In literary circles, Tolkien’s works oftentimes cannot catch a break. It’s been this way for a number of years. We learned a few months ago that Tolkien lost out on a chance for the Nobel Prize in Literature because his writing did “not in any way [measure] up to storytelling of the highest quality.”
Charges like this pop up all over. I’ve heard that his stories are simplistic because of their reliance on a black and white, “good versus evil” narrative structure. I’ve heard that Tolkien defied the modernist and post-modernist trends of the time and relied on a “traditional” narrative structure that was, by then, outdated. At the same time, I’ve heard that Tolkien’s writing showed no knowledge of ‘proper narrative structure’ because of his ‘meandering’ expositional reliance.
In other words, I’ve seen him critiqued for being both too traditional and for failing to follow standard narrative writing patterns. These contradictions are what we find when a literary establishment deals with an original.
It’s hard to talk about Tolkien as an original because so much has been written about the source materials that inspired him and so much has been said about the genre that his work gave birth to (and the numerous unoriginal narratives that are derivative of Lord of the Rings), but when I look at Tolkien’s signature work, there are five aspects of his writing that I find to be complex, experimental and worthy of serious literary attention and study.
Five Aspects of Tolkien’s Writing that Make Him an Original, Experimental Author of Literary Prose
What always gets me about accusations of Tolkien as a writer who defied the modern/postmodern styles of the last century and cleaved to archaic, straightforward forms of storytelling is the glaring fact that his narrative was. not. linear.
Many people rightfully laud George R. R. Martin’s works for the character POV chapter structure, which allows for a decidedly postmodern effect. There is no simple, straightforward line of narrative action–there are multiple character’s sides of the same history. But Tolkien did this well before him. We may forget it because the filmed versions of The Two Towers and The Return of the King intercut Frodo/Sam’s story with the story of the other characters, but the books did not give us this instant gratification.
Tolkien told us the events from one perspective and then halfway through switched perspectives, rewound the clock, and retold the same time frame. For a reader this could be, at times, incredibly jarring and aggravating–as it should have been. The effect was one of isolation. Tolkien did not allow us to feel–as movie directors do–that the characters are always with us. When Aragorn and company were isolated from Frodo and Sam, we were too (and vice versa). This is the definition of postmodern structuralism–where the way you organize your story has meaning all on its own.
2. Obliterating Formula
If Tolkien was a traditional storyteller with a linear plot where good sets out an quest, defeats evil and saves the day then the moviemakers would have had little trouble translating that to film. But look at what they cut out and you’ll learn a lot.
Take the ending of Return of the King, which critics and non-reader audience members alike critiqued for being overlong and indulgent. As readers know, it was not nearly as long as the book version.
My edition of the book is 1,031 pages. The theatrical release of the trilogy totals to 557 minutes. That translates to about half a minute per page. In the film, there are twenty-two minutes between Frodo’s rescue and the ending. The book has 80 pages that follow after Frodo’s rescue. So if the movie was translated evenly, we would expect that the ending would be 40 minutes on screen. We got half of that–and even then it was critiqued for being overlong.
What does that tell you? That Hollywood, a bastion of formulaic storytelling, could not deal with Tolkien’s unwillingness to follow traditional narrative formula.
The idea that Tolkien followed simplistic, linear patterns of epic storytelling should never be treated seriously.
3. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Exposition
New writers are all told the same thing: exposition is bad, bad, bad. Stories need momentum if they are to be published. Cut out as much unnecessary talk and description as possible and stick to the narrative action of your story. Tolkien clearly couldn’t care less about advice like that.
He stops the narrative dead at numerous moments (particularly in Fellowship) to let the characters talk, talk, talk and talk some more. About the history of Middle Earth, about events that Tolkien refused to show us in real time, about possible courses of action.
He gets critiqued for this all the time, and yet, aren’t those who critique him demanding formula when they make such criticisms? Aren’t they asking that he just tell the story and stick to action, action, action?
But the exposition works because, again, it brings us close to the characters. We are the hobbits, who do not know much of the larger world, and we need Gandalf to tell us. When we lose Gandalf, the explainer, it’s like losing the narrator and being left alone in the cold, dark world without knowledge. It remains that way for Frodo and Sam until they are rescued and meet up with Gandalf again.
The exposition moments that dominate the first half of Fellowship, in other words, work. They show us, yet again, that Tolkien was willing to ignore what others wanted in order to do right by his own vision.
