The OF Blog: Tolkien was nominated for 1961 Nobel Prize consideration...and was found wanting

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Tolkien was nominated for 1961 Nobel Prize consideration...and was found wanting

The Guardian had an interesting article online today about the unsealing of the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature and who else besides the eventual winner Ivo Andrić (who was a very deserving winner, I might add) was considered for the award and the commentaries made in reference to them.  There were some really good names on that consideration list:  Graham Greene (who was the runner-up that year; sadly, he never won the prize), E.M. Forster, Robert Frost (the latter two were dismissed from further consideration largely due to their age and not the quality of their work), Lawrence Durrell (whose works I've been meaning to read for a while; dismissed due to the eroticism in several of his fictions), Karen Blixen (she wrote Out of Africa, which I've heard of at least; she finished third in the final round of voting), Alberto Moravia (whose works were dismissed for a "general monotony"), and then...

J.R.R. Tolkien.

Oh, I know Tolkien has sold more novels than any of the others on this list (although most of the authors mentioned have done quite well for themselves over the years), but it really is the odd duckling in this group and not because it was a seminal work of epic fantasy.  The comments made about his work (incidentally, the work was nominated by C.S. Lewis, so even the Nobel nominees sometimes show the influence of people too close to the author presenting works for consideration) might spark some discussion:

The prose of Tolkien – who was nominated by his friend and fellow fantasy author CS Lewis – "has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality", wrote jury member Anders Österling. 

Trying to disagree, trying to find fault in this, trying, trying...and I can't.  When compared to the others listed above, Tolkien's prose is drab, the storytelling is not as good, and it just is not at the caliber of the others nominated.   Andrić's The Bridge on the Drina is an extremely powerful fiction, one that I will revisit several times in the years to come.  Greene's The Power and the Glory is captivating in its prose and in the narrative itself.  Frost's poetry is memorable, although I don't rate him as highly as many others do.  Forster's work is impressive.  Durrell and Blixen and perhaps Moravia I hope to read in the near future.

I just can't associate Tolkien's abilities as a writer with any of the ones I've read.  When I reviewed the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings back in 2009, I found myself thinking the prose was variable in quality and that the story in places just did not interest me.  So while I'm surprised his work was even considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, I am not shocked to discover that it was viewed dimly by those in charge of selecting the prize winner in 1961.  After all, the trilogy did not receive universal praise when it was published in 1954-1955.  Here is a link to the review that renowned American critic Edmund Wilson wrote about LotR, quoted in part below:

The most distinguished of Tolkien's admirers and the most conspicuous of his defenders has been Mr. W. H. Auden. That Auden is a master of English verse and a well-equipped critic of verse, no one, as they say, will dispute. It is significant, then, that he comments on the badness of Tolkien's verse - there is a great deal of poetry in The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Auden is apparently quite insensitive - through lack of interest in the other department.- to the fact that Tolkien's prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness. What I believe has misled Mr. Auden is his own special preoccupation with the legendary theme of the Quest. He has written a book about the literature of the Quest; he has experimented with the theme himself in a remarkable sequence of sonnets; and it is to be hoped that he will do something with it on an even larger scale. In the meantime - as sometimes happens with works that fall in with one's interests - he no doubt so overrates The Lord of the Rings because he reads into it something that he means to write himself. It is indeed the tale of a Quest, but, to the reviewer, an extremely unrewarding one. The hero has no serious temptations; is lured by no insidious enchantments, perplexed by few problems. What we get is a simple confrontation - in more or less the traditional terms of British melodrama - of the Forces of Evil with the Forces of Good, the remote and alien villain with the plucky little home-grown hero. There are streaks of imagination: the ancient tree-spirits, the Ents, with their deep eyes, twiggy beards, rumbly voices; the Elves, whose nobility and beauty is elusive and not quite human. But even these are rather clumsily handled. There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same thing. Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form. The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle, and as personalities they do not impose themselves. At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph, who is a cardinal figure, had never been able to visualize him at all. For the most part such characterizations as Dr. Tolkien is able to contrive are perfectly stereotyped: Frodo the good little Englishman, Samwise, his dog-like servant, who talks lower-class and respectful, and never deserts his master. These characters who are no characters are involved in interminable adventures the poverty of invention displayed in which is, it seems to me, almost pathetic. On the country in which the Hobbits, the Elves, the Ents and the other Good People live, the Forces of Evil are closing in, and they have to band together to save it. The hero is the Hobbit called Frodo who has become possessed of a ring that Sauron, the King of the Enemy, wants (that learned reptilian suggestion - doesn't it give you a goosefleshy feeling?). In spite of the author's disclaimer, the struggle for the ring does seem to have some larger significance. This ring, if one continues to carry it, confers upon one special powers, but it is felt to become heavier and heavier; it exerts on one a sinister influence that one has to brace oneself to resist. The problem is for Frodo to get rid of it before he can succumb to this influence. 

