Saturday, 15 December 2012

Quality of prose - Lost Road better than early drafts of Lord of the Rings

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Something which had escaped me before, but became clear on reading them on adjacent days: the prose of Tolkien's unfinished Lost Road (In Volume 5 of the History of Middle Earth) is far superior to the early drafts of Lord of the Rings (published in the Return of the Shadow volume 6 of HoME).

This is not a subtle matter either.

It emphasizes the point I made earlier. That the Lost Road (and its attempted revision in Notion Club Papers) was by far the most ambitious work Tolkien had attempted.

This was not only ambition but attainment - Tolkien must have been aware that it took him many years of work, and perhaps not until after the Notion Club Papers were abandoned in 1946, before he could be sure that the 'New Hobbit' had matched, and surpassed, what Tolkien had already achieved in his 1936 attempt at The Lost Road.

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Excerpt from The Lost Road :


On the whole he had been luckier than his father; in most ways, but not in one. He had reached a history professorship fairly early; but he had lost his wife, as his father had done, and had been left with an only child, a boy, when he was only twenty-eight.

He was, perhaps, a pretty good professor, as they go. Only in a small southern university, of course, and he did not suppose he would get a move. But at any rate he wasn't tired of being one; and history, and even teaching it, still seemed interesting (and fairly important). He did his duty, at least, or he hoped so. The boundaries were a bit vague. For, of course, he had gone on with the other things, legends and languages-rather odd for a history professor. Still, there it was: he was fairly learned in such book-lore, though a lot of it was well outside the professional borders.

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And the Dreams.

They came and went. But lately they had been getting more frequent, and more-absorbing. But still tantalizingly linguistic.

No tale, no remembered pictures; only the feeling that he had seen things and heard things that he wanted to see, very much, and would give much to see and hear again-and these fragments of words, sentences, verses. Eressëan as he called it as a boy-though he could not remember why he had felt so sure that that was the proper name-was getting pretty complete.

He had a lot of Beleriandic, too, and was beginning to understand it, and it's relation to Eressëan. And he had a lot of unclassifiable fragments, the meaning of which in many cases he did not know, through forgetting to jot it down while he knew it. And odd bits in recognizable languages.

Those might be explained away, of course. But anyway nothing could be done about them: not publication or anything of that sort. He had an odd feeling that they were not essential: only occasional lapses of forgetfulness which took a linguistic form owing to some peculiarity of his own mental make-up.

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The real thing was the feeling the Dreams brought more and more insistently, and taking force from an alliance with the ordinary professional occupations of his mind.

Surveying the last thirty years, he felt he could say that his most permanent mood, though often overlaid or suppressed, had been since childhood the desire to go back. To walk in Time, perhaps, as men walk on long roads; or to survey it, as men may see the world from a mountain, or the earth as a living map beneath an airship.

But in any case to see with eyes and to hear with ears: to see the lie of old and even forgotten lands, to behold ancient men walking, and hear their languages as they spoke them, in the days before days, when tongues of forgotten lineage were heard in kingdoms long fallen by the shores of the Atlantic.

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But nothing could be done about that desire, either.

He used to be able, long ago, to talk about it, a little and not too seriously, to his father. But for a long while he had had no one to talk to about that sort of thing. But now there was Audoin. He was growing up. He was sixteen...

Alboin had scattered tales and legends all down Audoin's childhood and boyhood, like one laying a trail, though he was not clear what trail or where it led.

Audoin was a voracious listener, as well (latterly) as a reader. Alboin was very tempted to share his own odd linguistic secrets with the boy. They could at least have some pleasant private fun. But he could sympathize with his own father now-there was a limit to time. Boys have a lot to do.

(...)

There came a night, and Alboin lay again in a room in a house by the sea: not the little house of his boyhood, but the same sea.

It was a calm night, and the water lay like a vast plain of chipped and polished flint, petrified under the cold light of the Moon. The path of moonlight lay from the shore to the edge of sight.

Sleep would not come to him, although he was eager for it. Not for rest-he was not tired; but because of last night's Dream. He hoped to complete a fragment that had come through vividly that morning. He had it in hand in a note-book by his bed-side; not that he was likely to forget it once it was written down...

