Elves may thrive on speech alone, and Dwarves endure great weariness; but I am only an old hobbit, and I miss my meal at noon.   ~ Bilbo at the Council of Elrond (LotR Book II, ch. 2)

Getting adults to sit still and pay attention through a long speeches is hard enough.  Getting children and hobbits to do so is still harder.  Yet this is what Tolkien sets himself to throughout the magnanimously long Council of Elrond, wryly and wittily acknowledging the difficulty of the task by having Bilbo remark twice about his eagerness for dinner.  But the fact is that Bilbo’s dinner must wait.  The material that Tolkien has to get across to the Hobbits and the readers is largely epic in content, and crucial to orienting the rest of the Tale.  And yet its setting is a romance, and the style of telling that Tolkien has already adopted—with its verisimilitude and prosaic portrayal of the common and mundane—is that of a novel.  How is epic content to be poured into novelesque prose, and how is the reader to be coaxed along?

Tolkien comes to grips with his difficulty by carefully distributing the epic material he wants to relate to a kaleidoscope of speakers.  Gimli is the first to relate a recent adventure occurring among his own people, and this is followed by a historical narrative through the mouth of Elrond.  This narrative is interrupted by an exchange between Boromir and Aragorn; continued by Bilbo and Frodo; continued again by Gandalf (not without more interruptions), and concluded with the pressing question of what to do. By presenting the Tale of the Ring in this fashion, Tolkien both limits the knowledge of each speaker (with the notable exception of Gandalf and Elrond), and ensures that the history and condition of Middle Earth are delivered to the reader piecemeal.  Since no single speaker tells the full story, both Frodo and the reader must construct their situation like a jumbo jigsaw puzzle, with each piece falling duly into place.

While this peculiar process of discovery in itself is sufficient to keep the mind of the first-time reader from wandering to his dinner, it also plays another and equally important role.  It novelizes the epic material to be related.  We learn of cosmic doings in Middle Earth not through the eyes of the Omniscient Narrator, but through the eyes of very particular persons with very particular limitations and—if I may go so far—very particular quirks in narration.  Elrond, Aragorn, and Gandalf do not favor identical styles of speech-giving.  Though each attains moments of high eloquence, the character of each reveals itself in divergent modes of expression:  Aragorn’s with a stride like a stallion under the reign, Gandalf’s with that peppering of humor so peculiar to the wizard.  The characterization in the prose speeches trains the epic material to the genre of the novel; and the strangeness of the unfolding tale, heard through the non-omniscient ears of Frodo, preserves the otherworldly feel of the romance.

It would be an injustice to pass over the Council of Elrond without a token of attention to the particular speeches.  The glory of the Council is its rhetoric.  This week I will be dusting off the books, well marked and dog-eared, that I still have from the course on medieval rhetoric and poetics last year.  There are names for the sorts of things Tolkien is up to in the speeches, but I have to go back to the old rhetoric manuals to remember what they are.

Advertisements