Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tolkien’s Nobel Snub

The 1961 nominations for the Nobel prize in literature apparently included The Lord of the Rings, and it seems Tolkien was dismissed rather out of hand for the award, according to an article in the online edition of The Guardian today.

I’m not here to argue whether The Lord of the Rings deserved a Nobel that year. Not having read any of its competition (save for a fair bit of Robert Frost), it would be rather presumptive of me to do so. But I can’t help but notice that the reason for its rejection seems rather flimsy. Nobel jury member Anders Österling wrote in a brief commentary that “The prose of Tolkien – who was nominated by his friend and fellow fantasy author CS Lewis – ‘has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality’, according to The Guardian.

Tolkien’s prose—which ranged from the colloquial speech of the Hobbits to the high medieval style—is not to everyone’s liking, certainly. Obviously it was not up to par for the Nobel voting panel nor in particular to Österling (who comes across in the article as the Simon Cowell of 1960s literary academics with his scathing comments about Frost and Lawrence Durrell). But we now know that, as a master philologist, Tolkien chose his words with great care and alternated between prose styles for deliberate effect. As Tom Shippey demonstrated in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tolkien incorporated a modern prose style into Middle-Earth when he chose to do so (for the speech of Saruman and Smaug, for example) as a critique of modernism and the doublespeak of modern politicians. These are contrasted against archaic constructions Tolkien employed to convey deep age and timelessness and a high seriousness to his tale, as in the speech of an Elrond or a crowned Aragorn.

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8 comments:

Atom Kid said...

I never knew he was nominated, interesting. Although I think it was probably more of an honor for him to be turned down. Considering the quality of the people who have been given the award over the past 20 years or so. They may as well just put them in Cracker Jack boxes.

Michal said...

The Guardian article...chose to put Tolkien as their big headline? Not the E.M. Forster snub for being too old (which is probably more noteworthy)? Most of the article isn't even about Tolkien. Then it quotes a quote that was already directly quoted earlier in the article at the end of the article?

I don't read The Guardian all that often (and just about everything I have read in it annoys me), but this is a pretty low standard. The comments are also rather painful (R. Scott Bakker should win the Nobel prize for literature? Excuse me?)

David J. West said...

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Taranaich said...

The chuckleheads running the Nobel Prize for Literature have snubbed plenty of influential and iconic authors: Woolf, Twain, Chekhov, Miller, Borges, Tolstoy and freaking Proust have all been snubbed for stupid and arbitrary reasons. If they're going to dismiss beloved authors of the Literati like the above, then what chance does Tolkien have?

I don't think misspelling is pedantic in the slightest when you're making a work of LITERARY criticism. How in the name of creation can you misspell something you read? I can understand misspelling something based on hearing (the multitude of people who think Conan worships Krum, for instance), but how can you misspell something you had to READ? It's just astonishing.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Taranaich said it best. The Nobel, like all other prizes, is a crapshoot. The question should be - is Tolkien WORTHY of the Nobel - did he write something that will stand for the ages, did he influence other writers, did he contribute significantly to world literature.

I think we know the answer to that, for Tolkien, and for the other authors Taranaich mentioned.

Brian Murphy said...

Considering the quality of the people who have been given the award over the past 20 years or so. They may as well just put them in Cracker Jack boxes.

I would say I agree, but then I really don't even follow the Nobel prizes for literature. They do seem largely irrelevant.

I don't read The Guardian all that often (and just about everything I have read in it annoys me), but this is a pretty low standard.

I agree, I think Tolkien gets people riled up and ups their hit count. No analysis in the piece either about the why of the decision.

David: That might be Tolkien's best quote ever.

I don't think misspelling is pedantic in the slightest when you're making a work of LITERARY criticism. How in the name of creation can you misspell something you read?

I do think it's a telling sign. At the very least, Wilson can't have performed more than one cursory reading to get that name wrong. It shows in his review, which gets LOTR all wrong.

Eric: I agree, and even though the piece pissed me off as did the reasons for his snub, it's still pretty cool that Tolkien was nominated, and the fact that he's getting more buzz than the winner is very telling.

Tim Mayer said...

It reminds me of how Elvis never received a Grammy while he lived. A long stretch to make a point, but you get the idea.

Martin said...

Woolf, Twain, Chekhov, Miller, Borges, Tolstoy and freaking Proust have all been snubbed for stupid and arbitrary reasons. If they're going to dismiss beloved authors of the Literati like the above, then what chance does Tolkien have?

Gods!