Is Tolkien Really All That Bad?
Alexa Steele's buzz: How to be a better writer by ignoring writing advice confessed:
Years before the movies came out someone gifted me a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Intrigued, I sat down to read it that same day.Talking to other SF and fantasy authors, and occasionally moderating a panel at SF cons, I've got to say "Alexa, you're not alone!"
I never finished the first chapter.
Once I’d seen the movies, though, I knew my younger self had missed out on something exceptional. So I sat down again to read The Hobbit.
And I still couldn’t finish the first chapter.
Just recently, wanting to enjoy a fanciful tale, and knowing that inside that book is a story of heroism and friendship, dragons and magic, I again sat down to read The Hobbit.
Not two paragraphs in I put the book down and faced this simple fact: I don’t like Tolkien’s writing.
Tolkien was a philologist, studying the historical development of languages. "His first civilian job after World War I was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked mainly on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W." (Wikipedia) As an author " His interest was primarily philological, and he said his stories grew out of his languages. Indeed, the languages were the first thing Tolkien ever created for his mythos, starting with "Qenya", the first primitive form of elvish. This is now one of the two most complete - Quenya (High-elven) and Sindarin (Grey-elven). In addition to these two he also created several other (partially derived) languages." - (wikia.com ) Not too promising a start!
Many of the other founding fantasy authors honed their craft by writing short stories for the popular pulps, gradually improving their craft and getting a level of editorial support and advice that authors today can barely imagine. Most contemporary genre authors develop their skills with short fiction, quietly bury their first awkward efforts, or completely gut and re-work them later.
To recreate Alexa's experience, let's read the first paragraph:
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.For good measure, here's the opening of The Fellowship of The Ring:
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats -- the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill -- The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it -- and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes, dining rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.One of the questions authors ask about their stories is: "What promises am I making, and am I delivering on those promises?" If your book cover and opening paragraphs promise edge-of-the-seat suspense, but the story turns into a witty drawing-room comedy, you'll irritate most of your readers. Even if they would have enjoyed that comedy under other circumstances, they wanted suspense when they picked the story! If you're expecting The Greatest Epic Fantasies Ever Written, Tolkien's epics are likely to sound childish and more than a little smug.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved ; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
Back in 1978, fantasy author Michael Moorcock wrote an essay on Tolkien and other writers of
this style of fantasy- Epic Pooh. Here are some excerpts- I encourage you to read the entire article:
The sort of prose most often identified with "high" fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies....
It is the predominant tone of The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and it is the main reason why these books, like many similar ones in the past, are successful. It is the tone of many forgotten British and American bestsellers, well-remembered children's books, like The Wind in the Willows, you often hear it in regional fiction addressed to a local audience, or, in a more sophisticated form, James Barrie (Dear Brutus, Mary Rose and, of course, Peter Pan). Unlike the tone of E.Nesbit (Five Children and It etc.), Richmal Crompton (the 'William' books) Terry Pratchett or the redoubtable J.K.Rowling, it is sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy. The humour is often unconscious because, as with Tolkien, the authors take words seriously but without pleasure...
Tolkien does, admittedly, rise above this sort of thing on occasions, in some key scenes, but often such a scene will be ruined by ghastly verse and it is remarkable how frequently he will draw back from the implications of the subject matter. Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo. They are a type familiar to anyone who ever watched an English film of the thirties and forties, particularly a war-film, where they represented solid good sense opposed to a perverted intellectualism. In many ways The Lord of the Rings is, if not exactly anti-romantic, an anti-romance. Tolkien, and his fellow "Inklings" (the dons who met in Lewis's Oxford rooms to read their work in progress to one another), had extraordinarily ambiguous attitudes towards Romance (and just about everything else), which is doubtless why his trilogy has so many confused moments when the tension flags completely. But he could, at his best, produce prose much better than that of his Oxford contemporaries who perhaps lacked his respect for middle-English poetry. He claimed that his work was primarily linguistic in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don't think these books are 'fascist', but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.
If Tolkien's books aren't your cup of tea, there are whole universes of different fantasy subgenres and styles out there, and the ones that translate into films aren't necessarily the most complex or interesting!