What does it take to be a Good Writer? What does it take to be a Great Writer? Would you rather be Best in Show or Alpha Wolf?
What exactly did Tolkien accomplish? Which are his skills as a writer? Which are his weaknesses? Why do many critics and literati say that he's not much of a writer?
How does The Hobbit compare to The Lord of the Rings? What are the best things about The Lord of the Rings, and which aspects of the storytelling and writing are weakest? How is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series stronger than The Lord of the Rings, and how is it weaker?
Champion Dogs: Crufts Quality vs. Wild Vitality
The commonest density among critics and literati is: they are blinkered by rules and fashions; they are reluctant to dive into any book they find (once it's been labeled UnGood), and unwilling to apply their whole heart and imagination to exploring it. So they don't discover what's actually there, but only what they already knew to look for.
A Good Book, to the blinkered and backward-looking critic, should perform like a showdog at Crufts. Is it purebred? Does it conform to its breed type? Is it trimmed, combed, polished and well-fed? Does it trot eagerly through its paces, impressing judges for agility, obedience, showing, handling, grooming and a couple of even more contrived events? This is what it takes to prove Crufts Quality. In the world of serious literature, low-brow, genre fiction and books for teenagers aren't even allowed in the main tent.
Consider J.R.R. Tolkien as he appeared to these critics in the '50s (although his reputation has grown enormously in the following decades). Tolkien's first success, The Hobbit, was written for children. His masterwork, Lord of the Rings, was more complex in every dimension: vocabulary, style, plot, characterization, length and resonance. But it was still about elves, dwarves, magic and a made-up land. At the time, fantasy was a low-brow genre for children and Oxford dons who had never finished growing up.
In language and style, Tolkien fell somewhere between the cozy English pastorals of twenty years' past, and the legends and romances of bygone centuries. To a critic of the '50s, Tolkien didn't look cutting edge, he looked out of date.
Sixty years later, we're not trapped in that critical tent. We measure the stature of Lord of the Rings by how it has survived and flourished in the wild. Picture a fierce, handsome wolf. He attracts fit bitches, and sires many litters upon them. These wolf pups spread through the forests, and their offspring thrive. Half a century later, the wilderness is full of wolves bearing features of Lord of the Rings. One book to rule them all . . .
Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies. This already shows that it fills a broad human interest - as did The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey (which I think are both poorly written books, flashes in the zeitgeist). Lord of the Rings also works on deeper levels, so that many fans reread this long trilogy several times. Going deeper still, it shaped the imagination of hundreds of writers, so that we see echoes of Tolkien (and reactions against him) in more than half the fantasy written today.
Good Books vs. Great Books
By Good I mean, approximately, the kind of books Crufts Critics admire, and award Nobel and Pulitzer prizes to. By Great I mean, bravely original books, which influence writers for decades to come, and which readers reread through the centuries.
How Tolkien is a Great Writer
Tolkien spun Myth, Epic, Chronicle and Novel into High Fantasy. He invented a loom large enough to weave magic, superheroes, history and realism into one immense, but coherent, tapestry. He captured sublime dreams bursting with color, and brought them close enough to run through our fingers. Middle Earth is close to eternity; those who plant their whole selves there, come home again with larger imaginations.
Great Writers before Tolkien caught glimmers of this, but none attempted it on such a scale, with so much detail filled in. Homer and Dante each painted cosmic tableaux, and also nailed instants of action that transport us to Troy or Hell. Tolkein stumbled across a hole in the ground, which led him to The Hobbit. Once he had gone there and back again, he grew into the voice that could carry us through Lord of the Rings. But Lord of the Rings is hardly his largest and best creation: that would be, Middle Earth.
Tolkien's Greatness is that he is the Master World Builder. He built a world huge, bright, real and beguiling enough that a few percent of earthlings followed him there. This world was so solid and compelling that it inspired hundreds of writers to spend decades of their lives attempting similar feats. Which also led to Dungeons & Dragons, all Role Playing Games, and millions of hours building and exploring worlds.
Writers imagined other lands, even complex worlds, before Tolkien. C.S. Lewis wrote 7 Narnia books, and L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books. They are all rich with vivid details and flights of imagination. On a larger scale, closer to home, Honoré de Balzac conceived of 137 works in his Comédie Humaine (he finished 2/3 of them), in which he examined France and Parisian society from several angles.
But when you look at the most ambitious world-builders before Tolkien, you see that they lacked his thorough system, and couldn't compete with the due diligence he applied in laying his foundations and background. Tolkien was born for this, for he was Übernerd. He drew maps (and ever since, most fantasy books have a map at the front). He worked out geography, plants and animals, economies, cultures, languages, millennia of history, myths, the creations of the races: thousands of pages of charts and notes before he started working on his story.
