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Tolkien himself emphasizes the amount of work involved in what he was doing:Fantasy has . . . an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. . . . Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough. . . . To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible . . . will . . . require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such dif-ficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement . . . indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode. (MC139-40) Of the three elements traditionally taken to make up a story—setting, characterization, and plot—Tolkien has been universally acknowledged to excel in the first; that is, world-building: Middle-earth is made vividly real to the reader. For the second point, earlier critics sometimes un-derestimated his powers of characterization—Ursula K. LeGuin once made the astonishing confession that she could not tell Merry and Pip-pin apart3—but one of the good effects of the Jackson films has been that, by raising a debate on whether Jackson got certain characters right, they have focused attention on the unappreciated subtlety of Tolkien’s
3“A Kind of Elvish Craft”: Tolkien as Literary Craftsmanown characterization. Finally, on the third point, Tolkien has been much praised, by all but the most churlish, as a storyteller, for being adroit at presenting a gripping plot. Indeed, Richard West long ago wrote a semi-nal essay on Tolkien’s gift with polyphonic narrative, his ability to move back and forth between the various strands of the plot without ever los-ing track of the main thrust of the story. Diana Wynne Jones, herself a successful fantasy author, wrote from the point of view of a fellow author when she praised Tolkien’s skill in managing a long, complex plot while keeping his readers enthralled and concluded, “there really was nothing about narrative that Tolkien didn’t know.”4Where Tolkien has been mercilessly criticized has been on quite dif-ferent grounds. First, for his subject matter (indeed, that anyone should write fantasy at all in this day and age). Second, forwhat is taken to be his affirmation of traditional values (which by the way is far more subtle and double-edged than either his admirers or his critics sometimes real-ize, a point nicely made in Marjorie Burns’s Perilous Realms). And third, for his style. Since the first topic, his subject matter, has been masterfully addressed by Tolkien himself in his essays “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics” and “On Fairy-stories,” and since the second, attacks on his values system, tend to be politically motivated and self-defeating, re-ﬂecting worse on those who make them (e.g., China Miéville, Germaine Greer) than on their intended target, I would like to focus in on the third topic: Tolkien’s style.