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Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Rhetoric of Middle-earth

The Superversive: The Rhetoric of Middle-earth (An excerpt from Writing Down the Dragon)
Many critics have claimed that Tolkien is a bad prose stylist. Does this mean that The Lord of the Rings is a ‘good bad book’, merely an entertaining melodrama? To answer the question, we need to define the difference between melodrama and drama. I am indebted to Stephen R. Donaldson for this partial but useful definition: Where melodrama is about a Villain, a Victim, and a Rescuer, drama is about how those three characters exchange roles.

Gollum is an excellent example. When we meet him in The Two Towers, he appears to be a pure villain, with Frodo and Sam as his intended victims. But Frodo tames him, for a while, just enough so that Gollum can play the rescuer in the Dead Marshes. Captured by Faramir, he becomes a victim, and Frodo rescues him. He is victimized in another way by Sam, who fails to see how Gollum is struggling towards the good, and inadvertently pushes him back into his evil habits. Then Gollum becomes the villain once more, betraying the Hobbits to Shelob; but in the end, at Mount Doom itself, he turns (despite his worst intentions) into the final rescuer who saves the Quest from catastrophe.

Whatever The Lord of the Rings is, it is not a melodrama, any more than Hamlet or the Iliad. It contains several dramas, interlaced in a complex pattern, and each told in a style appropriate to the incidents and the characters. But none of these styles are the default style of the modern ‘literary’ novel. There are no showpiece sentences for the critics to make much of; there is no stock vocabulary of symbolism, Freudian, Marxist, or what not, by which to decode the text.