Notes on “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings”

This is a 1983 essay by fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, published her book Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. I read this essay because of a post from Calmgrove, which is part of a series of posts concerning The Lord of the Rings. I have read a few of Jones’s books (so far Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire & Hemlock, and Charmed Life) and I want to read more by her, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Jones writes that the book is “organized in movements, just like a symphony, but with this difference: each movement has an extension, or coda, which reflects partly back on the movement just completed and partly forward to what is to come.”

Jones has a few criticisms of Tolkien’s style. She thinks he uses “suddenly” too much, and maybe she’s right. She doesn’t like what she calls his “hackneyed high style” in the more archaic passages. I don’t share her reaction at all, but I am a little surprised, because she says some admiring things about The Return of the King (RotK) later in the essay. I think if I didn’t like Tolkien’s use of a higher register then I would like RotK much less, because it’s very prominent in that volume.

She finds Tom Bombadil “supremely irritating” even though she recognizes that he represents something unique in the narrative. I’m with her on that one. She likes the gate of Moria but “once they get inside, I am never as impressed as I could wish.” She notes that the Orcs don’t have personalities here as they do in vol. 2, which is true, but I love the other villains we get here: the Balrog and also the Watcher in the Water. They don’t have personalities either, but I really like the fact that so many of Tolkien’s monsters have an air of mystery, rather than just being minions of Sauron.

Regarding the Elves, Jones says: Legolas makes us think that Elves can be “human and approachable.” She continues: “This is not the case. Tolkien leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw Lothlorien.” I don’t really agree… I think they continue to come across as alien, but they continue to surprise us by undermining that impression too.

She also writes about the contrast between the two sections of RotK, books IV and V. The dreary journey through Mordor contrasts with the uplifting tone in much of book IV: “Though it is odd that the positive side of the action is compounded of killing and politics, and the negative of love, endurance, and courage, this is how it seems to be.”

I have a few other articles on various aspects of LotR that I have saved from the internet to read later. I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to write about those, but in the meantime you can read my review of Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth.

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

One thought on “Notes on “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings”

  1. I’m glad you managed to read the DWJ essay, Beth. I must admit when I got back to this from reading it soon after she died I realised I’d skimread the best part of it then. This time I read the relevant bits in detail for my mini-essay, leaving the other bits for a full perusal as I work my way through Frodo’s there and back again journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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