1961 Nobel Literature Finalists: J.R.R. Tolkien

January 16th, 2012 § 7 comments

Back on January 5, The Guardian posted an article highlighting the previously-unreleased commentaries regarding works considered for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Although it is fair to say that the article slants the coverage of the notes of one of that year’s judges, Anders Österling, especially in regards to the somewhat surprising inclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien on the list, this column received quite a bit of discussion in divers corners over the past week and a half.  Some have questioned the validity of Österling’s comments on E.M. Forster and Robert Frost, which referred to their advanced age (both died within a decade of the 1961 prize being awarded to Ivo Andrić), while others have speculated that in the case of Tolkien somehow “genre bias” was involved.

Since the list of eight novelists that were mentioned in the article are fairly well-known (to the above mentioned four, Graham Greene, the eventual runner-up; Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pseudonymn of Isaak Dinesan, finished third; and Italian writer Alberto Moravia) to many readers, over the next several weeks (mostly on Saturdays or Sundays), there will be columns devoted to discussing these seven writers and how their writings compare to previous Nobel winners and to the criteria set forth in Alfred Nobel’s will:

“The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”

Since the criteria for being selected to be a Nobel laureate in Literature are not similar to a “year’s best,” in that the committee is charged to consider the author’s full work and not just a singular work, not to mention the above-quoted part on “most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” the works considered generally possess a high degree of craftsmanship (in the three genres of poetry, drama, and prose) and have something to contribute to the global “conversation” regarding the human condition(s).  When considered through this evaluative lens, several works that have enjoyed widespread popularity over the years are going to be dismissed due to some combination of their writing and/or the lack of “an ideal direction.”

This seems to be the case with J.R.R. Tolkien.  Out of the seven mentioned for consideration, his is the most intriguing.  If one dismisses the probable bias of his friend and colleague C.S. Lewis (who, after all, was privy to Tolkien’s development of the Middle-Earth mythos for most of the 1930s-1950s period) and accepts his work as a serious candidate for the award, then what should one make of his work in light of the criteria mentioned above?  Does one agree with Österling’s assertion that Tolkien’s prose “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality?”  Or were there other factors at play when his work was rejected in 1961?

In evaluating Tolkien’s candidacy, one has to strip away all memories and associations with his posthumous works and legacy.  There is no “Tolkien as the founder of modern epic fantasy” to be considered here; after all, in 1961 he did not enjoy a huge international reputation, although a few translations of his work were beginning to be published then.  Nor was he associated in public or academic opinion with a particular genre, since there were no marketing spheres then labeled “fantasy.”  If anything, one will have to consider Professor Tolkien as the translator of some Midlands lays from a non-London Middle English dialect who created some quaint tales that were then compared to the works of the 19th century socialist William Morris and early 20th century academic/writer E.R. Eddison.

If evaluated in light of Morris’ lush The Well at the World’s End, which utilizes archaic speech to create an atmospheric effect of loss and desire, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would doubtless appear to be wooden and turgid in comparison.  Consider the early parts of The Fellowship of the Ring, namely the part where Frodo discusses the Black Riders with the elf Gildor:

‘I am deeply grateful,’ said Frodo; ‘but I wish you would tell me plainly what the Black Riders are.  If I take your advice I may not see Gandalf for a long while, and I ought to know what is the danger that pursues me.’

‘Is it not enough to know that they are servants of the Enemy?’ answered Gildor.  ‘Flee them!  Speak no words to them!  They are deadly.  Ask no more of me!  But my heart forbodes that, ere all is ended, you, Frodo son of Drogo, will know more of these fell things than Gildor Inglorion.  May Elbereth protect you!’

There is a narrative dissonance here, between the plain hobbit speech of Frodo (despite being educated and well-versed in at least the basics of the Elvish tongues) and the elevated diction of Gildor.  Although Tolkien notes that this effect was intentional, what it also does in certain other occasions, namely in the fighting in the halls of Moria is to create dialogue that sounds odd, if not ridiculous, to the ears of those who are equally familiar with epic poetry of the classical and medieval eras as well as with more modern prose:

‘One for the Shire!’ cried Aragorn.  ‘The hobbit’s bite is deep!  You have a good blade, Frodo son of Drogo!’

