Some more sundry thoughts on Tolkien

Hi everyone,

So I’ve spend the better part of the last hour writing a heartfelt response on Facebook to a challenging question: “what do you most love about The Lord of the Rings?”

As I mentioned on the original thread, this is a big and serious question for me as a person looking at my shelf of Tolkien books and the dissertation I didn’t write, on the day I send away the one I did write.

Lately, I’m conscious of how many words I burn into the ether, especially on Facebook. Maybe it’s because I’m getting 90 minutes of sleep or less most nights now, but I feel old. Typing hurts and words come out slowly–but with only two months left of guaranteed employment, I’m really conscious that my creativity is going to have to be milked for all it’s worth if I’m going to survive. To that end, I’ve been mindful of how many words I throw away into the either. On an average day I can barely top 1,500 words right now–and if I waste them all on Internet arguments, that’s all I get. So I’m under a new personal commitment to write the most worthwhile stuff I can, and then to make the best possible use of what I’ve written.

So I chose, in answering this question, something I think was really worthwhile. I won’t go into the private specifics of others, but this was worth spending 2/3 of my daily writing stamina on, even just for the original asker.

But there are some thoughts here that I haven’t really crystallized before; and having done the work of writing worthy things, I should make the best use of them possible–and it seems to me the best use of semi-circulated writing–writing that is not personal and private, but not really public either–is to put it out in a half-formed blog and at least keep providing something worth reading to the people kind and interested enough to keep following my blog.

So I’ll go straight from here into…


Ha ha, I got you. Not yet. We’ll start with what’s GREATEST about him first–and remember, those are two totally different things.

What is *greatest* about the Lord of the Rings is that it changed the entire way people write about fantasy literature. When you open virtually any fantasy novel now, from “A Game of Thrones” right down to “Conan Fights The Leather Bikini Tribes,” the first thing you find inside the title page is a map. That’s not just a change to how the book is put together; that’s a change to the whole way people think about how these stories must be written and told. 

What Tolkien did for us, which no one has ever done better, is raised the bar for having a whole world, a whole cosmology, layer upon layer of story. We don’t need to KNOW all the hundred backstories of how the Elves migrated, or understand how their language changed as a result, to intuitively feel the realness of a world where every single word (and it is prose, after all) echoes the mythology of the world. We don’t need to know WHY Galadriel’s gift to Gimli of three strands of hair is a bigger and more significant gesture than any of the “magic toys” she gives the rest of the Fellowship (if you’re curious, though,read on). All we need to know we get from Legolas’s reaction. He understands that more than we know has happened. In his mind is the whole history of his people. 

Legolas smiles because he knows that Fëanor, the great craftsman of the First Age, asked for three strands of her perfect hair to make the Silmarils, and that she refused him because he only wanted them for vanity and power, and that the imperfection introduced going ahead with second-rate materials probably fed into the cursed greed of the Silmarils. It’s probably why the Dwarves of Nogrod killed the elf-king Thingol in a dispute over a Silmaril, thus setting in motion the hatred that’s existed for thousands of years before elves and dwarves. When Galadriel gives Gimli three hairs, which he wants just because her hair *is* the most beautiful thing ever, he probably doesn’t know any of this. He wants them because he’s got a little dwarf-crush. But Legolas understands that by giving this gift to a hated dwarf, the thing she would not give to the greatest Elf who ever lived, Galadriel is in part making amends for the divide that has come between their people. Gimli is called Elf-Friend ever after, and we never really learn why–except that Legolas is his best pal after that. 

In the movies and even in the LotR book itself, these things are glossed over. Gimli gets some hair and it’s cute and funny. Legolas gets a kickass +3 bow–way better loot, we D&D players think. But Tolkien always knows where everything comes from, and why.

