Tolkien for Writers

Well–isn’t it a tad presumptuous to say that I as a writer am an authority on Tolkien’s writing?  Indeed it is.  But in truth, I make no more claim than “this is how Tolkien has inspired me.”

1. Tolkien the scholar.   Any one who knows anything about JRR Tolkien knows that he was a professor.  He was not just a professor.  He was the definitive scholar of classics, medieval literature and philology  (noun, 1. the study of literary texts and of written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning; 2. (especially in older use) linguistics, especially historical and comparative linguistics; 3. Obsolete: the love of learning and literature–dictionary.com).  He wrote an essay on Beowulf  that is still considered the best criticism of the epic ever done.

His research of medieval societies, culture and literature–particularly mythologies–is what makes his Middle-earth seem so real, so historical.  I think of this every time I write.  I am not an authority on anything but brownies and chocolate chip cookies, but I have pages and pages of research that I have done to make my fantasy seem possible.  For example: What are the chances that an asteroid could hit earth?  What are the effects of such an impact?  How big would it have to be and where would it have to hit to get the result I want? (for The People of the Green Hills)  It’s not Tolkien’s authority on the Kalevala, but it is a nod to the need for facts to complement fantasy to make it work.

2. Tolkien the poet.  Tolkien’s prose is beautiful and lyrical like the epics he so admired.  For example, in his description of hobbits he writes:

Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter and to eating and drinking.  A laugh they did, and eat, and drink, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times, and of six meals a day (when they could get them).

I try in vain to make my descriptions flow so well and invoke such wonderful pictures, but often my attempts come-off strained and forced.  I will continue trying nonetheless, as I have many words to write before all my stories are told. the

3. Tolkien the author.  As to Tolkien’s perspective as an author, I recommend reading the forward to The Fellowship of the Ring where he speaks at some length about his thoughts and motivations as he created this now-famous fantasy world.  One quote in particular sticks with me on a daily basis: I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

As I understand it, this was a source of contention between Tolkien and his good friend, C.S. Lewis.  Tolkien reportedly felt that The Chronicles of Narnia was too heavy-handed; I leave the judgement on that to the reader.  But I do very much appreciate the idea that the reader should take his/her own meaning from the work, even if the author was thinking of something different when it was written.  This frees me as a writer from the need to totally control the story.  It can go out into the world and have its own life.

4. Tolkien the believer.  It is well documented that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and much of his work carries overtones of his faith; however, I find that his faith goes far beyond masses, hymns, and prayers. He believed in the possibilities of this world and of worlds beyond this one.  He believed that magic could exist and did when mankind was open to believing in it.  He was convinced that there could really have been other races of beings, and that they were superior to men in many ways.  Yet ultimately, he belived that Man was God’s special creation, especially blessed to be the ultimate inhabitants this spectacular world.  How can you write about something if you don’t accept the possibility of it?

5. Tolkien the writer.  Is this not the same as ‘Tolkien the author?’  My intention is to refer here to the actual process of writing, as opposed to his public persona, and in this he is my greatest inspiration.  Tolkien wrote the story he had to tell, and he told it in his own way.  His description of life, landscape and events in Middle-earth convey his unique vision of them. Some of his sentences were entire paragraphs, and that works for him.  I hope to be as committed to my work as he was to his.  Hopefully, like him, I can take my vivid vision and put it on the page.

So there you have it–not a dissertation but a summary.   Tolkien is one of my greatest inspirations as a writer.  I think of him every time I sit down at the computer.

3 thoughts on “Tolkien for Writers

  1. Interesting and refreshing. So many modern authors and editors use Tolkien as a warning of how NOT to write. It’s sad. I understand their cautioning, aspects of his work has become over-copied and clique. Writing styles have evolved. yada yada but can I still remember, almost feel, the all encompassing wonder of reading those books for the first time. I was 21 years old but the wonder was that of a four year old. I love them too.

  2. Pingback: Writing Prompt #1 | On My Mind

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