I enjoy reading scholarly works on my favorite author. There is quite a bit of excellent Tolkien scholarship out there examining everything from his mythology, the roots of his ideas, what his seminal works ultimately mean. There are works on his knowledge of philology and the medieval and ancient folklore works of long ago and the authors that came before him that helped inspire the foundation of his Middle-Earth and his effect on popular culture but I have not seen, until last year, a book that deals with Tolkien’s style of prose and why it has such an effect on readers. I had to get it, naturally. Not only do I find such works gratifying and interesting to read as a reader but instructive as a writer.
Tom Shippey does investigate language as it relates to his stories, but he does so from a very different perspective. In The Road To Middle-Earth Shippey examines the language of Tolkien’s work from a philological perspective. Steve Walker, a Professor of English at Brigham Young University and Harvard Fellow, examines Tolkien as a first-rate stylist and this seems to me to be unique in Tolkien studies. In The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-Earth’s Magical Style Steve Walker has presented a comprehensive and compelling body of evidence that Tolkien’s style is powerful, distinguished and imaginative and it is this style of prose that drives readers to want to read about Middle-Earth over and over again. It is one (among several) reasons he gives that I find convincing that Tolkien is a powerful stylist and this is brought out especially in the last section of the book: A Little Bit of Nonsense. What I like in this section of the book is Walker’s examination of Tolkien’s use of time- worn, cliched phrases. Except when reading them, Tolkien turns these phrases in such a way that they are literal in Middle-Earth, which makes them fresh and alive. He literalizes them in a way so that we are seeing old phrases in their youth or even infancy, before they become, as they say: “old and hackneyed.” Walker gives numerous examples throughout the book for all of the points he makes about why Tolkien’s prose is so masterful and why it works so well.
Another point he makes about the power and magic in Tolkien’s work is Tolkien’s invitational style, his talent for understatement and the mundane way in which magical things are presented. Not simply magic in the literal sense, though there is that, but in how the language and prose in the story inspires the reader’s imagination. Things seem ordinary at first in Middle-Earth and simple but they have far deeper meaning than what is read initially on the surface.
What Steve Walker accomplishes with this small book of Tolkien scholarship is amazing. So many who love Tolkien’s work know that they love it for all the obvious reasons but there is always something so hard to define as to why else they love his work, why so many people in general do. Walker examines this reasons and puts it into words perfectly. Tolkien’s way with language is magical because of his knowledge of the roots of language and words and also because his is a very skilled and imaginative stylist! His work is ‘magical’, a quality that seems lost in much of today’s fantasy. Walker’s own style is lyrical and magical in the telling which makes this book not only engrossing and enlightening but a delight to read. What he brings out in the end of the book is telling. The world Tolkien has created is a realistic fantasy but far different in its realism than what is out there now. What it can show the reader who wishes to engage with it is hope and an imagining of a better world than what we have now. Though The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion and the shorter works are works of fiction and will elicit personal responses from the reader – good or bad – what matters is whether a work stands the test of time. For many, the professor’s works have done just that, very much like respected literary works of the past.
Steve Walker writes a masterful piece on how Tolkien invites us into his magical world of Middle-Earth and explains in great detail how and why his prose style is every bit as important as the other aspects of his storytelling ability – Tolkien’s magical style. He uses examples from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and some of Tolkien’s smaller works like Farmer Giles of Ham. He presents an introduction, six sections and a conclusion and is himself masterful in making his arguments for Tolkien’s great ability as a storyteller and a writer and the timeless works he created. This is an excellent book to add to the library for anyone who loves Tolkien or old literary classics. I first ran across the book myself at Tolkien Library. For further, more comprehensive discussion on the book there is an interview of the author over on Tolkien Library.