The paradox of Tolkien’s ‘The Lord Of The Rings’

The other day I posted about the importance of written structure – particularly the way authors looking to write ‘epic’ tomes often end up stretching their plots out way too thin, like Tolkien’s One Ring did for the life of its bearers.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance of the 2012 Hobbit Artisan Market, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in ‘Prince Caspian’.

That prompted one of my readers to post a question about Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, the novel that basically defined the ‘epic’ fantasy genre for the twentieth century. Her husband reads LOTR annually – and loves it. Whereas she finds the story slow and punctuated with side-lines, like the songs. So, what gives?

I think both are right.

Let me put it this way. I am a colossal Tolkien fan. The book is fantastic – and so is everything else about Tolkien’s amazing imaginarium. It’s over a decade since I last read the trilogy, but that’s because I read LOTR so often in my youth that even now I can basically quote all 600,000 words. It is a masterpiece, a complete re-definition of ‘epic fantasy’ that provoked a multitude of follow-ons, all to much the same scale, but none (to my mind) with anything like the depth.

Yet equally, as a writer, I can’t believe how Tolkien overturned normal literary structure and got away with it. Most obviously, he kept pausing the action to reproduce songs sung by the characters, verbatim and in full. Some of the songs were interlopers, adapted from his other work – the ‘Stone Troll’, for instance, first featured in the 1936 short-run volume Songs For The Philologists, to which Tolkien contributed 13 items. Either way, they were death to narrative pace.

But there was more than that. By conventional literary measure, the structure was berserk – the opening chapters broke the rising tension that could have been gained from the pursuit of the hobbits by the Black Riders, interposing an interesting but plot-irrelevant diversion in which they met Tom Bombadil. Two-thirds of the 600,000 word epic comprised a stop-start succession of plot streams, obscuring the fact that Tolkien was weaving a vast, complex tapestry of events. That was odd by literary standards and didn’t work when Boyens, Jackson and Walsh had to adapt it into a movie, which is why The Two Towers movie (especially the directors’ cut, which was different from the first cinematic release) is so different from the book.

Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three 'life size' trolls. Cool.
Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of Tolkien’s trolls. Cool.

What’s more, many of Tolkien’s main characters, especially Aragorn, were cyphers. Aragorn was the classic mythic hero, but far from even the mid-twentieth century notion of literary character – and certainly well removed from our own. Tolkien also didn’t write female characters well, and one of the key plot elements – the romance between Arwen and Aragon, which explained and drove Aragorn’s actions throughout – was relegated to a brief appendix.

Add to this the stylistic change in the latter half of The Return Of The King, where Tolkien changed from an unadorned plain English narrative to Biblical-style rhythm and phrasing, perhaps better attuned to narrative poetry – and the book, on the face of it, was a recipe for commercial disaster.

That was also the judgement of Rayner Unwin, who was leery about publishing LOTR for those reasons – pace, structure and scale. Tolkien wrote LOTR as a single volume, divided into six books. Allen & Unwin published it as a trilogy to spread the commercial risk in the mid-1950s, and their assessment proved basically correct – it was produced in a succession of low-run editions for about a decade.

Then, suddenly, it took off – this on the back of a US edition issued without permission. Tolkien produced the second edition (the one we know today) for the US market, and it took off like a rocket. To me the explanation breaks down into several issues, which I’ll cover off in the next few weeks.

Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


20 thoughts on “The paradox of Tolkien’s ‘The Lord Of The Rings’

    1. It certainly does – I’m exploring this side of it in the next few posts. I think Tolkien also had a fantastic eye for conveying realistic detail – the descriptions of Ithilien, for instance; or the word-picture he drew of the Withywindle and Old Man Willow, which didn’t especially carry the plot forward but which did hold the reader – and helped build that depth.

  1. It’s basically impossible to account for his success, but I’m so thankful that it happened. Sometimes things just work out for the greater good.

    1. Too true – nobody, including his publisher, thought the book might take off the way it did. But I have a few theories and I’d be interested to know what people think – check out the posts coming up (next one’s Monday, NZT – Sunday in the US). I’d say more but don’t want to write a spoiler!🙂

    2. Well, surely at least part of it is that Tolkein figured out how to pack enough world-detail in that people felt like they could get lost in the place. There are other conceptual universes that have that sort of depth available to get lost in — Star Trek comes to mind, and Star Wars if you include the Expanded Universe canon — but for all that to come from a single mind (admittedly over decades) is astounding.

      1. Tolkien certainly ‘did it with detail’. The awesome part – as you point out – is that the depth of his world matched the ones created later as team efforts over a generation. Tolkien did it by himself – admittedly starting in 1917 and continuing to work on it until his death. But what he accomplished was still a totally awesome achievement!

    1. I’ll be exploring this some more in the next few posts. One thing I haven’t mentioned (in any of them) is the way that the book is assuming aspects of ‘period writing’ these days – Tolkien wrote it during the Second World War, and the three generations since is long enough for written styling to have changed. To me, it slightly shows. Though that’s not to under-rate the book or diminish its charm.

  2. Like you, I am a huge fan of Tolkien. We must realize that Tolkien was a literary Renaissance Man with a varied life and training. Born in South Africa, educated at Exeter, and a Professor at Oxford when he wrote the trilogy. He was, first and foremost, a linguist, fascinated by the rhythm of languages. As part of the Inklings, he worked with other writers such as C.S. Lewis, and I believe, though I have no proof, Tolkien actually instilled a tiny bit of his exceptional grasp of myth and legend into Lewis’ writing.

    Tolkien not only wrote The Ring Trilogy, but also Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin, which shows how important the flow and meter of words was to him. Tolkien wrote poetry as well, both as part of the songs and poetry of LOTR and in his poetry collection Tree and Leaf.