This is something that happens in other fiction now. George R. R. Martin does a good job of it. Many writers beat Tolkien at his own game when it comes to things like feudal economies and the material reality of the worlds: he wasn’t an economist, and he didn’t have the luxury of the Internet or tons of free time to do research. But they are all doing this work because of him: if a warrior has a magic sword, we want to know what it’s called and whence it comes. Who made it, and how did it pass from there to here? When we invent unpronounceable names for our fantasy characters, what do they really mean and where do they come from? We might not need to know all the answers to these facts—but we need to know that there ARE answers to those questions.
I think of Tolkien often when I run games, especially very large ones. Players hate to feel like a game is running on rails and they aren’t actually free to do anything they want. But if you haven’t done your Tolkien homework, that’s all you can give them. I’ve often run scenes where I’ve invented characters on the fly—a hungry vampire overfeeds on a random passerby—and then, when I sit down at the ST meeting that night, I say, “First things first: I invented one person tonight who now has to be real.” It doesn’t matter if he’s alive or dead. If he’s dead, it matters more, because now there are an indeterminate number of people in that direction whose lives have been horribly changed.
The world has to keep going in all directions. Everyone has to be someone; everything has to come from somewhere, and all these things have to agree with one another. All Tolkien had to do was do it once—now everyone has to follow those footsteps. That’s an enormous contribution to the richness of fantasy, to the kind of things we can do in fantasy. It turns fantasy into a serious place that can handle serious questions and thought. 

The Wonderland of Alice, by comparison, is nonsense and just doesn’t hold up the same way—but it’s a good example. Have you seen the Disney animated Alice in Wonderland? It’s the last version of the story that came out before the Lord of the Rings (1951 to Tolkien’s 1954-55); and it’s also the last version of the story that can content itself with Alice wandering from random place to place. When people tell that story now, they are forced to make sense of it, which is kind of against the spirit of the original. People now have to write a whole story arc into why Alice is there and what she’s doing—whether she’s a chosen one destined to overthrow the Wicked Queen, as in the Tim Burton movie, or whether her story centers around a dumb generic love-story, as in the new Once Upon A Time in Wonderland. There has to be a reason. We suddenly have to care about the Mad Hatter. Who is he? How did he become mad? These are utterly nonsensical questions to ask of a nonsense book; but it’s Tolkien’s influence that makes us try to ask them. We demand more sense of fantasy now; we treat fantasy with equal seriousness as literature, in part because of him; and that means we finally reap the better rewards of that, in all fantasy but especially in his.



As always, though, what is GREATEST about Tolkien is only the background to what I LIKE best; I think that’s the same for most people. I’m a medievalist, a geek, a philologist, and a scholar; I get the references better than most people and I know a lot about what his big three action superstars—Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli—are up to and why. I don’t think many people who read these books, even the ones who call themselves hardcore fans, really do all the exacting, un-fun (to most people) work of sorting out Gimli’s family tree or counting the kings from Ecthelion to Aragorn II, because really, this stuff doesn’t matter in the slightest. Anything that goes over the hobbits’ heads, it’s all right if it goes over ours too.

It’s really remarkable that Tolkien has built a world that checks out in almost every way just so that people can ignore most of that work, but that’s what he’s done. Our heroes are hobbits—real people, not these big distant he-men swinging swords and pledging vows. Everyone takes Tolkien to task for writing only manly guys doing manly things—but I think the whole point is to put a story with heart against the backdrop of all that tough-guy stuff. So you have teenage boys who go to see The Two Towers to watch Orcs get stabbed and wizards fighting monsters and all that—but you have fans, and a surprisingly gender-diverse fanbase, who are mostly into the basic human decency of Hobbits. The stories, to me, are about being human even when the whole world expects people to be knights.

I’m curious as to how it bears out for women who read it, because for me it is still pretty man-centered, just not in the way people think. I don’t think Aragorn is meant to be the ideal masculine hero. I think Sam is. I think one of the most powerful messages of those books are that there are ways, even in a troubled world, that men can be heroes—but it’s almost never in the ways that we expect. Performing acts of war as hero-deeds isn’t really what the book is about, or what being a great man is about. That’s just what the Ring wants us to think.




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