Tolk of the Devil

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wish someone would translate Lord of the Rings (1954-5) into English. By that I mean (of course) that I wish someone would translate LOTR into good English. I’ve looked at Tolkien’s bad English in “Noise Annoys” and “Science and Sorcery”. Here’s another example:

Pippin declared that Frodo was looking twice the hobbit that he had been.

“Very odd,” said Frodo, tightening his belt, “considering that there is actually a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.”

“Do not speak of such things!” said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness. – The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”

Strider should have added: “Or in such a way!” In the second paragraph, Frodo suddenly talks like a Guardian-reader. Why on earth did Tolkien use “thinning process”, “indefinitely” and “actually” amid otherwise good, simple English? Thinning is obviously a “process”, so there’s no need to say it is, and “indefinitely” and “actually” are badly out of a place in a fantasy novel, let alone in dialogue there. “Considering” is less bad, but it should go too. I would improve the paragraph like this:

“Very odd,” said Frodo, tightening his belt, “seeing that there is now a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning will not go on much longer, or I shall become a wraith.”

Now there’s nothing incongruous: the only un-English word is “very”, but that doesn’t seem un-English on the tongue or to the eye. The Guardianese is gone, but it should never have been there in the first place. Tolkien should not have written like that in Lord of the Rings. And not just as a professional scholar of language: simply as a literate Englishman. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) had been in print for twenty-eight years when The Fellowship of the Ring was first published. It’s hard to believe that Tolkien wasn’t familiar with it.

If he wasn’t, that’s a great pity. If he was, the bad prose in LOTR becomes even more inexplicable and unforgiveable. Alas for what might have been! Imagine if, per impossibile, Tolkien’s masterwork had been edited by the second-greatest Catholic writer of the twentieth-century, namely, Evelyn Waugh.

When bad prose appears in something by Waugh, it’s deliberate:

I had a fine haul – eleven paintings and fifty odd drawings – and when eventually I exhibited them in London, the art critics, many of whom hitherto had been patronizing in tone as my success invited, acclaimed a new and richer note in my work.

Mr. Ryder [the most respected of them wrote] rises like a fresh young trout to the hypodermic injection of a new culture and discloses a powerful facet in the vista of his potentialities … By focusing the frankly traditional battery of his elegance and erudition on the maelstrom of barbarism, Mr. Ryder has at last found himself.Brideshead Revisited (1945), Book II, “A Twitch Upon the Thread”, ch. 1

Waugh was deliberately mocking the mixed-metaphor-strewn prose and pretensions of modern critics. Waugh paid great attention to language and compared writing to carpentry. It was a craft and good craftsmen do not work carelessly or use bad materials. Nothing in Brideshead is careless or casual, as we can see when the narrator, Charles Ryder, first meets the “devilish” æsthete Anthony Blanche, who has “studied Black Art at Cefalù” with Aleister Crowley and is “a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville”. Blanche has a stutter and Waugh uses the stutter to underline his iniquity. Or so I would claim. Here is Blanche engaging in some papyrocentric performativity:

After luncheon he stood on the balcony with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-à-brac of Sebastian’s room, and in languishing, sobbing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river.

“’I, Tiresias, have foresuffered all,’” he sobbed to them from the Venetian arches –
“Enacted on this same d-divan or b-bed,
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the l-l-lowest of the dead….”

And then, stepping lightly into the room, “How I have surprised them! All b-boatmen are Grace Darlings to me.” Brideshead Revisited, Book I, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 1

Talking about the Greek sage Tiresias, who experienced life as both a man and a woman, Anthony Blanche, a man whose surname is the feminine form of the French adjective blanc, meaning “white”, stumbles over the initial consonants of three words: “divan”, “bed” and “lowest”. Is it a coincidence that the same consonants, in the same order, appear in the Greek diabolos, meaning “devil”?

I don’t think so. If Blanche had stuttered on “surprised” too, I would be even more certain. But the –s isn’t essential. After all, it was lost as diabolos journeyed from Greek to Latin, from Latin to French, and from French to English, where it appears as “Devil”. And what does Charles Ryder later call Anthony Blanche after Blanche has spent an evening tête-à-tête trying to turn Ryder against Ryder’s great friend Sebastian Flyte? You can find out here, as Ryder discusses the evening with Sebastian:

“I just wanted to find out how much truth there was in what Anthony said last night.”

“I shouldn’t think a word. That’s his great charm.”

“You may think it charming. I think it’s devilish. Do you know he spent the whole of yesterday evening trying to turn me against you, and almost succeeded?”

“Did he? How silly. Aloysius wouldn’t approve of that at all, would you, you pompous old bear?” – Brideshead Revisited, Book I, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2

Blanche is “devilish” and his reputation for “iniquity” is well-deserved. That’s why I think the three words over which Blanche stutters were carefully chosen by Waugh from The Waste Land. Waugh was a logophile and that is exactly the kind of linguistic game that logophiles like to play.