I wish there was a 'Time-machine'," he said aloud. "But Time is not to be conquered by machines. And I should go back, not forward; and I think backwards would be more possible."

The clouds overcame the sky, and the wind rose and blew; and in his ears, as he fell asleep at last, there was a roaring in the leaves of many trees, and a roaring of long waves upon the shore. "The storm is coming upon Númenor!" he said, and passed out of the waking world.

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5 comments:

Deniz Bevan said...

I love the Lost Road. I wish Christopher Tolkien would find lots more of the Notion Club Papers and publish them all as one volume!

bgc said...

@DB - Same here. But we may be in a rather small minority!

Troels said...

When Tolkien started out on The Lord of the Rings he was essentially giving in to pressure from his publisher for a sequel to The Hobbit. That is, Tolkien was setting out to write a story that he did not wish to write, and I think it shows. Only when he found a way to make The Lord of the Rings a story that he actually wanted to tell did his prose improve significantly.

Personally I think that this is ample reason for the difference in quality.

Also, I do not agree that The Lost Road or The Notion Club Papers even in their initial conception were Tolkien's most ambitious works — both of these were but offshoots from the Silmarillion mythology, and in the end that honour should, in my opinion, go to his Silmarillion mythology as a whole — the tree itself and not one or two of the leaves of the tree.

And if you wish to break it down, the Quenta Silmarillion was, in my opinion, the most ambitious work, with every incarnation being more ambitious (and unfortunately also less complete) that the previous . . . actually that may be a slight exaggeration, but the trend is clearly that the envisioned scope increased as the degree of accomplishment decreased.

Troels said...

I am afraid that I've been doing it again . . .

It is a part of Danish culture to be quite blunt and directly to the point, and though I do know that what is normal in Denmark will often be perceived as rude by others, I tend to forget this when I become eager. My apologies!

The implied background for my first comment is of course that I agree that there is a difference in the quality of the prose. It is just that I think that Tolkien's special motivations for embarking on The Lord of the Rings (purely financial rather than artistic) is a sufficient explanation for this difference.

Also, I should have asked in what way you mean that The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers are the more ambitious of Tolkien's literary projects? When I would put the Quenta Silmarillion before these projects, it is because I perceive that story to be more ambitious both in terms of scope and complexity, but you may have some other measure of ambition in mind?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - It seems we both agree on the quality of the prose; and I agree with you as to the cause: that in LR and NCP Tolkien was doing the best he could, whereas he was not writing at 'full pressure' in the early drafts of LotR - as you say he was initially writing LotR partly to oblige others, and partly in hope of making money.

When I suggest that LR is more ambitious than the Silmarillion Legendarium to date, I mean ambition in a 'literary' or technical sense.

Obviously in terms of scope of imagination and invention, the S. legends were Tolkien working on the biggest canvas he could conceive.

But in literary terms, Tolkien was setting himself a very difficult challenge with LR and its rewrite - because he needed to link ancient and modern in a way that would need a 'philosophical' treatment of the nature of time; accomplish and bridge between two very different styles of writing (the 'annals' style and modern novelistic style); he needed to handle the multiple layers of semi-repeating history through which LR was intended to go back towards Numenor - and somehow to make all this sufficiently entertaining and enjoyable that the book would be published and read.

This is, or would have been, an extraordinarily difficult matter to accomplish - in a literary technical sense.

It is the kind of thing, the scale of thing, which James Joyce attempted in Ulysses (attempting to include the modern and many styles of ancient, the trivial and the legendary, the obscene and the elevated etc) - but it couldn't be said Joyce really succeeded, since Ulysses is dull and incomprehensible to most people (speaking as someone who read it, without compulsion, at least four times!)

At any rate, Tolkien was setting himself a similarly complex and difficult task - as I think is reflected in the comments of the Reader who reviewed the draft at the publisher - who said she predicted that a completed Lost Road was: 'a hopeless proposition'; 'immensely interesting' yet unlikely to receive 'any sort of recognition except in academic circles' - 'one could not hold out to the author a promise of poplar success or large sales'.