The problem here is that Tolkien is trying to adapt the structure of an early medieval saga to the novel genre.  Although there are cases in his writing (although very rare in his pre-1961 original fiction) where Tolkien manages to achieve a striking literary effect through the use of alliteration and judicious repetition of patronymic phrases, often, as in the case above, the desired effect is not achieved.  Those familiar with the “source material” possibly could be left feeling as though Tolkien had struck a flat note, as the dialogue feels off and somewhat anachronistic, especially when the lower speech of the hobbits clash with those of the knights and elves.  In addition, Tolkien is handicapped by his need to introduce elements of his invented setting into the narrative.  Although certainly this is appealing to readers who are familiar with the existence of The Silmarillion, in 1961, the overall effect was, for several readers at least, the sense that the importance of the narrative was being continually interrupted by those other creations.  As a member of the Inklings society, of which Tolkien was a member, was reported to say,  “Oh God, not another fucking elf!”, so might several contemporary readers have reacted to another poem fragment about Eärendil or Elbereth with an eye roll or a despairing thought about another intrusion into the narrative.  Today, such elements are (sometimes pejoratively) referred to as “infodumps”; for others then, they were considered to be asides that weakened the focus on the narrative.

Therefore, when strictly considered on the prose level, Tolkien’s writing plausibly can be seen as not being at the same level of the others considered in 1961.  As will be seen later when I cover their works, there is not the same degree of focus on the narrative, on the characterizations, or on thematic issues, all of which are essential items usually considered by the Nobel committee.  Tolkien in 1961 had not “founded” anything; he was a respected academic who contributed heavily to the understanding of the poems and songs of the Midlands during the Anglo-Saxon through the Plantagenet eras, but his fiction was more of a curiosity than a key contributor to global belles-lettres.  Although Österling’s criticism in the abstract sounds rather harsh to those familiar with Tolkien’s writings in 2012, in 1961 it certainly is a justifiable commentary on his work in comparison to not just the others, but also in how well he was adapt to adapt the mechanics of saga storytelling to the novel mode.  Although short shrift has been given here to comparing Tolkien’s writing to the provision spelled out in Nobel’s will regarding works of “an ideal direction,” it should suffice to say that a work that was considered to be an interesting yet flawed exploration of mapping out a fictional equivalent to a national English mythology was not going to be considered in the same light as those other works who spoke of more contemporary and less mythical social concerns.  Tolkien’s work is undoubtedly influential nearly 40 years after his death, but it would be a disservice to what he did accomplish to claim that his work would fit in well with those who were awarded Nobel prizes in Literature because his prose is not as polished nor are the thematic issues of his pre-1961 works a natural fit with the prize’s legacy.  If it had to be placed among the seven, it likely would rank at or very near the bottom due to the reasons mentioned above.  This may be a harsh assessment, but in light of the others considered in that year, it is the fairest.

§ 7 Responses to 1961 Nobel Literature Finalists: J.R.R. Tolkien"

  • Heloise says:

    Seriously – this is a prize that did not go to the likes of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Vladimir Nabokov (I guess because their “direction” was not sufficiently “ideal”) and people are in a huff over bloody Tolkien not receiving it? Someone really needs to get their priorities straight…

  • MattH says:

    Some remarks that come to mind:

    “The problem here is that Tolkien is trying to adapt the structure of an early medieval saga to the novel genre. Although there are cases in his writing (although very rare in his pre-1961 original fiction) where Tolkien manages to achieve a striking literary effect through the use of alliteration and judicious repetition of patronymic phrases, often, as in the case above, the desired effect is not achieved. ”

    That may be plainly true in the case of LotR (I’m sceptical about this remark about his “original fiction” – because it casually discards writing that may be found as more “pure” in tone and is also available in little edited form), although it is also a narrative that tries to lead the modern reader more comfortably into the setting, and it is also the lack of Hobbits and their narrative framework that makes many of Tolkien’s more mythic writings unreadable to some.
    But despite this mixture, the landscapes, descriptions and atmosphere are still very effective, with or without alliteration. The tone gets also more serious as the narrative progresses.

    “In addition, Tolkien is handicapped by his need to introduce elements of his invented setting into the narrative. Although certainly this is appealing to readers who are familiar with the existence of The Silmarillion, in 1961, the overall effect was, for several readers at least, the sense that the importance of the narrative was being continually interrupted by those other creations.”

