Likes, Loves and Influences: JRR Tolkien

The second edition in this series has to go to the Godfather of Fantasy – JRR Tolkien.

I can’t really remember when I first read The Lord of the Rings. I was probably about 12 or 13, and I read the Dutch version, of course. I also read LotR before I read The Hobbit. Most of that experience is lost in the hazy mists of time, but I do remember absolutely loving it. I must have re-read it at least once a year for the next ten years or so, and to my great joy I was even allowed to put it on my book list for my secondary school English exam.

(As an aside here, I took three languages in secondary school – Dutch and English because they were compulsory, and German because it was relatively easy. Each language required you to read a number of books for the exam. I think German and English needed about 20 and Dutch around 25. The problem is that all these books had to come from a list of ‘proper literature’, which is a hard pill to swallow when you love to read but hate long-winded, dramatic prose, or nasty books like Lord of the Flies. Being able to put a hefty 1200-page doorstop like LotR on the list was a godsend. But, as usual, I digress.)

I won’t say that Tolkien wrote the first ever Fantasy novel, because I’m sure there’s earlier stuff than that. However, I do believe that he was the first to create a complete world with an in-depth history and so much added lore and other random stuff that you can get lost in it for days. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong in this, but I firmly believe that he was the kickstarter of the Epic Fantasy genre, so all lovers of Fantasy owe him a debt for that.

The strange thing is that while I adore the man for his awesome vision and his dedication to a world that existed entirely in his mind, I would no longer put his work in my top 10 of books. Probably not even in the top 25. Why? Because for all his bottomless imagination, I don’t actually think he was a very good writer.

Take The Lord of the Rings, for instance. I haven’t read it in at least ten years now, but I remember loving the start of the book in the Shire, hating the inane tra-la-the-willows of Tom Bombadil, loving the part in Bree, hating the Council of Elrond… See a pattern forming? And then the party split, and I had to drag my way through an entire half of the book with no one but Frodo, Sam and Gollum for company, because the Dead Marshes were dull, dull, dull. The bits with Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas chasing the hobbits was great, and everything that happened in Rohan and Gondor, and things sort of took off again once Frodo and Sam reached Minas Morgul and Mordor, but the book is so bloody inconsistent that I’m not sure I could work my way through it again.

Let’s put it like this: ever since Peter Jackson’s films came out, I’ve not felt the need to. He stripped out all the boring bits like the endless poems, ditched Tom Bombadil (which was a massive hurray from me) and made the other boring bits more exciting. Oh, the films have flaws, don’t get me wrong. I still cringe every time I have to sit through the wobbly pillar bit in Moria, and I do miss the Scouring of the Shire, but they captured the essence of the book, and it was so brilliantly cast that I’ll forgive PJ a lot of what he did, especially since in most cases I can see why he did it.

Then there’s The Hobbit. I was very sceptical when it was announced that that would be turned into two films, and might have uttered an angry expletive when it subsequently turned into three. And then I picked up the book again.

Damn, that book is tight. I was actually astonished at just how much action there is in so few pages. I can totally see how that would fill three films. I’ve come across single paragraphs that probably contain half an hour all on their own. I am also incredibly curious about how PJ is going to deal with the really naff bits like the dwarves and Bilbo being served by dogs and ponies in Beorn’s house, but we’ll see.

The point I’m trying to make is that The Hobbit is three films in less than 300 pages, whereas The Lord of the Rings is three films in 1200 pages. Does that show a consistent writer? I think not.

And then we have The Silmarillion. I’ve managed to read it twice. Once in my teenage years, probably the Dutch version, and I believe I really liked it at the time. I tried many more times to read it again after that, and kept failing. I think I finally succeeded again after the first LotR film came out, and I have rarely read a more depressing book. Everyone dies, usually because they are killed by their best friend, or because they were betrayed by their best friend, or betrayed in general. I do not recall a single happily ever after at all, which is a problem for me, because I love happy endings. I don’t know why – maybe it’s because I’m such a pessimist in real life, so I want my books to take me away from that and give me a happily ever after. I can just about stomach LotR because the ending is kind of bittersweet, but there is a reason I love losing myself in a Romance novel: it’s because I know it’s not going to cheat me and give me two dead people at the end.

Now, before everyone comes down on me like a ton of bricks for slagging off Tolkien: I know the man was a literary professor and linguist first and foremost, and he only sort of did the writing on the side. I’m just saying that I’ve read many more Fantasy books since my first venture into the genre, and have liked most of them at least as well, if not better.

So let me try and summarise it like this: the man was an absolute genius, and the entire Fantasy genre probably owes more to him than to any other Fantasy author in the world. He spoke more than ten languages, and for that alone I envy him, because I wish I could. He had an imagination far beyond anything I could ever come up with, and created a world of such depth that even forty years after his death it still captivates people.

I just don’t think he was a very good writer.

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