    I have always thought that you could see where he was in his studies in how he wrote – his pace and structure indeed changed. Possibly, as he was working with the works of different authors as an instructor, developing the languages, poetry and songs he became known for, his writing style varied to match his changing feelings/thoughts/development. It would make sense.

    No matter what, I will always be a huge fan!

    1. Good point – and one that hadn’t occurred to me in terms of the detail of his personal academic journey. You’re right! That adds fidelity to my own understanding (which is not entirely original to me) in which Tolkien’s broadest over-arching personal journey coloured his writing – by which I mean his First World War trench experiences, which emerged in so many ways in LOTR, from the Dead Marshes to Orc talk, to the mythology he built in which those gifted with life (Elves) were envied by mere mortal humans who were doomed to die, prematurely (by Elf value).

      To me, as a scholar of WWI, I suspect that Tolkien’s relentless theme of the jealousy with which the mortal viewed the immortal was deliberate, and a direct outcome of the unspoken sub-culture of the trenches when those who endured the experience became acutely aware of their mortality – and jealous of those who had access to normal lifespan (‘immortal’, in the Tolkien metaphor). We talk about ‘trench poetry’ and think of Owen or Sassoon – but I think Tolkien did the same, in his own way. And his has been the more lasting in terms of popularity. Not that I think anybody notices today. But to me, the jealousy towards those with ‘longer life’, which is so iconic to Tolkien’s mythology and his imaginarium, directly reflects what I’ve dubbed ‘trench culture’ in a couple of my books. It’s something I haven’t really analysed in terms of Tolkien, but it’s a fairly clear impression I get – I’d appreciate your thoughts on this one.

      1. I couldn’t agree more. Those of his generation had experiences that even modern day soldiers in the wastes of the Middle East, as horrifying as that is, couldn’t understand. Horrific wounds left to fester, no true medical care, savage weaponry, lying in cold, wet trenches amongst the dead and dying, screams of pain and horror surrounding them. The abiding horror of waiting for your death to come in the most unimaginable ways possible – and knowing there is no hope. Yes, I think you are absolutely correct.

  3. It just goes to show you, write a brilliant enough story and unconventional methods will be forgiven. I read Huckleberry Finn when I was 12-years old. Later on in English class I wrote stories where people had regional accents. The teacher dinged me for everything calling it all misspellings. I explained what I was doing and why, but the teacher wouldn’t back off her position. Pushed me away from writing for quite a long time. Now, I do it all I want and I just thumb my nose at anyone who doesn’t “grok” what I’m doing!

    1. Too right! I had something similar – I had an English teacher at high school who was so incompetent my parents decided to send me to the local polytech for tertiary-level courses on how to write. The headmaster at my school tried to obstruct it (the polytech lecture timing required me to leave school 10 minutes early – he forbad it). I went anyway, on my parents’ authority. Guess what – I learned to write. Never looked back. I grokked the idea. My high school didn’t – apparently, they didn’t want me to learn. Their loss.

  4. Alright, so there’s three things I’ve noticed in Tolkien’s work, all of helped make the books as good as they are:

    1. He was a linguist. He knew what made language beautiful. So all those side notes, all those narrative detours, they were fine, because Tolkien wrote in his own personal prose which bordered on poetry. He used language well, even if it was ‘boring’ in places.

    2. Tolkien dug out a niche that had never really existed before. This one is the most obvious, and most people pick up on this. Like you said, he basically created modern epic fantasies. Before this, all we had were oral epics, written down half-assedly, with only the most primitive narrative structure. Tolkien, being an educated man, had read PLENTY of fiction, so he knew how to prop up his epic to be more engaging and readable over a long period of time.

    3. World building. That man loved this world he created. One of the reasons there are so many asides in Lord of the Rings is because Tolkien couldn’t bear to kill his darlings. Well, not all of them at least. You can bet that there was tons more content he wanted to put into those books, but couldn’t justify. So, he wrote other books, almost purely about building his Middle Earth.

    This last one is what I think might have been the most important for the success of the Lord of the Rings. He loved his writing so much, and it really showed. How many hours of his life do you think went into those books, all things considered? How many hours on world building alone?

    Great post, and while I don’t have LotR memorized, I share a great love for all things Tolkien.

    1. Re the world-building – I think that is also the reason that Peter Jackson’s films of the Hobbit and LoTR have also been so successful – the world building of a depth of history into each back story. I went out to the Weta Cave again in the weekend – those Weta folk of Richard Taylor are fantastic at designing the ethos of the back story. Totally plausible to read the front story, especially when we have read the back story….

      1. I agree. The work on those movies was astonishing. I have heard it said they over-engineered the props. But I don’t think so. They made the world real, and that showed in so many wonderful ways through the movies. I must visit the Weta Cave again.

    2. It’s hard to figure out how much time Tolkien put into his imaginarium – other than ‘a lot’. He began writing the first stanzas of what became the Lay of Luthien in the trenches in 1917. But he had also been inventing languages, prior, which fed into that world. He never stopped until his death in 1973. I’d guess hours every week, for sure. I think very few authors would ever match that.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful, thoughtful, insightful post, Matthew — and thank you to your readers for further broadening the discussion! I’m beginning to realize already that part of the reason I’ve not cared for Tolkien is that I’ve been too rigid in my expectations of pacing and structure. I can’t wait to see where your series of posts leads … but I suspect that by the end of your series I, too, will be a Tolkien fan.

    1. I hope so🙂 When I first read LOTR it was very difficult to access because of its structure and the songs. It grew on me. I am still learning about Tolkien – including about his First World War experience which offers other insights into this world and especially some of the specific features of LOTR.

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