I posted the other day about style. It’s important for authors. And with The Hobbit being filmed around where I’m living, I thought I’d talk about its author. J. R. R. Tolkien, his style – and why he wouldn’t be published today.
Tolkien could be chatty – as in The Hobbit, where he nailed the voice of a storyteller. Or he could be epic – as in most of The Silmarillion. In The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) he was both. At times his words had a biblical quality.
Now, we could claim this was accidental. Tolkien became a household name in spite of himself. He tinkered. He never really finished anything – breaking one of the Heinlein rules about writing. Structurally, LOTR broke a lot of the rules. Many of his characters were cyphers. And as for the written style with its wanderings – well, Tolkien began LOTR as a sequel to The Hobbit in the late 1930s. It was finished around 14 years later, after many stops, starts and re-writes. There were enough inconsistencies for a revised edition in the mid-1960s.
So did his style actually drift? LOTR’s creation has been made transparent through the work of Tolkien’s son Christopher, who diligently edited and published the first, second and nth drafts. And Tolkien knew what he was doing. He was creating epic mythology, broadly founded in northern forms. His styles were appropriate to purpose – in LOTR, underscoring the switch from the homely Shire to the world shattering evil of Mordor and Sauron’s war. And as with most myths, many of his characters were mythic – especially Gandalf/Odin (I know what I said). LOTR was no ordinary novel. It was a vast, vast mythos, deliberately founded in often obscure European myths, similar but different – close enough for people to identify with. By contrast with a modern commercial novel, the power of the story came from the mythology he brought to life. And there was more. He also had hobbits.
Hobbits. They spoke to the mid-twentieth century in ways Tolkien perhaps did not anticipate. The Shire was ‘Merrie England’ – specifically, the idealised pre-industrial version that nostalgic folk from the nineteenth century looked back to. Hobbits were also children, effectively – but children with an adult mind. And that was a powerful combination; they spoke to the inner child of adult readers – and at the same time, appealed to children who could identify with the aspirations.
That gave Lord of the Rings a particular appeal – one that multiplied in the 1960s when the counter-culture picked up on the Shire with its rosy view of the world. Bam. Suddenly the ageing Oxford don was focus of some extraordinary adulation from a youth culture that was way removed from his own.
Tolkien, in short, had created a new kind of writing. A new genre. Now the key question. Would Tolkien have had any chance of publishing that today, commercially? I think not. Even in the 1950s, Allen and Unwin were leery enough about LOTR to spread the risk, which is why it is three books. Tolkien wrote it as one (or six) – the three-way division into The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Two Towers and The Return Of The King was a publisher imposition. And they didn’t want to touch The Silmarillion, which Tolkien offered first. Not then, anyway.
The reason was simple; Tolkien had broken the book-writing rules. LOTR was distinctly odd. And because his mythos had yet to gain much popular traction – remember, he was known then as a professor and a childrens’ writer – his publishers did wonder. A bit.
Today it’s even harder, if anything, to publish with the major houses. The bar has been raised, the demands on author skill are even higher. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t try. It’s better to try and fail than not try at all. Isn’t it. But for those of us who lack Tolkien’s incredible ability to key into deep parts of the human psyche and condition – and that, I fear, is just about all of us – it means following the rules.
At least until we’ve become a household name.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011