'I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration, and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of "history" for Elvish tongues.' - J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreward to Lord of the RingsTolkien didn't just take the road less traveled: he built a lab, synthesized several tons of dynamite, blasted a path straight through a mountain range, and laid down a highway there. We who followed him came out coated in sweat and the dust of Middle Earth. And many of us went back to quest again.
I am, for now, ignoring the conventional measurements of a writer, to examine Tolkien's brave original gifts. He had three faculties which enabled him to build Middle Earth and invent his High Fantasy narrative voice in Lord of the Rings. First, he was Übernerd. He toiled over his plans and theories of Middle Earth like Darwin, who spent decades ironing out every detail in his theory of evolution. Second, Tolkien had the phenomenally fertile imagination to come up with thousands of pages of charts and backstories (Surprisingly few of which were boring. At least to other nerds. Just ask Colbert). Third, Tolkien had studied and taught Old English, Celtic, Germanic, Finnish and Norse languages, literatures and legends. So, like Smaug, he was sitting on a vast treasure trove - of stories, phrases and themes, to armor and adorn his champion Middle Earth.
Writers had been borrowing from Greek and Roman mythology for ages, until all their best stories and characters were common currency to readers. Tolkien had always hankered after a proper English mythology. So he plundered every adjacent myth-stock, and stocked an imperial hoard of memes to furnish his creation. He studied Beowulf, discovering layers that other scholars had missed. He scoured the original Norse, Finnish, Germanic and Celtic sources, and gathered strong textures and sheaves of weird details, to make Middle Earth alien, yet coherent and familiar, at once. I don't know whether anyone has yet matched Tolkien's world-building prowess, but I doubt whether anyone else could have developed a broad array of world-building techniques as thorough and effective as Tolkien's. Even after Tolkien's books and papers showed his working methods, few of his followers managed to build a world as robust as Middle Earth.
How Tolkien is Not a Very Good Writer
In 1961, C.S. Lewis submitted Tolkien to be considered for the Nobel literature prize. A note from the committee, revealed much later, said that Tolkien's prose "has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality". How very Crufts.
That note completely misses the mark: Tolkien's storytelling is one of his notable strengths as a writer. He has an instinct for unwinding a tale, with symphonic variations in tone, surprising turns, and mysteries that emerge piece by piece (e.g. Aragorn). The Hobbit is his strongest book for shape and pacing. The storytelling crackles and flows, while occasional deep descriptions inform the world and characters, but never bring the story to a standstill. It is easy to read The Hobbit from end to end, always hungering for what lies over the next page. We sit comfortably inside Bilbo's point-of-view, and we grow more committed to our protagonist as he gradually becomes wiser, braver and better.
Half of this fresh, thrilling and intimate flow gets lost in Lord of the Rings. There is still a fine story there - but it's twenty times as complex and much more awkward, stuffed with sub-plots and back story. Tolkien is more involved in building buttresses and carving gargoyles for Middle Earth than he is in shaping a strong narrative flow for his Ring Quest and looming apocalypse.
Tolkien spends several pages giving an encyclopedic account of pipe-weed, which is irrelevant and brings his story to a halt. It only adds a smidgen of character, and it's boring. He has digressions like this packed through Lord of the Rings. Luckily many of them are interesting diversions, and others enrich the colors and solidity of Middle Earth. He loved jumping into the past, or standing in awe before an intricate tableau - but he frequently deflates all the momentum of his plot, and risks confusing or boring his readers.
Tolkien brought Middle Earth to life like no other world before, and few if any since. He showed a whole genre how it's done, and he had a visionary instinct for which aspects of his world would fascinate millions of nerds. Now that he's blazed that trail, his descendants find world-building much easier than Tolkien made it. Today's best writers of fantasy epics weave their world-building throughout their plot, so that we discover all we need to know, without getting bogged down in ten page descriptions. George R.R. Martin may yet succeed in crafting a world with as much color as Middle Earth, and far less clunkiness.
Tolkien's biggest flaw as a writer is the awkward flow of his plot, especially his pacing. Then again, he got millions of teenagers to slog through hundreds of grim pages of Mordor. Lord of the Rings asks more of its readers than suspension of disbelief - it asks us to adore Middle Earth as Tolkien did. We must be willing to dive into this strange world, and soak it up even when almost nothing is happening. If you aren't, Lord of the Rings probably isn't for you.
