Masters of Storytelling: J.R.R. Tolkien

Oh, yes. I am.

I am posting an entry about the grandfather of fantasy himself: J.R.R. Tolkien!

Flying too close to the sun, you say? Eh, I prefer to think of it as digging deep, reaching the roots of a great and mighty tree. Did you know, depending on the species, even bears feed on roots? 😉

23913_the_lord_of_the_rings

I’ve commented before about world-building and history and culture, all created as a backdrop for a novel or series of novels. Tolkien was one of the first, if not the first, to really do this, and do it well. He crafted an entire mythology, a pantheon of gods and goddesses, several eons of history, races, nations, and pseudo-languages. (sorry, fans, elvish is not a real language, only an imitation… a very good and enjoyable imitation, but still, an imitation… and now I start hiding from angry fans with pitchforks)

In short, Tolkien did what no one else had done before: he crafted an entire world around a single story. And we felt it. Others created stories which had fantastical elements, and they were cute, or hilarious, or terrifying, but Tolkien created a “real” world, giving his fantasy epic some firm ground to stand on. His work revolutionized things and has inspired countless people for nearly a century now. There is no one who knows fantasy and does not know his name.

Quite a worthy legacy, I must say.

So there’s plenty of things he does right. But, of course, as with all inventors and their prototypes, there are things which remained to improve upon (Thomas Edison would love to see today’s light bulbs), and we’ve been improving our fantasy stories and our storytelling ever since. Much as Tolkien himself improved on what came before.

One particular example of this:

Tolkien wrote very poetically, lyrically, and his mastery of linguistics is impressive. However, while parts of it are enchanting, reading the whole thing is like slogging through the mire. The best things I’ve read are like slipping down a slide: once you start, you just can’t stop, and it’s so much fun that you don’t want to stop. There was an element of this in The Hobbit (I love when he writes something to the effect of “This was Bilbo’s way of not revealing his identity to a dragon, which is very wise, without giving him an outright refusal, which is also very wise.”), but this was sadly lacking through most of The Lord of the Rings.

It had its moments, such as when Treebeard comments to the hobbits, after a visit from Gandalf, something like, “And I thought you were hasty…” Or when Gimli and Faramir had a discussion on the beauty of Galadriel, and Faramir, before Gimli could fetch his axe to cut off Faramir’s head for disagreeing, emphasizes that it’s only because he has seen Eowyn, and Gimli is like, “Eh, I suppose I can overlook it then.” (I laughed so hard at that!) The story Tolkien crafted drew me in to read the whole trilogy, but, again, it was a slog, not a fun ride.

Granted, this was when I was in the fifth grade, so maybe I need to reread it (I likely will, someday!) to refresh my perspective. But as this was intended for kids to read, and I was the bookworm in my class, the point still stands.

I’ve wondered about that sort of thing for awhile now. What makes an author’s writing style more or less fluid not? Yes, you create an epic story, but one must also present it in such a way that it entices and entrances the reader, the audience. That can change with time, though, a dramatic example being Homer or Shakespeare, whose works need a bit of translation (sometimes literally) for the modern audience to comprehend. This, then, explains the true success of film, in my view, not because they’re moving pictures with sound and music and such, but because they can be used to tell stories so fluidly, without the risk of bogging a reader down in lyrical narration (not to mention they can tell the story to many, many people simultaneously).

With this in mind, it’s small wonder the filmed versions of Tolkien’s work are so appealing and well-done, as they have the benefits of all of Tolkien’s world-building without the burden of his writing style. Not that they have everything (the examples of humor I cited above are not in the films), but they have a great deal to offer the audience. And not that there is nothing worthy to be found in the books, or even in other depictions of the material (though the singing orcs in the animated Return of the King were just a terrible idea). I would never want to insult Tolkien’s work. He is the Master who has inspired all the Masters since, after all.

But this is what I consider the prime example of improving on a previous generation’s work. We take the good (the story) and improve on it, addressing the imperfections, taking our stories to ever greater and greater heights. And it never happens without that first person, who takes that momentous first step, which can become an entire path for those who follow.

Tolkien set the foundation, and we’ve been improving things ever since.

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