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Authors: Diana Wynne Jones

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The Shape of the Narrative in
The Lord of the Rings

 

First published in 1983 in
J. R. R. Tolkien: This Far Land
, edited by Robert Giddings (Vision Press), this article was also reprinted in Diana's 1995 collection
Everard's Ride
, published by NESFA Press.

 

 

W
hen I say “narrative,” I do not mean simply the plot. I mean considerably more. Plots and their shapes—the bare outlines of stories—were something I know J. R. R. Tolkien himself was interested in. When I was an undergraduate, I went to a course of lectures he gave on the subject—at least, I think that was the subject, because Tolkien was all but inaudible.
1
He evidently hated lecturing, and I suspect he also hated giving his thoughts away. At any rate, within two weeks he succeeded in reducing his substantial audience to myself and four others. We stuck on, despite his efforts. He worked at it: when it did appear that we might be hearing what he said, it was his custom to turn round and address the blackboard. Dim inklings alone reached me of what he meant, but these were too fascinating to miss. He started with the simplest possible story: a man (prince or woodcutter) going on a journey. He then gave the journey an aim, and we found that the simple picaresque plot had developed into a quest story. I am not quite sure what happened then, but I know that by the end he was discussing the peculiar adaptation of the quest story which Chaucer made in his “Pardoner's Tale.”

As you see, Tolkien did not give away half of what he knew, even about plots, and I suspect he never talked about narrative at all, but it is clear from
The Lord of the Rings
that he knew all about narrative as well. The plot of
The Lord of the Rings
is, on the face of it, exactly the same simple one that he appeared to describe in his lectures: a journey that acquires an aim and develops into a kind of quest. But the bare plot is to any writer no more than the main theme of a sort of symphony which requires other themes added to it and the whole orchestrated into a narrative. To shape a narrative, you have to phase the various incidents and so control their nature that you set up significances, correspondences, foretastes, and expectations, until your finished story becomes something else again from its simple outline. Tolkien does this orchestrating supremely well: so much so that, by various narrative sleights-of-hand, he almost reverses the normal flow of a quest story, or at least makes an adaptation of it every bit as peculiar as the one he described in his lectures, and nobody ever notices. It continues to fool me even now, though I think I can see what he is up to.

The Lord of the Rings
is organized in movements, just like a symphony, but with this difference: each movement has an extension, or coda, which reflects partly back on the movement just completed, and partly forward to what is to come. This coda is highly characteristic of Tolkien's method, and it becomes increasingly important as the narrative proceeds. You always have to watch what happens in these codas. And yet they, and the movements which precede them, in no way interfere with the story, the actual events being described, which appears to march steadily forward and to unfold with the utmost clarity and regularity. This limpid tale of events is one of Tolkien's major achievements, when you consider all the other things he was doing too. However, one thing he was
not
doing was striving to put it all in elegant language. His manner is at all times prolix and a little threadbare. The most he will do is to attempt a rough appropriateness. When he is dealing with Hobbits, he is chatty and a little arch: “If Frodo had really wanted to write a book and had had many ears, he would have learned enough for several chapters in a few minutes” (I, 167).
2
In more awesome places, he uses a hackneyed high style: “Then his wrath blazed in a consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him” (III, 223). It is symptomatic, I think, that he at all times overworks the word “suddenly.” To take the most random sample: “Suddenly he knew in his heart . . .” (I, 225); “Suddenly the lights went out” (II, 197); “Suddenly the silence was broken” (III, 127). As I know well enough myself, “suddenly” is a word hard to avoid in this kind of narrative. For Tolkien, as D. S. Brewer points out,
3
was writing a Romance in the old sense of the word. A Romance, unlike a novel, does not aim to draw attention to the way it is written. Tolkien was far more concerned with the matter of his narrative than its manner, and he only exercised his undoubted gift for language in inventing names, particularly names of places—which is again exactly in the tradition of a Romance. I always wish that Tolkien's many imitators would notice how comparatively modest his language is, and not insist on writing their stuff in translationese.

