Tolkien's Use of Verbs

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Tolkien's Use of Verbs

Postby Celebrendir » Mon Sep 15, 2008 8:54 pm

[Note: I am continually editing this thread to add new examples, rather than posting new posts in it.]

In my study of Tolkien's writing style, I have begun noticing an interesting trend: Tolkien is exceptionally skilled in the use of verbs.

I see this in two main ways:

1) Tolkien frequently makes nouns into verbs. A couple of examples:

"…and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones…”

(Tolkien uses as a verb the word mantle, which is more often used as a noun. The poetic nature of this usage is also seen in the chapter "The Muster of Rohan": "...golden timbers were in gloom mantled...")

"Deep inside there was a hollow hall, raftered with dead branch and bramble, and roofed with the first leaves and shoots of spring."

2) Tolkien uses active verbs to describe otherwise passive or static features, such as terrain or landscape features, as in the following examples:

“…an old gnarled oak that sent its roots twisting like snakes down a steep crumbling bank…” (quite active for a tree!)

“...the sun sank behind the westward heights and great shadows crept down the mountain-sides. Dusk veiled their feet, and mist rose in the hollows."

“...suddenly there it was before them: the Southward Road, winding its way about the outer feet of the mountains, until presently it plunged into the great ring of trees.”

“Still on and up the stairway bent and crawled, until at last with a final flight, short and straight, it climbed out again on to another level.” (with the word "flight" possibly being a double-meaning)

"...after another steep incline, a flying bridge of stone leapt over the chasm and bore the road across into the tumbled slopes and glens of the Morgai."

"...low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled."


This is but a small sample of Tolkien's use of this technique. Many less skilled writers (such as myself, perhaps) might have opted for more passive descriptions, which in my opinion would have lowered the quality of the writing. This is one reason Tolkien is so good!
Last edited by Celebrendir on Sun Oct 05, 2008 4:39 pm, edited 13 times in total.
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Postby SilverScribe » Wed Sep 17, 2008 9:31 pm

Tolkien uses as a verb the word mantle,


Actually, Tolkien isn't so much making a noun INTO a verb, as he is using the verb "form" of the word. The word "mantle" isn't a verb, it's a noun. Same goes for "rafter" and "roof", the verb forms of these nouns are spelled differently from the noun itself.

Tons of english words do double duty as both noun and verb, without a change in spelling, such as mail (eg: "I brought in the mail." and "I must mail a letter". Other words change spelling, depending on whether the noun or verb form is used, such as your example of the noun "mantle" and the verb form, "mantled".

I do agree that Tolkien, as a Professor of Languages and a very educated man, was a master in the use of the English language. I think this is one reason his books have enthralled and entertained generation after generation. They just never go out of style because the stories are timeless and they were written so skillfully.

:D:D:D
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Postby Celebrendir » Thu Sep 18, 2008 6:40 am

Hi SilverScribe, thanks for your comments.

I don't know if I would say there's a change in spelling happening here. I see it more as a change in tense: the suffix -ed is being added, since it's past tense. The spelling of the root word remains the same, it's just that a suffix has been added. (The same would be the case in your example if, instead of "mail a letter," it was "mailed a letter.")

I make this distinction because there are some cases where the spelling of the root word actually does change during the shift from noun to verb, such as envelope becoming envelop, for example. That, IMO, would be more of a spelling change.

But you are right, of course, that these are verb forms of the nouns, and that is what I meant. I used the words "makes nouns into verbs" to emphasize the points that 1) the verb forms Tolkien selects are often uncommon (such as "raftered," which is rarely seen), and 2) Tolkien seems to look for ways to inject action into even the most passive and static features. This, I believe, is one mark of a skilled novelist: making even the "dull" things interesting. You see this technique everywhere in LOTR, it's highly instructive.

Thanks again for contributing to this thread, I appreciate it! I really enjoy discussing the linguistic aspects of the novel.
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Postby SilverScribe » Thu Sep 18, 2008 7:13 pm

Ah yes, of course you're right, I had missed the change in tense. And dummy me, mantle used as a verb in the present tense, doesn't change spelling either as in "Please mantle the lamp." Although, you'd never catch me speaking like that, LOL! :D

Unless it was Role Play. Then anything goes. ;)

There are few authors who fit in Tolkien's class as far as usage of the language to really and truly paint a picture, I agree. CS Lewis, Dickens, Cervantes (to some degree) and the Bronte Sisters spring to mind, though I know there are many more.

However, the reality is that modern authors can rarely hold a candle to the older masters. I suppose that's what they call literary evolution?

:D:D:D
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Postby Celebrendir » Thu Sep 18, 2008 8:49 pm

You know, SilverScribe, I am beginning to realize that one of the main reasons Tolkien's writing is so beautiful is that he is also a poet. His poetry flows over into his prose, beautifying and breathing life into it.

This puts me in mind of something I recently read in Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. Young Franklin, wishing to expand his vocabulary, decided to convert a prose passage into poetry and then back again. As a result, he greatly improved his writing:

"But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again...By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious." --from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

This technique--becoming a better prose writer through composing poetry--strikes me as a wonderful idea, and I am going to try it myself.
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Postby SilverScribe » Fri Sep 19, 2008 7:18 pm

You know, I agree with you about Tolkien's writing and poetry. Though I also think that he was simply, truly and very deeply in passionate love with language as a whole, in all its various forms. :D

Mmm yes, Franklin's theory sounds very interesting. And I'd be very interested to hear how you make out, will you post some of your efforts here?

I loooove reading other people's works, be they straight stories or poetry of every variety . . . :D
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Postby Celebrendir » Sat Sep 20, 2008 12:29 pm

I agree with you, SilverScribe: Tolkien's passionate love for language was indeed one of the many reasons he was such a great writer.

I think it was the combination of all these elements--philology, poetry, passion--that made Tolkien so great. In many ways, Tolkien ranks among the best writers, IMO; and in the genre of high fantasy, he reigns as "high king," probably never to be dethroned.

The diligent and systematic study of Tolkien (which I highly recommend) is therefore of great value to the aspiring fantasy writer, because in Tolkien we find all these elements rolled into one person; and we can therefore learn them all from him, as it were (as opposed to going to six separate sources, for instance).

Not that there's anything wrong with exploring many different sources; but it's just so nice that Tolkien is everything at once: poet, linguist, master of prose, weaver of epics, etc.

And yes, I will be posting some of my efforts here; in fact, I have already begun doing so, in little ways. I am grateful to have found such a great community of fellow Tolkien fans with whom to practice.
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