    I think the consensus goes more in the direction that they created a sense of mystery and that reading the Silmarillion might destroy this magic.

    “Today, such elements are (sometimes pejoratively) referred to as “infodumps””

    I don’t think you can actually compare them beyond a superficial structural similarity, nor that many readers would, as Tolkien makes a point of restraint and making them seen and felt in effect, as their own narrative, and interestingly getting in relation with the normal narrative. It might be even be one of Tolkien’s prime poetic effects (pointing both towards the Eucastastrophe and towards the feeling he himself is reported to have felt when coming across strange words of legend), as when Eomer exclaims:

    “‘Halflings!’ laughed the Rider that stood beside Éomer. ‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’

    ‘A man may do both,’ said Aragorn. ‘For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!’ ”

    I personally find this utterly refreshing.

  • Larry says:


    It’s a tough award to win, especially since some aspect of it is going to be “political” in the sense that the judges will seek consensus and apparently one can block (if I understand correctly the story behind Borges never winning). The winners have written some great works, several could-have-beens are classics as well, and very few headscratchers there.


    Thank you for a good counter. When talking about Tolkien’s “original fiction,” I am referring to his non-academic works that were not translations. Of those, outside of a few short fictions, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, there was nothing (it’s why I purposely discount any of the effects achieved in the published posthumous works – The Children of Húrin I happen to think is by far his best individual work, even in its somewhat unfinished state). LotR I think is his weakest writing, because he often fails to mesh adequately the “high” and “low” diction throughout the narrative and that the bits and fragments of his invented legenda can serve to distract the reader from the narrative at hand (again, presuming no prior awareness of his posthumous work). Yes, there are those, as you note, that found those allusions to make the story more attractive, but there are also quite a few that found them to be a nuisance. In writing this post, I was arguing from the vantage point of why his work would have been considered lesser than the others (I do think it is, but I also couldn’t risk weakening this point by noting at length those who find the narrative intrusions to work beautifully). While I see where you are going with your final point and how it captures a moment for many, I would also note that the passage feels rather stilted in its use of elevated, almost poetic speech. It feels more like a derivation of medieval lays with more dialogue than is typically found in them. Orlando Furioso or El Cid it is not in terms of speaking with a restrained eloquence. But this is a matter of taste; I just suspect this could have been a sticking point with the committee, as it certainly is with me the more exposed I’ve become to lays, ballads, and chansons de geste.

  • Heloise says:

    I was not saying that no decent author ever won the Nobel prize – the point I was trying to make is that a prize that claims to award the “most outstanding work” of literature and manages to miss most of the major writers of the 20th century falls rather short of what it has set out to achieve; and that if one wants to bewail the Nobel prize judges’ lack of literary competence there’s maybe more striking examples than Tolkien out there to demonstrate that. This whole discussion is a bit like complaining about the rain after one has been dunked in the ocean.

  • Larry says:

    Heloise, I didn’t think you intended your comment to be taken that way and I didn’t. It’s just that it’s very difficult to award every deserving author (only 4 times have two authors been awarded in a single year), especially when a consensus has to be reached. Proust died before his entire work was complete; Joyce alienated quite a few other writers; Nabokov had the problem of the Soviets likely putting political pressure on the committee (after the fiasco with Pasternak in 1958); and so forth. It’s not a perfect award and yes, these situations are fodder for those who want to argue against the excellence of the award. There are good points to be made, but ultimately, I think more times than not, deserving authors have won out, even though I really wish Borges and Cortázar had been selected.

  • […] comentarii la acel articol, fanii şi-au lustruit săbiile şi au pornit la război, criticii şi blogerii s-au împărţit în 2 […]

  • […] In last week’s post, I analyzed some of the reasons why J.R.R. Tolkien’s recently-revealed nomination for the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature was shot down by committee members.  This week, the focus shifts to British novelist E.M. Forster, who was most well-known for the following novels at the time of his nomination:  Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907),  A Room With a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924).  Whereas Tolkien was relatively little-known globally in 1961, Forster’s fame had passed its zenith almost four decades before.  In reading four of these novels (excluding The Longest Journey), I found it difficult to disagree with the committee’s assessment of him as being “a shadow of his former self,” as these mostly Edwardian era stories almost certainly had to feel like living fossils during the most heated part of the Cold War and the decolonization movements of the 1940s-1960s. […]

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