Deep magic from the dawn of humanity: the real appeal of Tolkien

In the past few posts I’ve been explaining why Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings struck such chords with the western world, despite breaking all the rules of the twentieth century novel.

We’ve seen how, on one level, it ‘broke through’ a decade after being published, on the back of the way the counter-culture identified with the pastoral aspects of hobbit life. But there was something more going on – something that Tolkien very deliberately wrote into his whole imaginarium, which struck to the heart of the human condition, and to western cultural tradition – and this is what made his work so epic.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Gandalf: 85 percent Odin, 15 percent Merlin. This is Weta Workshop’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Tolkien – a philologist, expert linguist and academic par excellence – didn’t just want to write a fantasy story. He had in mind something bigger, one around which his imaginarium was organised. A mythology. England didn’t have one in the same way the Norse had, or the Germans – so he went out to write it, drawing on those traditions to create something new.

When it came to the novel based on that imaginarium – well, this had to be part of the tradition of epic literature, like Beowulf. It was this that gave LOTR – and the whole Middle Earth mythos – such fundamental power, and allowed Tolkien’s creation to capture the imagination of a very wide range of people in western culture, across generations.

Heroic literature demands a very different organising principle than what is required for an everyday novel. And The Lord Of The Rings is built around it, with its plot-points involving temptation, heroism, sacrifice – and a relentless testing of the characters by the dark forces swirling around them. In this sense, characters such as Aragorn – who, by twentieth century novel values was a cliché – were, in fact, spot on. Necessary.

The Lord Of The Rings, in short, was the literary equivalent of a Wagnerian opera: huge, suffused with vast themes of good versus evil, reaching directly to the heart of the human condition and displaying it on a mighty canvas that revealed just how vast an imagination Tolkien had. And, like Wagner, Tolkien made sure those themes gained credibility through depth – pushing a vast cultural tapestry and back-story into his work, knowing it interrupted the plot in twentieth century terms – but also knowing that it gave the mythic theme vastly more power.

The comparison is direct: Wagner’s stories drew from Norse/Germanic mythic tradition to produce stories of epic quests for rings, filled with jealousies over the power they gave, temptation, and greed. Tolkien drew from that same mythic tradition to build his own imaginarium. The difference was that whereas Wagner steeped his tales in blatant Germanic nationalism, Tolkien imbued his with a quiet, subtle and quintessential Englishness – something that shone through at every level, but particularly with his hobbits.

It is here, I think, that the second aspect of Tolkien’s genius shone through. The hobbits were everyman; they were ordinary, familiar, likeable characters that everybody could identify with. By making Hobbits the centre of the narrative, Tolkien gave LOTR the means to connect with the twentieth century reader – at first, as we saw in a previous post, the ‘hippie’ generation; then a much wider swathe of western readers. Blend that with the deep mythology he was producing and the result was irresistible – once it had been discovered.

As we saw in previous posts, LOTR didn’t sell well in its first decade. That changed as soon as it was discovered by an eager market. And that issue – discovery – is still with us today. But that is entirely another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Beyond epic – how Tolkien broke the rules and wrote a winner

I’ve been posting about why J R R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings broke all the rules – yet, ten years after publication, took off commercially to become a defining icon of twentieth century fantasy literature.

Rohan. No - central Otago. No, Rohan...oh, I give up...

Rohan. No – central Otago. No, Rohan…oh, I give up…

As a huge Tolkien fan who used to read The Lord Of The Rings multiple times a year, as a kid, I can see the appeal. And yet the fact remains that Tolkien broke the rules of plot, structure and literature. So what was happening? Why did the book take off?

I think a large part of it came about because – partly by coincidence – Tolkien’s themes and setting meshed with the values of the counter-culture that rose during the mid-1960s, and in general with the values of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. It was this meshing that gave the book such impetus and appeal to a new – and very large – generation.

Tolkien himself apparently declared the fandom and much of the hippie sub-culture enthusiasm for his work a ‘deplorable cultus’. Still, the reasons for that meshing seem clear enough. Tolkien’s Shire imagery and culture – with its deliberate evocation of a lost English rural paradise – keyed closely with counter-culture fantasies of a lost and spiritually superior pre-industrial world, largely because the origins of both philosophies were much the same; Tolkien echoed the Arts and Crafts movement, which had pursued much the same thinking in the nineteenth century. He also wrote jokes into his hobbit world that were lost on others – apparently Hobbiton society was a specific satire on Midlands village life from the 1890s.

