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

Three rules for naming your fantasy world

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set the gold standard – he started by creating languages, and it flowed from there. I figure there are three principles.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with a friend, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

1. Be consistent.
Nothing spoils a (serious) fantasy map more than place names that don’t match up. You wouldn’t want R’rrug K’thach A’aaag next door to Kibblethwaite on the Marsh.  In reality, place names reflect the language they’re from – often with infusions that flow from earlier history. One group of invaders might co-opt an existing name into their language. Or it might be shortened over time. Londinium, for example, becoming London.

2. Name things twice.
That same phenomenon in (1) usually means new people give a landscape their own names. It happened in New Zealand where British settlers of the early nineteenth century persistently re-named places to suit themselves. That’s true of the world generally. Fantasy worlds need to reflect it too. Tolkien nailed it – he had three or four names for most of his places. So naming things twice or more helps add depth and credibility to any fantasy world. The process is inter-related with the history of the world you’re creating.

3. Many place-names are mundane.
Here in New Zealand we have many place names in Te Reo Maori, but if you translate them, the majority are descriptions of events, or a literal description of the place. Puketapu (‘Sacred Hill’) is common. All trumped by Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ (‘The place where the great mountain-slider and land-swallower Tamatea, he of the very large knees, played his flute to his loved one’). It’s one of the longest place names in the world.

This is true elsewhere, too – if you check Europe, for instance, you’ll find a lot of ordinary names, in original language. ‘Brighthelmet’s Town’ (Brighton) and ‘New Town’ (Naples) among them. Here’s a website that lists ‘em.

Needless to say, Tolkien – once again – nailed it. I suppose the lesson, really, is ‘follow Tolkien’s lead, in your own way, and you won’t go far wrong’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 


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So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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