Superversive on Tolkienian Diction

By all means, if you have not read it already, read the latest offering by Tom Simon the Superversive, on the careful and brilliant use J.R.R. Tolkien made of diction, vocabulary, and style of speech both in dialog and description. I shall certainly have to reread the Trilogy again, keeping an eye out for the nuances mentioned.

As ever, the critics badly underestimated the craft and art which Tolkien’s generous genius lent to him.

Who else in our beloved genre has such a command of high voices and low? All Robert Heinlein characters talk like Heinlein, and all Jack Vance characters talk like phantasmagorical apparitions. Bradbury and LeGuin have real accomplishments in their poetic diction, but even they do not, I deem, command the same wide diapason of voice as Professor Tolkien.

Until the professional critics learn to read Tolkien without preconceptions and without the goad of their political agenda pricking them, until, in other words, they learn to read as little children, they will not enter into an understanding of why his is the best and rightfully best beloved novel of the Twentieth Century, and the novel most adroitly capturing the mood, motifs, melancholy and the dark concerns of the Twentieth Century.



  1. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    I agree with both you and Mr. Simon on Tolkien’s rich vocabulary and skillful use of language and modes of speaking. I too plan to soon reread THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

    I know as well how you would rank Gene Wolfe as also a master of language and vocabulary. I propose in addition that Poul Anderson also compares favorably with these masters in the skillful use of words, speech, vocabulary.

    I recently finished David Wingrove’s SON OF HEAVEN. And I have to say, with regret, I thought it some what disappointing. Largely because of his “flat” use of lanugage (including the needless and frequent use of the “F” word).

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  2. Comment by Sandy Petersen:

    I am not the world’s greatest Tolkien fan, but I have to admit I found this analysis of his prose to be quite perspicacious. One of his points, which he just made in passing, I feel deserves further examination. He states that the Orcish speech is not distinguished by class-markers (Orcs do not drop their aitches), which makes sense to me. Orcs are not the underclass. “Normal” people in middle Earth might be peasants, like Sam’s Gaffer, or aristocrats, like Theoden or Grima Wormtongue, but the Orcs are something else.

  3. Comment by Tom Simon:

    Thank you kindly, Sir, for drawing notice to my latest essai. I’ve mentioned it in my blog, but it may do no harm to mention it here as well: later this month (D.V.) I shall be releasing a collection of these pieces on Tolkien as an ebook, under the title of Writing Down the Dragon.

    Kudos to you for describing Tolkien’s range as a diapason. I wish I had thought of using that word.

  4. Ping from The View From The Foothills » Tolkien’s Diction:

    […] John C. Wright links to a fabulous post on how J.R.R. Tolkien uses diction to convey mood and character in The Lord of the Rings. Along the way, the author shows how literary criticism really ought to be done. Here’s one quotable bit out of many: As these critics lose the ability to understand a text, they focus all the harder on the minute details of the text, and lose the benefit of context. This seems paradoxical, but it is, alas, not hard to explain. The ‘New Criticism’ was invented by men who had not the cultural literacy to see why literature is not and cannot be a science. In the interest of scientific objectivity, they banished the author’s intentions and the reader’s reactions from their purview. But literature is inherently a subjective art: it is an act of communication between a writer and a reader, and if you leave either of them out of account, the whole art form becomes strictly meaningless. […]

  5. Comment by Lisieux:

    I await the ebook with huge anticipation: Mr Simon’s writing on Tolkien seems to me to be second only to Tom Shippey’s.

    As for style, it’s what stopped me enjoying David Eddings’ otherwise engaging Belgariad: all the characters bar one sounded exactly like not terribly bright first-year undergraduates. The only major character who didn’t (the Mimbrate knight whose name I forget), who was given a more archaic register, annoyed me even more: since Eddings hasn’t a clue about language, the grammar’s all wrong.

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