It's hard to get the measure of a new kind of book. Tolkien is as foundational to Fantasy as Austen is to Romance, or Conan Doyle is to Mystery. Austen has magnificent style, and a startlingly modern voice. Tolkien has a stranger style, with rarer ingredients. When Tolkien feels awkward, it can be hard to tell whether he's being clumsy, or merely weird. But the pacing of Lord of the Rings is jarringly clumsy. A couple hundred million readers enjoyed Lord of the Rings - but just as many tried it and gave up, when they found it slow and boring. Even readers who love other fantasy series often find Lord of the Rings dry and rambling.
Beyond the clumsy pacing, I see three other flaws in Lord of the Rings - but these may be in the grain of the oak Tolkien was carving: roughnesses that were integral to his design. My best guess is, these are roughnesses that Tolkien never had a chance to plane away, as he was more interested in exploring all the grit and depth of the world he was building. He might have achieved a complete Middle Earth and a better shaped narrative in Lord of the Rings - but only by taking the time to completely rewrite his trilogy. Here are the other flaws I see: are they accurate criticisms of Tolkien's writing in Lord of the Rings, do you think?
1) Tolkien's world and characters fall mostly into a simple Good/Evil scheme, with little exploration of all the shades of humanity in between, or of the interiors of the major characters. His characters aren't supposed to breathe and flex, they're there to serve the plot; which is a vehicle to display his main creation, Middle Earth.
2) There is too much dry chronicle. The best of Tolkien's descendants keep us in the thick of the action, where we get just as much story, from a more dramatic viewpoint. Also, later authors give us more sex, drugs, violence and savagery than Tolkien did.
3) Tolkien had a sentimental, self-indulgent side. He waxes poetic, he has way too many long songs, and his descriptions of nature can get very purple and cliched.
Each of these flaws made Tolkien a less perfect and well-rounded writer than he might have been. There are a few hundred twentieth century writers who reliably wrote more shapely, flowing, lively prose than Tolkien. On the other hand, his flaws made him much more Tolkienesque, which is where his originality and rich imagination dwelled. Tolkien is not very good as a mainstream twentieth century writer, but he is a genius at being J.R.R. Tolkien. I suspect that if he had written half a dozen successful books before embarking on The Hobbit, then he would have crafted a better polished but less original Middle Earth.
What Makes a Book Great? I've shown my opinion: Originality and Influence, on readers and on other writers; also, books that live forever. The writers who impress me most are those who change the course of literature (e.g. Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Austen, Flaubert . . .). They are not the same as my favorite writers. What do you think makes a book Great?
What Makes a Book Good? I'll spend the rest of my life pondering this question, and elaborating my answer into a system of analysis. For me, it includes at least some of: Storytelling, Plot, Characterization, Dialog, Description, Voice, Style . . . but even with a list of fifty elements, a Good Book might do just ten of them superbly, and still keep the reader's interest. What do you think makes a book Good?
What must a writer cover to build a convincing World? This World-Building is a weird enterprise, but it is close to what all the best novels do, whether Tolstoy is painting Moscow, Joyce Dublin, Woolf London, or Kafka his oppressive paranoid mindscape. Lawrence is adept with flowers, Twain with slang, and Dickens with walk-on characters. There are thousands of elements a writer might focus on to show the depth and solidity of their world: which ones enchant you the most? From your favorite fictional world, which parts do you remember most vividly?
Is J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin better at crafting an Epic Fantasy adventure? Which one builds a more immersive and comprehensive world? If you look back at the four weaknesses I pointed to in Tolkien, you'll see that Martin has pushed the other way in each of these areas. But we can't rate his plot until he's finished it, and even then he may end up with a less dense and deeply defined world than Tolkien. I expect it will be a matter of taste in the end, whether a given reader prefers the noble romance of Tolkien or the gritty mindgames of Martin.
Which is your favorite Fantasy world of all? Which series do you still reread, or which most transported you and stretched your imagination when you were a child? I've listed fifteen more epic worlds in the poll. But even after discarding all the SF worlds, I then had to lose almost all the Young Adult series, and a dozen others. Miéville, Moorcock, Peake, Pullman and Wolfe each invented colors no other writer found - but I could not fit them in the poll. If I left out your favorite epic author, please mention them in a comment below, and tell us what makes their world so rare and memorable.
Sun Apr 06, 2014 at 1:28 AM PT: I'm putting this here for posterity, even though most readers of this diary have already been and gone.
I followed my own tags, and found two previous Daily Kos diaries on Lord of the Rings. I'm including their links here, so that anyone who's curious for different views and other comments on Lord of the Rings, may easily find them.
On June 10th, 2011, crose wrote: Books That Changed My Life: Tolkien's Great Work
On April 9th, 2012, MichiganChet wrote: My Favorite Authors: JRR Tolkien, the Lord of Fantasy and Imagination