The first movement of the narrative lasts until the flight from Bree. Here, along with the chatty manner, we are in a cozy Hobbit world not very far removed from that of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Hobbits have that prosaic fubsiness one associates with a certain kind of children's story. And they are agreeably greedy and, above all, secure. But there is more to it than that. Throughout this section, Tolkien, like Lewis Carroll before him, is drawing heavily on the landscape round Oxford where he lived. Just as, I am sure, the chessboard view of three counties from White Horse Hill suggested
Alice Through the Looking-Glass
, it surely also gave rise to the Shire. But Tolkien took a leaf out of William Morris's book too,
The Well at the World's End
, and drew on the whole Upper Thames Valley. Here there are stuffy willow-choked flats, Wychwood, rivers like the Windrush and the Evenlode, the Rollright Stones, the long barrow called Wayland's Smithy, plow land and orchards round Didcot, the Seven Barrows, Thames water meadows, and the austere landscape of the chalk downs. And he used them all: there is even a real place called Buckland. Three other things he did not use here, though they are immensely important in the rest of the book, are the Thames itself; the old prehistoric road called the Ridgeway, which is probably the oldest road in Britain, leading from east to west (like the way to the Grey Havens), sometimes as a cart track, sometimes as broad as a motorway, and at other times vanishing in a valley; and finally a strange Oxford phenomenon, whereby the streets of the town are at times filled with a scent of distant flowers, for hours on end, as if one were smelling Heaven somehow. This is in a manner setting a thief to catch a thief, since I lived in Oxford for many years too and tend to use these things as well, but it is not important to know about them. I only draw attention to them to point out this first of Tolkien's narrative sleights-of-hand: by writing of things which were home to him, he contrives to give the reader a sense of home and security too.

But he is about to do something much more complicated than Carroll or Morris. He opens with a party. A burst of fireworks and fun. And here at once he surreptitiously introduces three major themes. The first, and by far the most important for the rest of the book, is the pressure of events which have happened long before the story opens. Later, this pressure comes from the far-off heroic past; but here it is underplayed, deftly, and seems merely to be a hangover from Bilbo's former mad journey. Which of course brought the Ring into Bilbo's possession. The Ring, whatever else it does, always brings the tragic past into the present. But at this stage Gandalf, in a pedagogic way in keeping with the homely tone, simply makes Bilbo give the Ring to Frodo and retire into the past himself.

But make no mistake. Undertones of the heroic and of the chivalry of Medieval Romances are being firmly introduced too, in the other two themes. One of these is the Quest itself. Because of the beguiling domesticity of the Shire and Tolkien's manner at this point, you are lulled into thinking of it in fairy-story terms: the hero journeys to a confrontation and receives supernatural help on the way. Of course the hero wins. And yet it starts with a party, like the best-known of all high romances, the stories of King Arthur. A Quest nearly always begins with the King feasting in Camelot. Enter a damsel or a churl demanding a boon. In this case Gandalf, and the Quest is delayed, but the pattern is there. And you should remember that, though a lot of quests, like that of Sir Gareth, prove the hero a man, a great many, like Gawain's with the Green Knight or that of the Grail, do no such thing. Furthermore, the title of the most famous collection of Arthurian Romances, Malory's, is
The Death of Arthur
. In fact, You Have Been Warned—although you need only feel a little uneasy at the moment.

For his third theme, Tolkien also drew on romances. The poet of
Gawain and the Green Knight
calls King Arthur “sumquat childgered”—i.e., rather boyish. Froissart too regards this as the most chivalrous aspect of real knights (and so did Kipling later). Sir Percival is traditionally naive to childishness. And so are the Hobbits who set out on their journey. So you have a notion here which at once reinforces the prevailing nursery-tale atmosphere and contradicts it: it is cozy, but it is also heroic.

It seems reasonable to mention these things because it is quite certain that Tolkien had them at his fingertips. The marvel is that he was capable of handling them, just as he did with the Oxford landscape, so that it is not necessary for the reader to know them in order to get the message. The message is a fourth theme, also thoroughly traditional, which these three come together to suggest: people have gone downhill from the heroic days. Now it is ordinary people who have to cope as best they can.

