone provides no
aesthetic touchstone.  Hudson's "Far Away and Long Ago," one of my
beloved books, is a delight to read out loud as are all his works, but
they are pretty lightweight, and I doubt very many of this list have
read him.  So far as I know, he's not even on the curriculum in US
universities.

Verse on the other hand must be written for oral recitation.  It's
hardly surprising that Spenser would come out well in a contest with
Tolkien--or any other prose.  That, however, has nothing to do with
his unpredictability.  The exigencies of meter and stanza structure
make a great deal of Spenser highly repetitive and predictable,
especially in the Alexandrine.  The impasto of Chaucerian and faux
Chaucerian words or syntax, as I noted, adds a further barrier to the
pacing and voice prized by Burrow.  Where we do find unpredictability
in Spenser is in his technique of rhythmic variations.  In _Poetic
Rhythm: Structure and Performance_, Reuven Tsur has graphed (a) the
percentage of deviations per position (36, Table 1) and (b) the
percentage of stresses in even-numbered positions (37-38, Table 2 and
Figure 1) for Spenser, Thomson, Pope, Milton and Shelly in descending
order of metrical regularity.  Spenser may be the least deviant of the
five, but his line is weaker because it lacks sharp prominence in the
key stress positions 4, 6 and 8.  Regularity in one sense makes his
lines seem looser than those of Milton or Shelley.  But this is only
half the story.  When he does employ variations, they tend to be very
strong and modulate emotion powerfully.  This is his art of rhythmical
unpredictability.

I stand corrected on "greatly imagined."  It sounded like a begrudged
concession to such "badly written" prose, much of which can be
skipped.  My guess, however, is that Tolkien does not rate very high
on his reading list despite the grand edifice.


-------------------------------------------------------
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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