Worldbuilding: how writers can be iconic like Tolkien

Most authors dream of following on from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – writing a novel that becomes not just wildly popular, but an iconic pillar of western literature.

Why was The Lord Of The Rings so iconic ? Tolkien himself had no such ambitions. He had to be prodded to finish and publish the book. For him the pleasure came from the creation – not the publishing, and certainly not the fame.

The Lord Of The Rings was released in three books during the mid-1950s. It sold OK. But then, in the mid-1960s, it was published in the US – at first illegally, then in an authorised and revised edition. Instantly it took off. I think there were several reasons:

1. Tolkien accidentally keyed into the counter-culture.
The mid-1960s was the age of the counter-culture, who consciously rejected the industrialised, mechanised values of their parents in favour of romanticised fantasies about pre-industrial life. Tolkien’s Hobbits – with their rustic, rural settings – keyed directly into hippie fantasy imagery of a perfect, de-industrialised world. So did his immortal, moonlit elves.

The link was clear enough at the time; Beard and Kenney, authors of the brilliant 1969 LOTR parody Bored Of The Rings, skewered the whole accidental LOTR/drop-out culture connection with their send-up of Tom Bombadil. Well, Tim Benzedrine and his wife Hashberry.

The actual origins of these themes and icons in Tolkien’s work was significantly deeper; he was harking back to earlier ‘counter-culture’ ideas of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, including the ‘Merrie England’ fantasies of pre-industrial Britain.

2. Tolkien deliberately keyed into our culture at many levels
The links between Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth and western thinking ran far deeper than just hippie dropout culture.  Tolkien had quite consciously written a mythology for Britain – a land which, he felt, lacked it. His broader themes and ideas struck chords with a much wider slab of the populace than the drop-out movement. As I have outlined elsewhere, he drew from his own experiences in England and on the Western Front to lend colour, depth and emotion to his writing. These ideas were shared by a very large part of his generation.

3. Success begats success
Once the momentum of sales began – driven by the way the book keyed into our society at so many levels – it kept going. Tolkien became iconic. The result was a marketers dream; a word-of-mouth spread through western culture that transcended any paid advertising.

And all of it – certainly the level to which the book and mythos became such an integral part of western culture – was unplanned and accidental.

The question for novel writers today is whether this feat can be repeated?

I suspect that anybody who deliberately tried – who engineered a book to key into what they suppose society triggers from today – would end up with something obviously contrived. What do you reckon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Postscriptum: I’ve been away on a writing break the last 9 days – had some surprising results (including some wonderful discussions with other writers and people about books). I have some posts to follow – my adventures and some thoughts on the writing processes involved. Plus all the usuals – worldbuilding, grammar and writing tips – and some surprises.

15 comments on “Worldbuilding: how writers can be iconic like Tolkien

  1. Bev Robitai says:

    I think we see a lot of carefully contrived stories in our present culture, but not books so much as movies. How many Hollywood blockbusters have you seen that have all the right ingredients – big stars, clever lines, action, car chases, special effects – but they lack any heart. The writers have been ticking boxes to suit an audience but have lost sight of how to tell a compelling story. Then they compound the problem by putting ALL the bits they did get right into the trailer so the viewer is left even more disappointed by the whole film!

  2. I’d add Dan Brown’s tales to the ‘contrived’ – books that to me come across as deliberately written to movie structure and pacing. Tolkien, of course, never concieved of a film when he wrote – and all kudos to Jackson, Walsh and Boyens for being able to translate that story into a very effective three-part movie, without losing any of Tolkien’s spirit.

  3. Tolkien’s stories did not become “iconic” while he was alive, his success with The Hobbit was good enough that he wrote Lord of the Rings, but that didn’t become truly influential until (in my opinion) TSR used it to create their gaming system Dungeons and Dragons. His books were not really popular – fantasy was not popular in adult genres – until after that happened, and after his death. His success in life came largely as a literary critic and an advocate of religion (which was rapidly dying in Europe).

    Tolkien’s works did not become iconic because he made the right connections or his publisher did. He never tried to sell his books to college students in the United States, in fact, the irony is his own students, Oxford students in the UK did not read his books.

    Trying to become an icon is like trying to predict fashion. I think the key for writers is remaining true to your vision, getting a support group and simply writing as long as humanly possible. I think the Inklings deserve as much credit for being the support group that allowed Tolkien to develop his world in an environment rich with nurturing and feedback. Out of that group Lewis had Narnia, Tolkien had Middle Earth. Both became standards of fantasy – but had they not had the support of their writing group (and it was a group) those manuscripts might have stayed in the closet. I think that writers need to find a support group that nurtures their writing, and stick to it. What becomes iconic is up to the fickle hand of fate.

    • Yes, Tolkien was in his 60’s when the book was published and it sold only modestly in the 1950s. Here are the print runs up to 1966:

      http://www.tolkienbooks.net/php/lotr-print-runs.php

      But it definitely took off after that in the mid-late 1960s with the second (revised) edition competing in the US with the unauthorised Ace reprinting of the first edition – something also lampooned in Bored Of The Rings.

