The OF Blog: 1961 Nobel Lit Prize finalist: J.R.R. Tolkien (thoughts on why he didn't deserve the award)

Monday, October 22, 2012

1961 Nobel Lit Prize finalist: J.R.R. Tolkien (thoughts on why he didn't deserve the award)

This was originally posted on Gogol's Overcoat in January 2012.  I had intended to do a series of posts on the authors mentioned in the below article link, but due to a series of events at the time, I only managed to write three pieces.  Perhaps I'll re-visit this in the near future.

Back on January 5, The Guardian posted an article highlighting the previously-unreleased commentaries regarding works considered for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Although it is fair to say that the article slants the coverage of the notes of one of that year’s judges, Anders Österling, especially in regards to the somewhat surprising inclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien on the list, this column received quite a bit of discussion in divers corners over the past week and a half.  Some have questioned the validity of Österling’s comments on E.M. Forster and Robert Frost, which referred to their advanced age (both died within a decade of the 1961 prize being awarded to Ivo Andrić), while others have speculated that in the case of Tolkien somehow “genre bias” was involved.
Since the list of eight novelists that were mentioned in the article are fairly well-known (to the above mentioned four, Graham Greene, the eventual runner-up; Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pseudonymn of Isaak Dinesan, finished third; and Italian writer Alberto Moravia) to many readers, over the next several weeks (mostly on Saturdays or Sundays), there will be columns devoted to discussing these seven writers and how their writings compare to previous Nobel winners and to the criteria set forth in Alfred Nobel’s will:
“The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”
Since the criteria for being selected to be a Nobel laureate in Literature are not similar to a “year’s best,” in that the committee is charged to consider the author’s full work and not just a singular work, not to mention the above-quoted part on “most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” the works considered generally possess a high degree of craftsmanship (in the three genres of poetry, drama, and prose) and have something to contribute to the global “conversation” regarding the human condition(s).  When considered through this evaluative lens, several works that have enjoyed widespread popularity over the years are going to be dismissed due to some combination of their writing and/or the lack of “an ideal direction.”

This seems to be the case with J.R.R. Tolkien.  Out of the seven mentioned for consideration, his is the most intriguing.  If one dismisses the probable bias of his friend and colleague C.S. Lewis (who, after all, was privy to Tolkien’s development of the Middle-Earth mythos for most of the 1930s-1950s period) and accepts his work as a serious candidate for the award, then what should one make of his work in light of the criteria mentioned above?  Does one agree with Österling’s assertion that Tolkien’s prose “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality?”  Or were there other factors at play when his work was rejected in 1961?

In evaluating Tolkien’s candidacy, one has to strip away all memories and associations with his posthumous works and legacy.  There is no “Tolkien as the founder of modern epic fantasy” to be considered here; after all, in 1961 he did not enjoy a huge international reputation, although a few translations of his work were beginning to be published then.  Nor was he associated in public or academic opinion with a particular genre, since there were no marketing spheres then labeled “fantasy.”  If anything, one will have to consider Professor Tolkien as the translator of some Midlands lays from a non-London Middle English dialect who created some quaint tales that were then compared to the works of the 19th century socialist William Morris and early 20th century academic/writer E.R. Eddison.

If evaluated in light of Morris’ lush The Well at the World’s End, which utilizes archaic speech to create an atmospheric effect of loss and desire, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would doubtless appear to be wooden and turgid in comparison.  Consider the early parts of The Fellowship of the Ring, namely the part where Frodo discusses the Black Riders with the elf Gildor:
‘I am deeply grateful,’ said Frodo; ‘but I wish you would tell me plainly what the Black Riders are.  If I take your advice I may not see Gandalf for a long while, and I ought to know what is the danger that pursues me.’
‘Is it not enough to know that they are servants of the Enemy?’ answered Gildor.  ‘Flee them!  Speak no words to them!  They are deadly.  Ask no more of me!  But my heart forbodes that, ere all is ended, you, Frodo son of Drogo, will know more of these fell things than Gildor Inglorion.  May Elbereth protect you!’
There is a narrative dissonance here, between the plain hobbit speech of Frodo (despite being educated and well-versed in at least the basics of the Elvish tongues) and the elevated diction of Gildor.  Although Tolkien notes that this effect was intentional, what it also does in certain other occasions, namely in the fighting in the halls of Moria is to create dialogue that sounds odd, if not ridiculous, to the ears of those who are equally familiar with epic poetry of the classical and medieval eras as well as with more modern prose:
‘One for the Shire!’ cried Aragorn.  ‘The hobbit’s bite is deep!  You have a good blade, Frodo son of Drogo!’
The problem here is that Tolkien is trying to adapt the structure of an early medieval saga to the novel genre.  Although there are cases in his writing (although very rare in his pre-1961 original fiction) where Tolkien manages to achieve a striking literary effect through the use of alliteration and judicious repetition of patronymic phrases, often, as in the case above, the desired effect is not achieved.  Those familiar with the “source material” possibly could be left feeling as though Tolkien had struck a flat note, as the dialogue feels off and somewhat anachronistic, especially when the lower speech of the hobbits clash with those of the knights and elves.  In addition, Tolkien is handicapped by his need to introduce elements of his invented setting into the narrative.  Although certainly this is appealing to readers who are familiar with the existence of The Silmarillion, in 1961, the overall effect was, for several readers at least, the sense that the importance of the narrative was being continually interrupted by those other creations.  As a member of the Inklings society, of which Tolkien was a member, was reported to say,  “Oh God, not another fucking elf!”, so might several contemporary readers have reacted to another poem fragment about Eärendil or Elbereth with an eye roll or a despairing thought about another intrusion into the narrative.  Today, such elements are (sometimes pejoratively) referred to as “infodumps”; for others then, they were considered to be asides that weakened the focus on the narrative.

Therefore, when strictly considered on the prose level, Tolkien’s writing plausibly can be seen as not being at the same level of the others considered in 1961.  As will be seen later when I cover their works, there is not the same degree of focus on the narrative, on the characterizations, or on thematic issues, all of which are essential items usually considered by the Nobel committee.  Tolkien in 1961 had not “founded” anything; he was a respected academic who contributed heavily to the understanding of the poems and songs of the Midlands during the Anglo-Saxon through the Plantagenet eras, but his fiction was more of a curiosity than a key contributor to global belles-lettres.  Although Österling’s criticism in the abstract sounds rather harsh to those familiar with Tolkien’s writings in 2012, in 1961 it certainly is a justifiable commentary on his work in comparison to not just the others, but also in how well he was adapt to adapt the mechanics of saga storytelling to the novel mode.  Although short shrift has been given here to comparing Tolkien’s writing to the provision spelled out in Nobel’s will regarding works of “an ideal direction,” it should suffice to say that a work that was considered to be an interesting yet flawed exploration of mapping out a fictional equivalent to a national English mythology was not going to be considered in the same light as those other works who spoke of more contemporary and less mythical social concerns.  Tolkien’s work is undoubtedly influential nearly 40 years after his death, but it would be a disservice to what he did accomplish to claim that his work would fit in well with those who were awarded Nobel prizes in Literature because his prose is not as polished nor are the thematic issues of his pre-1961 works a natural fit with the prize’s legacy.  If it had to be placed among the seven, it likely would rank at or very near the bottom due to the reasons mentioned above.  This may be a harsh assessment, but in light of the others considered in that year, it is the fairest.

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