So Bilbo plays his practical joke and vanishes. Frodo lingers, even after Gandalf has reappeared and introduced seriously for the first time the deep notes of the distant past. It is typical of this movement that the history is Hobbit-oriented and concerns Gollum as much as Sauron and Isildur. Frodo, with what we are meant to consider dramatic irony, repudiates Gollum. The lingering ensures that, as Frodo and his companions set off, autumn is coming on, with all that can imply. We are meant to take the point that local changes of season are cosmic in origin, but attention is on the domestic landscape through which the Hobbits journey. This is so solidly persuasive that Tolkien is able to introduce the Ringwraiths with the lightest of touches. A few words, and they are spine-chilling. A black figure
sniffing
for you. They are childhood nightmares and gaps in the order of things, just with that.

Then a new theme enters, as the Elves intervene in their remote way. Their songs are of departed glories, which are still, it seems, things to conjure with. It is the past-history theme again, but it has a powerful woodwind nostalgia. It begins—just—to suggest that the coming autumn is a season of Middle-earth, not only of the year. But the scene is still so firmly local that all you get at this stage is a sense of yearning, both for the past and for the Sea-crossing of the future. The present is detached from the Elves. The story has begun to spread a little in time, and a little in space too.

Anyway, we are briskly back again to the domestic, with the matter of the mushrooms and the adventure-story excitement of the river crossing and the escape through the Hedge. The Hobbits muddle through, until they get into real trouble with the sinister Old Forest. This too is wonderfully spine-chilling by reason of being only just removed from a real wood. Even Old Man Willow is solidly a real willow tree. And once again they need rescuing, this time by Tom Bombadil. By now, it looks as if the fairy-story pattern, of travelers being saved from their own errors by supernatural intervention, is here to stay.

I find Tom Bombadil supremely irritating myself. I am well aware that he is a chthonic figure seen from, as it were, knee high, and I can see his presence here is important, standing as he does between earth and sky in the first truly open country, but I am always glad when he is dismissed by Elrond. It is a relief to have him distanced with high-sounding names as Iarwain, Forn, and Orald. As Bombadil, he is perverse and whimsical. He is the quintessence of the nursery story gone wrong, as it does from then on. Tolkien was quite right to put him in, but I wish he hadn't. He was quite right because here, in the haunting country of the Barrows—which was still domestic to Tolkien, though not perhaps to his readers—dead history, with all its wasted heroism and lingering evil, literally comes up and grabs the Hobbits. The Barrow-wights, however, are not strictly this: they are spiteful ghosts. All the same, this is where Tolkien does, briefly, confront you with the scale of his narrative. Tom is near eternal. The bones in the Barrows are so old their deeds have been forgotten. The present is represented by the Hobbits, apparently neither very noble nor very effectual. Around them the landscape first opens, then closes to lead them to death's door, and from the dead they acquire a knife that will be important later. It is a notable piece of foreshadowing, which ends in their rescue by Tom.

This is really the last time they are rescued in this way. That comforting pattern, and the movement, ends with their doings at Bree, which is, not insignificantly, a town half of men and half of Hobbits. Men are now going to enter into the picture. The nursery tales, despite the cozy inn scene, are done with. And—this is an example of Tolkien's ability to use surreptitious themes from elsewhere—Frodo, like Adam and Eve and all the failures of fairy stories, has come there under a prohibition: not to put on the Ring. Which he proceeds to disobey. The fact that he puts the Ring on while singing a nursery rhyme only underlines the fact that such things are now inappropriate. And the movement ends with the same thing as it began.

The coda to this movement is very short but packed out with adumbrations: a journey of hardship over a desolate landscape, toward a hill topped with fires. While purporting simply to carry on the story, this section does all manner of things. It spreads the narrative considerably in space, and in time too. The past reappears in two forms, first as the petrified Trolls, harking back to Bilbo's adventures, and then, far more potently, as the Black Riders. It now becomes clear that the Ringwraiths are not simply terrifying but that they can harm the living. That they could win. We should remember here that Bilbo's victory over the Trolls had been almost by luck. Frodo is almost not lucky. And, when they race to the Ford and it appears that even an Elf-lord has limited powers, your doubts increase, although you still hope for the supernatural rescue that the main movement has led you to expect. It comes, after a fashion, in the confusion at the Ford. This confusion, considering Tolkien's ability everywhere else to present landscapes and events with total clarity, must be deliberate. It must look forward to the profusion of doubtful events to follow. I do not think it comes off at all, but it does provide a wonderful introit to the ordered peace and measured debate of the next movement.

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