Thoughts on Tolkien’s “Poor Prose”

by Daniel Hartley

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that in 1961 the Nobel jury considered C. S. Lewis’s request for Tolkien to be awarded the prize but ultimately decided against it on the grounds of his “poor prose” which “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality”. This is an unusual claim. What tends to happen in the history of the novel (in France it begins with Flaubert, in England around the beginning of the twentieth century with, say, Conrad) is a split which occurs between the level of style and the level of narrative. On the one hand, you get the development of the art novel, in which each sentence is individually sculpted and crafted to perfection, becoming an entity in itself (Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Henry James). On the other hand, you get the pure storytelling drive of the adventure tale or the potboiler; here, individual sentence style is spurned in the interest of narrative intensity (take your pick from any popular genre). The ultimate modern day inheritor of this split is John Banville, a man who has literally divided his writing self in two between the “John Banville” of the art novel (e.g. The Sea) and “Benjamin Black” the crime writer. (For anyone who doubts the validity of this claim, watch this video interview).

So for the Nobel Prize jury to criticise Tolkien’s storytelling prowess on the basis of his poor prose is bizarre indeed. If anything, one would expect them to criticise his “poor prose” precisely on the basis of his excellent storytelling. But then that would be to assume that Tolkien’s prose is, in fact, poor. And here once again the problem of the criteria of literary excellence emerges from the murky deep. And since I’ve written on this recently, in the context of the Booker Prize furore, I shall simply redirect you there: “On the Booker Debacle”.

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