We all know who J.R.R Tolkien is. Author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, and the father of the modern fantasy genre. I’ll grant him the latter – his impact he had on the culture of the Western world is certainly undeniable – but the former I find absolutely baffling. What am I missing, people? Don’t get me wrong, I know that Tolkien created a vast, rich world, with accompanying mythology and an entire language he constructed from scratch, but in terms of translating those ideas to the page, he was subpar, at best.
Now, before you begin sharpening your pitchforks and lighting your torches, allow me to say one thing: a historian is not a storyteller. A historian’s job is to relay an accurate account of the events that transpired, nothing more. That’s why textbooks don’t consist of gripping prose, because emotion muddles the objectivity of fact. When I forced myself to trudge through Tolkien’s books, I couldn’t help but groan in frustration every time the narrative stopped dead in its tracks to teach me about another ancient battle or long-dead king. I’m not saying a fantasy author shouldn’t develop their world, but there’s a right way to do it, such as in George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where we learn about the continent’s of Westeros and Essos through the characters, not absent of them. When we learn about, say, the history of Harrenhal or the Doom of Valyria, it’s woven within the fabric of the narrative. We learn about the history of George Martin’s world through the dialogue of his characters, and we learn about its rules and customs through their actions. The information suddenly becomes relevant, doubling as character development, which is why the reader gets invested.
But I can see how my personal experience may be too subjective for you. Even the most diehard Tolkien fans with at least some small sense of objectivity will admit that he is more than a little prone to rambling, mostly about the scenery. There’s nothing wrong with being descriptive, The Road is one of my favorite novels because of how hauntingly beautiful Cormac McCarthy describes the post-apocalyptic environment, but Tolkien takes it much, much further, to the point of describing a single tree in agonizing detail: “A little way beyond the battle-field they made their camp under a spreading tree: it looked like a chestnut, and yet it still bore many broad brown leaves of a former year, like dry hands with long splayed fingers; they ratted mournfully in the night breeze.”
Regularly, Tolkien will obliterate the pacing of his plot by hyper-focusing on a single feature of the terrain in overtly long semi-colored sentences, ruining the urgency of a scene and removing the excitement by diverting the reader’s attention to an irrelevant detail. I’ve seen a tree before, I’ve seen a forest before. Description is important, but not for something as mundane as a rather unremarkable tree.
I’ll rest my case by providing you with the antithesis of Tolkien’s overly flowery prose with a description of one of his action scenes: “How many there were the Company could not count. The affray was sharp, but the orcs were dismayed by the fierceness of the defense. Legolas shot two through the throat, Gimile hewed the legs from under another that had sprung up on Balin’s tomb. Boromir and Aragorn slew many.”
Tolkien is almost backward with his writing. This is the style of description that awaits the reader whenever a character takes action in Tolkien’s world. It is the simplest, laziest, most uninspired kind of writing. The reader is left to imagine near every detail of the battle that took place. It takes everything I have not to roll my eyes at “Boromir and Aragorn slew many.” What does that tell the reader? Next to nothing. Rather than show an epic conflict, Tolkien elects to use simple, single sentence descriptions to depict what would have been one of the most action-filled moments of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Crucify me, if you must, but I just don’t understand what everyone loves so much about Tolkien!