Thursday, June 25, 2015

Copying the Masters: J.R.R. Tolkien

I'm starting a new blog series that will most likely be sporadic and biased, about famous authors and where you should and shouldn't emulate them (especially in the current market) in your writing.

Today, we're going to look at a name that shows up on just about every writer's list of favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien. Undoubtedly, he has solidified the way modern fantasy is approached, written and read today. I doubt that as he sat reading samples to his Inkling friends, with C.S. Lewis pushing him to do better and Hugo Dyson swearing every time another elf showed up, that mild-mannered Tolkien had any idea that his thousands of pages of ten years of effort were developing into what fantasy author Susan Cooper calls "a passionate worldwide cult."

A quote from Tolkien on critics:

"Some who have read the book (Lord of the Rings)... have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or the kinds of writing they evidently prefer."

Some facts about Tolkien:

1. His first contribution to the Middle Earth universe was the poem The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star, which for all practical purposes was a mythological fanfiction piece inspired by the "Crist" poem of Cynewulf. He was 22, and Lord of the Rings was not published for another forty years.

2. Tolkien was, in our sophisticated modern terminology, a pantser. An example of this is evident in that originally, Faramir was only supposed to show up at the Forbidden Pool and then never again. Well, that didn't happen, and aren't we glad!

3. His lifework, The Silmarillion, was published posthumously. Tolkien's goal was to create an entire new mythology.

This last point is a big reason why many writers who claim to emulate Tolkien really should not.

Tolkien did not have big movie effects and pretty heroes and complicated world building for the sake of complicated world building in mind. He did not have big political purposes. There were no sparkly Pinspiration boards or cosplay attempts. What there was, was a slow-working, dedicated man in a room full of loose leaf paper and pipe smoke painstakingly inking out, in his beautiful archaic handwriting, alternate versions of a work requested by his publisher. And with The Silmarillion, he was writing what he wanted to, which was an entire new mythological cycle inspired by the Finnish Kalevala.

For one of my projects, which is nothing like Lord of the Rings, I started delving into ancient Irish mythology, and I suddenly found myself looking at Tolkien's work from his own point of view. While paging through the Ulster and Fianna cycles, I understood better his goal of creating his own, new mythological cycle. It both raised my appreciation for his brilliance, but also distanced me from him as a writerly role model.

Here are some areas where it's probably not a good idea to emulate Tolkien:

1. Prose

Tolkien's narrative prose is inconsistent. It swings from beautiful/powerful to unfortunately purple to 1950s British newspaper to old children's bedtime story to The Cattle Raid of Cooley, sometimes all on the same page, but overall has that embellished stuffiness one finds in Baroque music, academic papers, and, well, ancient mythological texts written by Catholic monks. So if one takes away the inconsistency, his prose is actually quite brilliant for his work, especially in The Silmarillion, but it's probably not wise for you to imitate it yourself.

2. Dialogue 

Once again, if you look at Tolkien's dialogue and compare it to ancient mythological cycles, it's on spot. But for novels, no. Too much of that mix of grit, flowers, and fed information with All The Capitalized Names and Places.

3. Language

Are you a linguist? No? Tolkien was, and one of the greatest that ever lived. But you are, ten to one, not. Feel free to create your own language if you really wish, but most likely it'll come out as a inconsistent, weird blend of Sort Of Celtic Sounding Words, C-3P0, and American (looking at you, Christopher Paolini).

4. Race Based morality 

I'm not so much talking about orcs as I am Haradrim and Easterlings vs. Rohan and Gondor, and not even White People vs. Not White People so much as unreality. Even in the ancient mythology Tolkien loved so much, alliance lines were never so cut and dry. This is more of a World War mentality that once resonated with audiences, but is just unrealistic. The Human Bad Guys in Tolkien's work often have no explained reason for their alliance with the Enemy other than that their entire race is, for some unknown reason, allied with Him. I punched Paolini earlier, but he did try to mix this up in his own work.

5. Pseudo-Medieval Arthurian Worldbuilding

Before you decide you want to set your story in "medieval" times like Tolkien (he called it a pseudo-Celtic beauty that people idealized about, and denied that was what he wanted), actually research the medieval era. Pick any century and you will see quickly that it's quite different from your Renaissance Faire. Women were blacksmiths and men wore stockings and Catholicism ruled with an iron fist of superstitious terror. The culture was bawdy and dirty and sick. I find a lot of Tolkienites who want to write their own Lord of the Rings fall into this trap, when he himself wasn't aiming for it at all.

