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Letter 171

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 171
RecipientHugh Brogan, draft
DateUnsent, 1955#September, 1955
Subject(s)Defending the use of an archaic narrative style

Letter 171 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Preface

In December 1954, Brogan wrote to Tolkien to criticize the archaic style used in The Two Towers. Tolkien did not reply. On 18 September 1955 Brogan wrote to apologize for being "impertinent, stupid, or sycophantic". Tolkien began the following draft, but instead sent a note stating that the matter of archaism would take too long to debate and must await their next meeting.

Summary

Tolkien dismissed Brogan's self-accusations of impertinency and sycophancy and said that anyone so appreciative and perceptive is entitled to criticism. That said, Tolkien did say that he felt pain when deliberate "archaism" is dismissed in an age when authors manhandle English in the name of art or "personal expression". "Tushery" was properly applied to bogus "medieval" stuff where those without knowledge inserted expletives such as tush, pish, zounds, and marry. Real archaic English is far more terse than modern and can say things that our slack and frivolous idioms cannot.

Tolkien took one of Brogan's examples: "'Nay, Gandalf!' said the King. 'You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself shall go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.'"[1] Real archaic English would have begun: "Nay, thou wost not thine own skill in healing…" In modern English it would become: "Not at all my dear Gandalf. You don't know your own skill as a doctor…I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties."

"Then what?" asked Tolkien. "Thus shall I sleep better" is not a modern idiom or thought. To express it in a modern way would be longer and more insincere: "I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home." The modern expression is more bogus that what seemed false archaism. Another example was Tolkien's description of the arming of the guests, which had upset Brogan. But such "heroic" scenes do not occur in a modern setting, so why not use the wealth of English that gives a choice of styles?

"Helms too they chose" is archaic, but modern English has lost the trick of putting the emphasized word into the prominent first place. Modern "They also picked out some helmets and round shields" has a lot of what the Chinese call little "empty" words. Tolkien felt that he was teaching by example and was sorry that Brogan was affected by the 20th century delusion that "contemporary" usage has a peculiar validity. "Shake yourself out of this parochialism of time!" declared Tolkien, "Learn to discriminate between the bogus and genuine antique."

References

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The King of the Golden Hall"