      I am not sure about the D&D connection. I know the game well because I used to play it, way back when, with my fellow Tolkien enthusiasts… We didn’t see much resemblance and I believe Gary Gygax insisted that Tolkien had little influence on his D&D rules. Nonetheless, I also gather that TSR were sued by the Tolkien estate for following LOTR too closely in certain respects.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts – and absolutely, there’s no question that the Inklings supported each other and made their respective stories better for it – just as all writers should!

  4. ljclayton says:

    Glad you’re back. Am I right in thinking you’ve won a blogging award? Congrats. Deserved.

  5. What? The English have no mythology of their own? Granted that England in so many ways is a melting pot of culture — Gaels, Goidels, Picts, Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, etc. (probably more than that!) — all of them contributed something. What about the Mabinogion? One could argue that’s Welsh and not “mainstream,” I suppose one could say. But my real question would be to ask, isn’t the legend of King Arthur most truly the mythology of England? Ben Caxton printed Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur right after he finished the first Bible printed in England — the year of publication, I think, was 1452. Gibbon, at the conclusion of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, mentions Arthur. I think that Shakespeare may have alluded to Arthur as in some respects a diety, see, eg, King Henry the V, Scene III: “Nay, sure, he’s not in hell; he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.” “He” being Sir John Falstaff.

    As for the creation of an icon, we’ve seen that recently with Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The question for me is, what might that series have been if it hadn’t exploded in popularity after the first three novels were written? Marketing forces started to drive Rowling’s writing after that.

    Not too many people nowadays remember the enormous (if temporary) popularity of Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. What’s up with a story like that, anyway? A seagull that wants to fly a different way? Why should that be a popular idea? But note that it came out in the early 1970s, on the heels of the “counterculture” revolution.

    I think we could probably sit down and isolate the elements of all these disparate stories and see what they have in common, pretty much along the lines of what you’ve written above. We could learn a lot about writing and even popular psychology from that; Robert Graves referred to this process as building up a fund of “bardic lore” upon which to draw. But although we would improve and enrich our story-telling thereby, I think the explosion of popularity is more a matter of that mysterious element called “timing.”

    I also think any effort to write to a formula results in stories that deserve the negative epithet “formulaic.”

    Good post!

    • Thank you – you’re right, of course; Britain has a fantastic mythology. However, Tolkien’s take, I believe, was that this stuff was essentially ‘historical’ in generation and Britain did not have an epic, pre-cultural mythology to compare with Scandinavia or Germany. The on-flowing idea from this, of course, is that maybe we make our own mythologies as we go – something I’m suddenly inspired to blog about…a little later! Thanks again.

      Oh – postscript. Have you ever read Weinstein and Albrecht’s ‘Jonathan Segal Chicken’? The inevitable send-up of Bach’s book.

  6. jakeescholl says:

    I think what writers need to be careful about is coming off as Preachy. The beautiful think about Tolkien’s writing is that he never went on and on and on about his personal convictions. He used the story to get his message out there, rather than having the characters prattle on and on. And that’s what all writers are to strive for. When I write, the first draft is to get the story on paper, and if it has symbolism as I write it great, It should be organic rather than forced.

    • I agree – though there is a good deal of Tolkien’s personal philosophy in LOTR and the other books, his views of good and evil particularly, quietly worked in subtle ways into the text. There’s a new book out ‘Tolkien and the Great War’ which discusses how that happened.

  7. elmseeker says:

    While I have a decent following for someone who just started gathering one a few months ago I would like to say that I don’t write for them. I write for me. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time. If my book sells 1 million copies, that’s awesome, but if it only sells 1, oh well, such is life. At least I will know that I wrote the story I’ve wanted to write for more than 20 years and I won’t have compromised it to make it appeal to the masses.

  8. Team Oyeniyi says:

    This is where you possibly never speak to me again! I am not a Tolkien fan. We had to read The Hobbit at Selwyn House (Christchurch) and I hated it. It was just so sloooooooooow – at least that is how I remember it. I had read The Forsythe Saga a couple of years before (big for a 10 year old at the time), so it wasn’t my reading ability at fault as such!

    • Tolkien’s not everybody’s cup of tea. I have to admit, I find some of his stuff pretty heavy going too – certainly the posthumous works which, I suspect, Tolkien never intended to publish.

      Personally I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan’ in the enthusiastic canonical sense – not of Tolkien, not of any writer; they have their good and bad points. For me the key appeal of Tolkien always was the way he keyed so thoroughly into the twentieth century psyche. Partly unintentionally, I suspect.

      I suspect there’s also something about being MADE to read a book for school purposes which basically kills any enjoyment – I recall having to chug through “Catch-22″ for 7th Form English and hating it.

  9. [...] J R R Tolkien. I looked last week at how he became iconic. He created the deepest, best developed and most thorough fantasy mythos of the twentieth century. [...]

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