But here are some areas where it is a good idea to emulate Tolkien:

1. Go back to the originals

Like I said earlier, I started researching ancient Irish mythology and was blown away by it. In some ways it was terrible and in other ways it was amazingly inspiring and in other ways all I could think was, "This has got to be better than any action movie, ever." There were flying ships in fog and five-year-olds killing giant dogs with toy balls and top-notch schools for warriors run by women where you had to spear fight underwater and on tightropes. Instead of looking at past fantasy novels for inspiration, go back to pre-Arthurian mythology. Go back to raw imagination before the laws of the market controlled it. I'm not saying write Percy Jackson or Thor, but definitely give it a shot.

2. Write what you love

Tolkien wrote what he loved, and look what happened! Though it may be often misunderstood, as we've already established, the point still stands: Tolkien and his work are icons.

3. Create iconic new ways to change the way people look at fantasy

Tolkien's elves, ents, dark lords, and dwarves, though in some ways lifted from ancient mythological equivalents (see? Another reason to check out old mythology), revolutionized fantasy, especially the high and fair elves and the terrifying dark lords, which now are a staple to most popular epics. Create iconic images that stick with and inspire people.

4. Build from your world with what you love

Lewis and Tolkien once agreed that they needed to write books that had the sorts of things they enjoyed in them. Anyone can see that the Hobbits are like happy, contented English people. Tolkien's characters smoke, read old manuscripts and elegant poetry, speak fancy languages, enjoy good intelligent company in simplistic settings, and hate giant spiders. When you fill your story's universe with what you love, you can bring your readers to love it, too, in their own way.

5. Be patient, take your time, and do what you have to do

In a writerly world of Twitter pitch contests where every second counts, and where we try to write XXX words in XXX hours with the Write or Die app, we often get so wrapped up in trying to meet goals and deadlines that we forget to take the time and craft our story carefully. Tolkien took ten years on Lord of the Rings and his entire life on The Silmarillion. I'm not saying you have to take that long, but if Tolkien had gone with some of his earlier versions of LOTR, Eowyn would be dead, Aragorn would be a hobbit, and the Ring wouldn't have been The One. And he did this while giving three times more lectures than his contract called for, raising a family, and writing other academic work. If anything, Tolkien should make us ashamed if we complain about first world problems preventing us from getting our five hundred words down for the day, or if we show a lack of dedication.

6. Find honest CPs, but take their advice with a grain of salt

Tolkien had his Inklings, and as aforementioned they were not afraid to express themselves. But even then, obviously, Tolkien didn't always listen to what they had to say. When working with CPs, always put your story before their feedback, but feedback is crucial to creating a polished and complete MS.

So there we have it. In conclusion, Tolkien was a genius when it came to his writing, but we have to look at his writing for what it was supposed to be, and for what it is: an attempt to create an entirely new mythological cycle. The amount of effort he put into his work and his world is mind-blowing. And instead of borrowing from his work, we should follow his footsteps and create our own.

In the next Copying the Masters post, we'll be looking at the one and only Jane Austen.

Thoughts or comments? Feel free to share!


  1. Thank You! You are making my life, I've wanted to write for a long time but haven't gotten around to it, (either that or my book ideas are dumb.) Your blog is really helping me become a writer.

    1. No ideas are dumb, they just take time, sometimes, to develop!! :D And your comment made my day. You're welcome, and thanks for reading!! :D

  2. One of the best things to emulate from Tolkien, IMO, is another one of the gems I came across in Ursula Le Guin's essays: writers of fantasy should never let their readers forget that they are in "Elfland," i.e. somewhere that is radically, dramatically, emphatically Not Here. One should not be able to pick up dialogue from (or prose describing) Elfland and plop it down in Poughkeepsie, to borrow Le Guin's phrase. That stylistic unity is something Tolkien does flawlessly, although it does create a degree of distance.

  3. Wonderful points! It's a struggle not to attempt linguistic feats with place and character names in a fantasy setting, and sometimes I think that even if we don't have the ability to create a whole new language, using some pieces of other world languages for our place and character names can help. I didn't do this as much with my first novel as I wish I had.
    And, I'm so glad that Aragon wasn't a hobbit. Sometimes, we need to let the ideas ruminate for a while on the page. My first novel had seven content drafts and probably should have had at least one more. Although I've definitely done the hurry and write thing, I think that some ideas need a longer desk-life. I have a grouping of sci-fi stories that someday might be a novel, but I know that it's not time yet.