Still, the broader themes of a ‘lost Merrie England’ coincided with counter-culture priorities. Add to this Tom Bombadil, to Tolkien a faerie sprite; but to the hippies an archetypal drop-out (nicely lampooned in Bored Of The Rings as ‘Tim Benzedrine’), and the groundwork was set.

This was not the only appeal The Lord Of The Rings had. Tolkien deliberately set out to present a clear morality: good versus evil. There was little that was complex about this world – few shades of grey. People were good; they were tempted; they fell.  Evil often appeared as good, as a device for deceit. His world also portrayed many of the trappings of industrial society – the pollution, the scale – as dark, aligning it with evil in ways that had immediate appeal to a generation who were trying to shuck off the legacy of the world-engulfing wars that had dominated the first half of the twentieth century.

Tolkien had drawn much of this implicit anti-war, anti-industry sentiment from his First World War experience – reflecting the ‘war poets’ of the 1920s – but it was appropriated by a new generation in a new context. And everything took off from there. The appeal broadened as time went on; the book enviegled itself into mainstream culture – becoming, along with Star Trek and Star Wars, one of the vehicles by which fantasy and science fiction were mainstreamed. There was no looking back after that.

Which brings me to the next part of this series – why, despite all the rule-breaking, The Lord Of The Rings was such a wonderful, fantastic and utterly amazing work. Why it was, in fact, a structural work of genius – and why has such genuine and timeless appeal. Next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How J R R Tolkien became a best-selling author

I posted the other day about how J R R Tolkien’s  The Lord Of The Rings broke the rules of writing – yet, eventually, became an icon, and justly so. But it shouldn’t have, all things being equal. By usual standards, Tolkien’s characters  were cyphers. He broke his narrative in ways that obscured dramatic tension. And he got away with it. Spectacularly.  The book is fantastic.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view, albeit with wonderful blue skies, which seldom featured in his work.

How did it happen? The first answer is that – initially – Tolkien didn’t get away with it at all. Or even later. As late as 2001, for instance, the book was described in the New York Times as ‘pedantry’ and ‘death to literature’.

In some ways this isn’t surprising. Tolkien began the book as a sequel to The Hobbit, but it had – as he said himself – ‘grown in the telling’. This, I think, goes quite a long way towards explaining the structure, which reflected that evolution. At times he ran flat out of ideas, stalling – for instance – at the point where the Fellowship reached Moria, not knowing where to take the story next.

There were also issues flowing from the fact that Tolkien was a tinkerer – he constantly re-thought, revised and re-cast, making it almost impossible to keep consistency across the work.

Time didn’t help; Tolkien plugged away at it during the Second World War, but not quickly. It was broadly finished by 1949, about 11 years after he began, and he turned up at the Allen and Unwin offices with a monolithic typescript that Rayner Unwin, his friend, publisher and former student, was reluctant to publish in one go. It didn’t seem saleable.

So they insisted it had to be broken into three – hence the trilogy. It’s ironic: the book – and specifically the ‘trilogy’ aspect – became the model for a LOT of fantasy that followed. But the fact that it was a trilogy was purely accidental.

The first of them, the Fellowship Of The Ring, was published in July 1954 with a run of just 4550. The second, The Two Towers, followed 18 months later on an even lower run – 4250. By the time The Return Of The King was published in October 1955, the publishers felt able to up the run to 12,000. These were minimal even by UK standards, and although the book was reprinted a number of times, the runs always remained low. It was very much an average book in that sense. Figures are unusually vague, but the net total seems to have been less than 80,000 copies over 15 impressions by 1966, variously issued by Allen and Unwin or Hodder and Stoughton, not including foreign translations.

Then something happened. The book had been sold in the US, but Ace books believed they could issue their own unauthorised edition in the US. Allen and Unwin objected; the upshot was that Tolkien produced a second edition – materially revised for detail – which became the one we continue to read and enjoy, mostly, today. And it began selling like hotcakes. In the parlance of the 1960s, readers ‘grokked’ it. Without that commercial boost, I think the book would have had a place in fantasy literature – alongside classics as Dunsany’s The King Of Elfland’s Daughter and such like. It would also have been recognised in literary circles for what it was (more of this anon). But it would never have become the defining fantasy, as it did.

