Musings on Language and Style in Literature

Cormac McCarthy

J.R.R. Tolkien


The two literary styles represented above could hardly be more different – one is the sparse, terse and brutal prose that brings to mind Hemingway – the other is the lush, majestic and illuminating mythologizing of a both master scholar and a master linguist. But I’m hard pressed to come to a conclusion of which is more powerful.

I don’t think there really is a better-or-worse to be found here, to be honest. The styles are so different that comparisons are almost impossible. But what they have in common is absolute precision – neither man wastes a single syllable. Every word and letter is precisely where it’s supposed to be, and it’s obvious that both McCarthy and Tolkien are true masters of their craft. For example:

‘Gods voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay his presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair.
-Cormac McCarthy (The Crossing)

“Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashipn the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien,(The Silmarillion)

You really couldn’t get much much more different styles of writing – but each is powerful in its own way and the subject matter of each is more or less the same. McCarthy uses long sentences and simple wording to convey a very plain, but very sublime sense of the power and majesty of God. This is the similar to the picture of God in the Old Testament – the God you meet in the wilderness and fall down in terror of. Tolkien uses the same longer sentence but very elegant wording to convey a much more grand, cosmic picture of the Divine – this resembles the New Testament picture of Jesus Christ as that through whom the universe is created. Both men have as their subject the Divine – but both use language to convey two completely different pictures.


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