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.
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.
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