In 1994, with editorial input from Christopher Tolkien, a slightly revised version of the Second Edition was produced to incorporate and rationalise some of Tolkien’s minor variant revisions during the process of preparing that second edition, and to mop up some niggling small corrections and consistency matters – but the changes didn’t materially affect the story.

So – Tolkien had produced a rule-breaker, and it took off. The question is why. But those reasons are not hard to find. More next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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

Essential writing skills: how to avoid being ‘derivative’ at all cost

News that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara books are going to be made into a TV series for US distribution, in New Zealand, set alarm bells ringing in my mind.

Plus side is that, twenty years on from Hercules: the legendary journeys, Auckland will once again be venue for a major US TV production. That’s excellent. I am certain Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings movies wouldn’t have been made in the same way – maybe not at all – had the ground work not been laid by Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi’s Hercules and Xena during the 1990s. They didn’t just draw attention to what was possible in New Zealand, they reinforced and built production experience here. So it’s good to see something new happening. Who knows where that will lead for the New Zealand film and TV industry?

Gandalf and friend...

Allanon, I mean Gandalf, and friend…

But Brooks? Gaaah! I read the eponymous first Sword of Shannara book in 1978 and my jaw dropped. It came across to me as a blatant and execrably bad fan-fic re-write of The Lord Of The Rings. I wasn’t the only one to notice, at the time and later. Just perusing the online comments today, nearly 30 years on, paints a clear enough picture.  ‘Almost parodically derivative of The Lord of the Rings,’ one blogger noted. ‘A shitty, lifeless point for point rip off of Lord of the Rings, said a Goodreads reviewer. I could go on, but I think the point’s clear.

To me that highlights a key challenge all authors face. Being ‘the same, but different’. One of the reasons why tales such as Tolkien’s catch popular imagination is because they capture story archetypes – proven forms that address key elements of the human condition: ambition, pride, good versus evil, and so on. Stories that do something radically different risk losing – or never gaining – an audience, because nobody can identify with them. They become fringe literature – fodder for torturing schoolkids during English lessons, devices for pretentious wannabe literati to assert their supposed intellectual superiority. But not something that offers an accessible emotional journey for ‘the rest of us’.

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, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

That’s why ‘the same’ is actually a virtue for most writers. But that doesn’t mean ripping off somebody else’s narrative. It means driving to the heart of the story concept and idea – something at the very depths of its foundations, well below the superficial artifice of narrative, and springing a wholly original narrative from that. This is the ‘but different’ part. Shakespeare was a master at that particular art, and so was Tom Stoppard whose play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead used Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the archetypal tale of the foolish hero) as the setting for something original.

Tolkien did much the same with Nordic mythology and deep western symbolism to create something both new and – yet – absolutely classic, a mythology with which we can all identify. His approach was first exemplified by The Hobbit. Would you believe it was exactly the same story – at this archetypal level – as the original Star Wars? It is. Both are mythic ‘hero journeys’ with the classic elements and character arc. But at narrative level they are utterly different; and that, to me, is the key point. Same theme, same idea – but totally different stories. And that, to me, was also where The Sword of Shannara fell down.

Yes, by all means, address the mythic archetypes Tolkien used in The Lord Of The Rings; challenged heroism, faded glory, pride, hope, the loss of innocence, and above all of the conflict between the light and dark sides of the human condition, framed around events of utterly epic scale. All these things are keys to a great story. But don’t write a monkey-see-monkey-do narrative!

Apparently the later books in Brooks’ series are way better. But I haven’t found out for myself. And won’t. Once bitten is enough for me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why I felt let down by The Hobbit movies

As the end credits rolled up on The Hobbit: Battle Of Five Armies, I said ‘well, that’s 144 minutes of my life I won’t get back.’ That followed the 169 minutes I lost with the first one (my wife said ‘it felt like out-takes from The Lord of The Rings’) and the 161 minutes I lost with the second.

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, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

My main problem this time was a fundamental structural failure – the dramatic pacing associated with the big battle, which didn’t build to anything and diverted instead to a one-on-one combat on a skating rink. All of which puzzles me. Jackson is a genius film-maker. He’s nailed the current trend, he can get tremendous performances out of his actors – all of them masters of their craft – and he’s got an awesome team behind him.

