I am beginning, finally, and slowly, to work my way through various essays and articles in collections that have been awaiting my attention for months, years, … even decades. One that I just finished was John Rateliff’s essay, “The Hobbit: A Turning Point,” included in 2021’s A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Stuart D. Lee — which clearly shows that Tolkien knew even as he was first putting this bed-time tale down on paper for the first time in the mid 1930s that Bilbo inhabited the same world as his earliest work on his legendarium. It’s an effective, convincing, and even emotional essay which I recommend without reservation.
But just now, I’ve finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s chapter, “Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings,” included in Meditations on Middle-earth, edited by Karen Haber and published in 2001. I knew some of Le Guin’s work as a pre-teen as early as the mid-70s, and have always enjoyed her writing — I’d read and enjoyed some of her work even before I’d discovered The Lord of the Rings, though I’d known The Hobbit well already at the time. But it is only with this essay that I realize how well Le Guin knew Tolkien’s work, or how much she appreciated it. She shows how very much she loved Tolkien in her first sentence:
Since I had three children, I’ve read Tolkien’s trilogy [sic] aloud three times.
She read it, wholly, out loud three times. Why? Because she had three children. This is presented as a simple, logical, statement of fact: “I read The Lord of the Rings three times out loud because I had three children.” You could add “How could I have done otherwise?” without changing or even shading her meaning in the slightest. (Full disclosure: I have two children, each of whom has heard me read LotR out loud three times.)
Le Guin’s first observation is that “it’s a wonderful book to read aloud,” or, from her children’s point of view, to “listen to.” No one reading this blog entry will be surprised to learn that I agree whole-heartedly. She goes on:
Even when the sentences are long, their flow is perfectly clear, and follows the breath; punctuation comes just where you need to pause; the cadences are graceful and inevitable.
This could not be more true! It is true that I know the book well — but I certainly don’t have it memorized: I am to this day sometimes surprised where a sentence or a paragraph leads. But I have never, ever stumbled or paused to figure out a complex passage while reading LotR out loud: Tolkien’s sentences — whether narrative, dialogue, or poetic — are indeed graceful and inevitable. I have found some other authors whose works I love (Pullman) or like well enough (Rowling) to be far, far more difficult to read aloud fluently and fluidly. Le Guin, like Dickens, I would place somewhere between those extremes. (I have read all of these authors out loud, for I have been singularly fortunate in having two children and a spouse who have loved to be read to.)
Le Guin observes that “Tolkien must have heard what he wrote.” Yes! He must have! Yet apparently this is not true of Rowling or Pullman; or, at least it must be that what they hear they are not able to transcribe facilely.
Le Guin’s essay moves from Tolkien’s poetics to his prosody and on to the textual — indeed, textile — fabric of LotR — it’s masterful in its simplicity and its incisiveness. I’ve appreciated Le Guin and Tolkien, both, for nearly 50 years. This essay makes we want to read more … of both of them.