- Vague or Vivid? Descriptions in The Lord of the Rings
To some extent, this presentation is a follow-up of something I said at the Ring Goes Ever On conference in Birmingham in 2005:
The Lord of the Rings is a book to make one’s own. It is automatically personalized, so to speak. It invites participation, in many subtle ways. Then, too, we simply have to contribute something of our own if we are to visualize what happens in it. Tolkien’s descriptions are rarely very detailed. People, buildings and objects are usually described more or less as the scenery or weather is described, quite vaguely, that is; as seen from a distance. We are told that a main character like Aragorn is long-legged and weather-beaten, but not if he has a beard or buttons in his clothes. The chair he sits on is low and comfortable, but what is it actually made of? The book encourages, almost forces the reader to make her own, more detailed pictures of people and settings—which many do so thoroughly as to become quite annoyed when they discover, in illustrations or films, for instance, that others see things differently. There are not many books about which you can have decade-long discussions about fictional characters’ hair colour or possible moustaches—or hypothetical wings.
In Tolkien Studies for 2011 Deidre A. Dawson wrote an impressively thorough review essay on the proceedings of the 2005 conference. She mentioned the passage I just quoted, writing:
Some readers might take issue with Agøy’s claim that descriptions in The Lord of the Rings are not very detailed: “People, buildings, and objects are usually described more or less as the scenery or weather is described, quite vaguely, that is; as seen from a distance.” Surely, The Lord of the Rings contains some of the most lush and vivid examples of nature writing of any twentieth-century work; who cannot imagine the stunning beauty of the golden-leaved Mallorns in the forest of Lothlórien or the towering giants of Fangorn? But perhaps my use of the word “imagine” proves Agøy’s point: Tolkien’s prose is rich in creating [End Page 49] atmosphere and environment, but he allows the reader to finish the scene in her mind.(Dawson 188f.)
I admit I was a little surprised at this, because I thought I had only said something that was commonly agreed upon nowadays. Obviously, I was mistaken, and Professor Dawson is a scholar for whom I have considerable respect. So there seemed to be cause for taking a new and close look at the matter. What are the descriptions in The Lord of the Rings really like?
I have tried to look into this, perhaps methodically hampered by the fact that I am a historian, not a literary scholar. My approach has been extremely simple. I have read through the entire main text of The Lord of the Rings slowly and taking detailed notes. I have used a wide definition of “description”: any words helping the reader to visualize the persons, objects, places and events in the text. (The Concise OED defines description as “a spoken or written account of a person, object, or event”). And yes, I do see the massive methodical objections, starting with the fact that very many nouns are in themselves descriptions. And no, I have not dealt with “style” as such, although of course the descriptions are an integral part of it. I have not tried to judge the descriptions aesthetically.
What should we expect?
But before we turn to the results of this close reading, let us ask what we should expect? What, if any, were Tolkien’s views on descriptions in (fantastic) literature?
Many who have asked this question have turned to On Fairy-stories, in which some of the ideas underlying the writing of The Lord of the Rings are presented. In Note E Tolkien discusses not descriptions as such, but illustrations to fairy-stories in his wide sense. But as his oft-quoted remarks pertain to the reader’s visualization and factors restricting it, they are relevant to us. He...