But the movies weren’t The Hobbit. Not The Hobbit I grew up with, the delightful kids’ book that Tolkien published in 1937. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since forever. I must have read The Hobbit 20 times, and I hugely enjoyed Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.

I know full well that movies can’t exactly follow books. But this adaptation had, to me, missed the spirit of the original, largely through a mis-match of scale. You see, I am pretty sure that Jackson and his team know what they’re doing. About a decade ago one of the scriptwriters who’s worked on all six movies – Phillipa Boyens – told me that they, themselves, were fans. She also outlined how they’d done The Lord Of The Rings, and why it’d been adapted as it had been – for instance, dropping the Tom Bombadil sequence. All very sound, sensible reasons with which I agreed, princpally flowing from the fact that a movie demands very different structure and pacing from a book.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

Check out the battering. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Yet The Hobbit movies came across as disproportionate to the scope and scale of the original story – in effect, as very, very bad fan-fiction – a mishmash of Tolkien’s world with cartoonish bad guys and plots and characters that never existed in anything Tolkien wrote, an Elf-Dwarf romance that was the reverse of Tolkien’s own mythos, and lots of biff-bang-wallop adventuring. All presented with glacial pace and over-long set-piece chase sequences such as the goblin tunnels and the barrel ride, which seemed more designed as entrees for a video game than dramatic film scenes.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to prone to take this picture at the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012.

I can only speculate as to what happened. But a large part, I think, is the direction film-making has generally taken in the last decade, partly in response to the capabilities of CGI and a new generation’s expectations, partly on the back of an increasingly risk-averse film industry. Films won’t get funded without meeting the market, and studios are increasingly aiming to get best bang-for-buck – capitalising on development costs by spinning multiple franchise movies out of a single investment.

Another issue is the fact that The Hobbit of 1937 is a period piece, these days – a tale framed by 1930s thinking. It lacked female characters. That stands against modern needs and ideals. Hence, I gather, the need to introduce one, Tauriel. All three Hobbit movies were excellent examples of modern film-making. Jackson’s unquestionably nailed that.

Tolkien did epic too – not least in The Lord of The Rings, more so in The Silmarillion, which is packed with tales that absolutely demand the Jackson big-screen treatment. But The Hobbit wasn’t among them. It had its epic moments, but they unfolded against a quieter background, as Bilbo engaged in his journey of self-discovery, and that to me was the spirit of the tale. To turn that into three multi-hour epic movies also meant the original themes and ideas were buried. Obviously a book has to be adapted to film; but to my mind the scripting went well beyond that. Largely, I suspect, to meet that need to make three movies.

And this, I think, is the problem; the fact that huge-and-epic stands against what Tolkien envisaged with The Hobbit, which was a short-ish childrens book with simple plot. Bilbo’s hero journey. Aspects of it were there – and Martin Freeman captured Bilbo’s character arc. But it was well buried amidst a panoply of other plot, characters and story line. As I say, to my mind the spirit of the original had been lost.

Given that, I can only lament the fact that the Tolkien estate hasn’t released the film rights for The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other works. Jackson could certainly do them justice. But as I understand it we’ll have to wait until 2048, when it enters public domain, to see anything more on screen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Kids books that have totally stuck with you

When you were a kid, did you ever find a book that, to this day, hasn’t gone away – that you could maybe read, years and years later, and still enjoy?

Here’s my list, all books I read up to the age of about 11-12. I’m not limiting it to a ‘top 10’ – in fact, some of the entries cover whole series of books. Justifiably.

  1. Arthur Ransome – the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series
  2. C S Lewis – the ‘Narnia’ series
  3. Robert A. Heinlein – all his ‘juveniles’ (Farmer in the Sky, The Rolling Stones, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, etc).
  4. Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle In Time
  5. Tove Jansson – Finn Family Moomintroll
  6. J R R Tolkien – The Hobbit
  7. J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
  8. Nicholas Fisk – Space Hostages
  9. Norman Hunter – the whole Professor Branestawm series (my copies of the first three were autographed by the author himself, who came to my parents’ house in 1970).
  10. Arthur C. Clarke – Islands in the Sky (my main entree to Clarke, a YA-pitched showcase for his comsat future, and the first appearance of the ‘broomstick’ he also used 50 years later in 2010: Odyssey Two).
  11. Andre Norton – Plague Ship.

Care to share your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014