            NOW, this situation does create interest; it does seem to have possibilities. One looks forward to a queer dilemma, a new kind of hair-breadth escape, in which Frodo, in the Enemy's kingdom, will find himself half-seduced into taking over the enemy's point of view, so that the realm of shadows and horrors will come to seem to him, once he is in it, once he is strong in the power of the ring, a plausible and pleasant place, and he will narrowly escape the danger of becoming a monster himself. But these bugaboos are not magnetic; they are feeble and rather blank; one does not feel they have any real power. The Good People simply say « Boo » to them. There are Black Riders, of whom everyone is terrified but who never seem anything but specters. There are dreadful hovering birds-think of it, horrible birds of prey! There are ogreish disgusting Orcs, who, however, rarely get to the point of committing any overt acts. There is a giant female spider - a dreadfu1 creepy-crawly spider! - who lives in a dark cave and eats people. What one misses in all these terrors is any trace of concrete reality. The preternatural, to be effective, should be given some sort of solidity, a real presence, recognizable features - like Gulliver, like Gogol, like Poe; not like those phantom horrors of Algernon Blackwood which prove so disappointing after the travel-book substantiality of the landscapes in which he evokes them. Tolkien's horrors resemble these in their lack of real contact with their victims, who dispose of them as we do of the horrors in dreams by simply pushing them or puffing them away. As for Sauron, the ruler of Mordor (doesn't the very name have a shuddery sound.) who concentrates in his person everything that is threatening the Shire, the build-up for him goes on through three volumes. He makes his first, rather promising, appearance as a terrible fire-rimmed yellow eye seen in a water-mirror. But this is as far as we ever get. Once Sauron's realm is invaded, we think we are going to meet him; but he still remains nothing but a burning eye scrutinizing all that occurs from the window of a remote dark tower. This might, of course, be made effective; but actually it is not; we never feel Sauron's power. And the climax, to which we have been working up through exactly nine hundred and ninety-nine large close-printed pages, when it comes, proves extremely flat. The ring is at last got rid of by being dropped into a fiery crater, and the kingdom of Sauron « topples » in a brief and banal earthquake that sets fire to everything and burns it up, and so releases the author from the necessity of telling the reader what exactly was so terrible there. Frodo has come to the end of his Quest, but the reader has remained untouched by the wounds and fatigues of his journey. An impotence of imagination seems to me to sap the whole story. The wars are never dynamic; the ordeals give no sense of strain; the fair ladies would not stir a heartbeat; the horrors would not hurt a fly.

Although there are parts of Wilson's review with which I disagree, I think he has some sound points here to make about the deficiencies of the writing and the plot.  Over the course of nearly 60 years, it is easy to forget that not everyone was enamored with the tale and that when placed in context with certain other works, The Lord of the Rings reads less like a seminal work of fiction and more like a flawed continuation of other strands of fantasy that have existed for well over a century.  In that light, I think the criticisms of Wilson and of the Nobel Committee are worth considering in the Year of Our Hobbit 2941.


Brett said...

Some of that review is true, but I think he blatantly gets the ending wrong. "The hero is perplexed by few problems" - he fails in his quest, with the Ring only getting destroyed because his uncle spared the life of a monster in a brief moment of mercy decades ago. After that, he's emotionally traumatized to the point where he can't really go home again.

Larry said...

Oh, I agree with that aspect, but still can see where the effects of that aren't shown in full enough form (which I suspect is part of Wilson's problem with it).

Hélène said...

Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is a most interesting work - great structure! It was my first experience of multi-faceted writing of a story. Now that you mention it, I think I'll re-read it in English (I read the French translation in the 70s).

Anonymous said...

"The Good People simply say « Boo » to them. There are Black Riders, of whom everyone is terrified but who never seem anything but specters. There are dreadful hovering birds-think of it, horrible birds of prey! There are ogreish disgusting Orcs, who, however, rarely get to the point of committing any overt acts. There is a giant female spider - a dreadfu1 creepy-crawly spider! - who lives in a dark cave and eats people."

I think this review is just an exmaple of a critic trying to see of whether dispension of disbelief still holds up after he applies all his rational cleverness.
In each of these cases (and almost all others) there can be said many different things, often in greater depth, by different people.

I think a lot of Tolkien's appeal is unintellectual, emotional by nature. Even in The Hobbit the hesitancy of taking a momentous step in your life and yet feeling a certain bittersweet hope and love for the world, life and ancient poetry is very cearly felt and probably can be linked to Tolkien's personal experiences (orphanship, WW1).
Such a emotional mixture pervades much of Tolkien's writing and creates a unique "real" atmosphere and tone.

Anonymous said...

What I would like to add to the earlier comment is that Edmund Wilson's speculations about WH Auden's psychology are more than doubtworthy and just illustrate the general attitude that anyone who might see something in it must be under an illusion.

Anonymous said...

This guy is a critic but he can't understand the main point of this story. Cause this story is lot more than first meets the eye, a lot more than we can imagine and here is so disgustingly described. I'm Serbian just like the winner of this prize is and I respect him as much as someone like him can be respected but for me the biggest winner of all is Tolkien cause he created a story that is bigger than just fantasy series, bigger than we can bear or completely understand. There is more real life in it than it seems, bigger story behind, we just have to look deeper and to look on his life and the time he's lived in. And I think the quality of it has been seen in the future after this nomination and it still stands today. It's the greatest story ever told. Maybe I'm not that qualified to talk and to criticize a qualified critic, but I can say surely that I am able to look into this story, and I was able to realize the meaning of it, and that meaning is pretty much life changing and inspiring.

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