Nice Noise

Pre-previously on Overlord-in-terms-of-the-Über-Feral, I looked at how Tolkien used the word “noise” and concluded that he didn’t use it well:

He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping sound. […] There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise. – “Fog on the Barrowdowns”, Book One, VIII

Now I want to look at a much better writer: Ian Fleming. At first glance, he might seem to be using “noise” badly too in this bit of Live and Let Die (1954):

At about the time he [a treasure-seeking fisherman] should have reached the island the whole village of Shark Bay was awakened by the most horrible drumming noise. It seemed to come from inside the island. It was recognized as the beating of Voodoo drums. It started softly and rose slowly to a thunderous crescendo. Then it died down again and stopped. It lasted about five minutes. – ch. 16, “The Jamaica Version”

Should “drumming noise” not simply have been “drumming”? Well, no: Fleming got it right. The phrase “X noise” or “noise of X” should be used either when a noise resembles X but isn’t X or when there’s some doubt about whether it is X. In the extract above, Fleming’s choice of words captures what must have gone on in the minds of the observers, or rather the auditors: “What is that horrible noise from the island? It sounds like drums. Wait, it is drums. But how on earth could etc.” This is confirmed by what Fleming writes next: “It seemed to come… It was recognized as…”

And once the noise has been recognized, it can be described without qualification. This bit comes later in the chapter:

Strangways described his horror when, an hour after they had left to swim across the three hundred yards of water, the terrible drumming had started up somewhere inside the cliffs of the island.

In the previous chapter, there’s a use of “noise” that I’m not so sure about:

After a quarter of an hour’s meticulous work there was a slight cracking noise and the pane came away attached to the putty knob in his hand. – ch. 15, “Midnight Among the Worms”

Would “slight cracking” have been better? It’s not as clear-cut as “drumming noise”, but I think Fleming got it right again. “Cracking” is ambiguous, because it could have meant that the glass cracked physically but not audibly. Fleming was writing considerately, leaving his readers in no doubt about what he meant.

Now try this from Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942), as Basil Seal watches one of his girlfriends panicked by an air-raid:

But Poppet was gone, helter-skelter, downstairs, making little moaning noises as she went.

Waugh was an even better writer than Fleming, but did he misuse “noises” there? I don’t think so. These alternatives don’t conjure the scene as effectively:

• But Poppet was gone, helter-skelter, downstairs, emitting little moans as she went.
• But Poppet was gone, helter-skelter, downstairs, uttering little moans as she went.

The noises Poppet was making weren’t real moans and the trailing phrase “making little moaning noises” mimics what Basil would have heard as Poppet fled downstairs.

I conclude that, unlike Tolkien, Fleming and Waugh were making nice noise:

nice, adj. and adv. … Particular, strict, or careful with regard to a specific point or thing. Obs. Fastidious in matters of literary taste or style. Obs.Oxford English Dictionary

Noise from Nowhere

• Es war, als ob er irgendwohin horchte, auf irgend ein unheimliches Geräusch. — Thomas Mann, Der kleine Herr Friedemann (1897)

• He seemed somehow to be listening, listening to some uncanny noise from nowhere. — “Little Herr Friedemann” (translated by David Luke)

Noise Annoys

“Noise” may have an interesting etymology. Some think it comes from “nausea”, which itself comes from Greek naus, meaning “ship”. Neither the putative etymology of “noise” nor the undisputed etymology of “nausea” would have been news to J.R.R. Tolkien. He was, after all, a professional scholar of literature and languages.

But that’s why The Lord of the Rings is often a puzzling book. Why did someone so interested in words and languages write so clumsily? As I’ve said before: I wish someone would translate Lord of the Rings into English. But perhaps if Tolkien had been a better writer I wouldn’t have read Lord of the Rings so often. And perhaps if he’d been a better writer there would have been no Lord of the Rings at all. Even so, it’s hard to excuse writing like this:

He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping sound. […] There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise. – “Fog on the Barrowdowns”, Book One, VIII

Why did he use “sound” and “noise”? They’re redundant, because creak, scrape and snarl already describe sounds or noises. You could argue that the additional words are there to balance the sentences, but if they hadn’t been there I don’t think anyone would have missed them:

He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping. … There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling.

Later in the book Tolkien gets it right:

At that moment there came a roaring and a rushing: a noise of loud waters rolling many stones. – “Flight to the Ford”, Book One, XII

Then he gets it wrong again:

Turning quickly they saw ripples, black-edged with shadow in the waning light: great rings were widening outwards from a point far out in the lake. There was a bubbling noise, and then silence. – “A Journey in the Dark”, Book Two, IV

This would have been better:

There was a bubbling, and then silence.

It’s crisper, clearer and doesn’t strike an ugly twentieth-century note in an archaic setting. And it should have been what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in the first place. I don’t know why he didn’t and I don’t know why his editors or those who read early drafts of Lord of the Rings didn’t point out his error. That’s why I’d like to visit the Library of Babel and find a copy of Lord of the Rings written by Clark Ashton Smith.