4. Where is the Big Bad?
We know all about those stories that tell us about the overly simple notion of a good vs. evil, black vs. white world. Those stories have a great hero and a big baddie who dominates his time on the page and screen. Think of Darth Vader. Think of Voldemort. The big bad has presence. That’s how we draw the lines in these stories. Except that Sauron has no presence, and in the books, he may or may not be a real, giant eye (as the films depict) or a metaphorical eye.
Is Sauron a big menacing villain a la Vader (or the Emperor) or Voldemort? Not at all. This villain is not some sneering general who chews scenery and beheads servants for failing even in the smallest tasks. The villain in this is a presence (or an absence) that’s felt by the heroes, and manifested in how it effects the ring bearers and those tempted by the ring.
Sure there’s Saruman and orcs and Shelob and Wormtongue, but you don’t see many big epic fantasy stories these days who are willing to go without an evil focal point. The absence of Sauron, more than anything, makes the definition of evil in LotR more of a psychological threat and an inner turmoil than anything–something that few critics realize or care to think about when offering simple arguments about good vs. evil stories being too childish.
5. Come to Think of It…Who is the Hero?
Just as simple good vs. evil stories need a clear central villain, they also need a clear central hero. And that’s Frodo, right? But is he the hero? Is The Lord of the Rings really his story? Isn’t it, maybe, all about the Return of the King to Middle Earth? Or, maybe, since it ends with Samwise Gamgee returning home and declaring “I’m back,” he’s the real hero of the story. The new Bilbo who goes there and back again, returning a new man (or hobbit). Tolkien did refer to Sam as the “chief hero” and the “new Bilbo” of The Lord of the Rings (see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).
The answer is all three. And this is another way where Tolkien proves himself an original–and more postmodern than we think. A lot of people like to claim that they know exactly what type of story Tolkien was telling. They say that Lord of the Rings is an epic a la Beowulf. Or one like the Norse sagas. Or an Arthurian tale. I see too many article writers claiming to know the one and only type of narrative that LotR was modeled on.
The truth is that Tolkien was basically a kind of fantasy Tarantino. LotR is a pastiche of all the different types of storytelling that Tolkien loved, and just as Tarantino can take samurai revenge flicks, Sergio Leone movies, Exploitation movies etc. and somehow make them all work as one cohesive narrative, Tolkien took multiple types of mythic, legendary, fairy tale, and otherwise fantasy-esque sources and made them all work together.
That’s why, to me, there are three types of hero tales stitched together. Aragorn’s story is that of the epic hero, the one whose actions largely help us interpret his character and who quests for his home in a large scale, warlike manner–an Odysseus or Aeneas. Frodo, more than anything, is the religious figure of a saint’s tale, whose journey is a kind of pilgrimage. It’s a journey that will test him, maybe even wound him, but will ultimately lead him through the psychological torments and tests and see him transformed into something higher than human. By the Scouring of the Shire, he practically becomes a hobbit version of Gandalf–one of the Wise (Saruman basically notes this). He could also be considered more of a ‘novel hero’ whose transformations are more psychological than exterior.
Sam, however, is the folk hero. The fairy tale fool who gets thrown into things and eventually surprises himself, finding courage and resolve that he never thought would be in him. He returns home entirely different from what he began as. He returns a hero, an adult, ready to get married and live his life with the maturity gained on a journey from innocence to experience.
Gandalf somehow manages to morph into whatever these three types of heroes need him to be. For Sam, he is the wise old man (or crazy old witch/godmother etc.) who starts him on his journey–the role he played for Bilbo. For Aragorn, he is the aged counselor who will see him to his destiny (the Nestor, the Merlin, and so on). For Frodo, he is the patriarch, the saint who has made it and can counsel him. The one who understands what pain he will endure and can only help him to endure it.
Studying heroism in LotR is complex, intriguing and enriching. It is not a simple task of identifying the good guys by good deeds and seeing that, yes, they are good. It requires serious literary study, awareness of multiple genres from the past, and a keen eye for development.
Yes, The Lord of the Rings is a brilliantly fun story to read. It’s compelling and engaging. But formulaic, traditional and simplistic are not words I’d ever use to describe it. Tolkien was an original, and studying an original requires unique thinking–the same old broadsides do not apply.
This is a post in a series I’m working on where I aim to explain what makes some standout works of genre fiction far more intelligent and artistic than they are typically given credit for. See my columns on Star Wars, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games and Community.
What are some of the criticisms of Tolkien that irk you most?