The Guardian reports today that the archives of the committee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1961 have been declassified, and one of the nominees was Tolkien. The archives include brief descriptions of the committee’s opinion of the various nominees, though I suspect that the Guardian’s reports are a little limited. The reason given by the jury member Anders Osterling[1] was that his prose

has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality

Fair enough, I suppose, his prose isn’t the best. But the eventual winner, Ivo Andric,  was apparently chosen by this same juror because of

the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country

Hmmm, does that sound like it might be relevant to, say, Lord of the Rings? Tolkien may have many faults, but a failure to trace themes and human destinies with epic force is probably not one of them.

Looking at the list of past winners, there are certainly some on there who qualify as not having written the best prose. There are also lots I’ve never read (or heard of) so I guess I shouldn’t judge. But if anyone’s going to be dumped on the grounds of prose quality, surely Steinbeck could be? Surely the quality of Patrick White’s prose is a fairly subjective judgment, given that he (at least sometimes) writes “stream of consciousness,” which is torturous for many readers and can also be interpreted as lacking in craft (or just plain shit, depending on your perspective). I’ve read Dr. Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), and I have to say it’s not memorable. Maybe the committee members liked the movie?

So I wonder if the judgment actually hides a simpler, more old-fashioned motive: fantasy just isn’t highbrow enough to get a gong. As one of the commenters on the Guardian article notes, the committee do seem rather pretentious, and we all know that pretentious literary types frown on fantasy. Or maybe they just frown on popular books? As far as I can tell there’s no one particularly popular on that list. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that long after Seamus Heaney’s name is forgotten even in the Academy, everyone will know Tolkien’s. Just to inch further along that limb, I’m willing to bet that Tolkien’s reading of Beowulf[2] was much better than Heaney’s.

The comments of the Guardian article are, of course, gold. How did culture sustain itself before bigoted fools got the chance to comment in newspaper articles? I like the slew of comments on Tolkien’s “turgid” prose by people who can’t spell his name, or refer to his prose as “flay.” Incidentally, I think the dismissive phrase “turgid prose” has become a fly-blown cliche. No one who uses it actually knows what turgid prose is, just as no one who says a book has a “lyrical writing style” actually knows what a lyrical writing style is (I certainly don’t – is it a style that includes, like, words?). I think most people who use these phrases mean to say “I didn’t like it” or “I liked it.” Now, fair enough, you could say Tolkien’s prose is occasionally boring (or perhaps more relevantly, his storytelling is occasionally boring) but you can’t say that, e.g. his introduction of the Dwarves in The Hobbit is turgid. It couldn’t really be terser, could it?

Also, as far as prose goes, Tolkien is occasionally sublime, and one of my favourite parts of the movies is the part where they very carefully move a beautiful passage that Tolkien consigned to an appendix into the centre of the movie (it’s Elrond’s description of Arwen’s fate if she marries Aragorn). It’s a good example of why we love him and why he’s flawed: he can’t arrange his stories very well, but he definitely can describe human destinies with epic force, in prose that measures up to storytelling of the highest quality. I guess that’s why his books have sold millions, and the movies based on them are so enormously popular, even though he’s never won a major literary prize.

Whether or not you think Tolkien deserves a Nobel prize (or even care about the prize, which seems pretty dubious to me), it’s interesting to read the snooty dismissal of his work, the age-based discrimination against another author, and to see that the eventual winner was nominated on the basis of what Tolkien did best.

fn1: umlaut omitted, because he’s too old

fn2: apparently he used to open his classes on old English with a reading of the first few lines of Beowful, in old English, and his classes were famous for it. That’s cool!

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