One does not simply ignore Mordor.
I’m part of that crowd who view J.R.R. Tolkien as a linguist first, world builder second, and writer third. It’s well documented that various parts of his world emerged from the con-langs he was developing. Most world builders, if they bother with the rigmarole of con-langing at all (nobody blames you for skipping over it, though much respect for the nutters that do persevere), don’t get to it at least until they’ve got a well developed foundation.
Before I go on, do I need to put a spoiler warning here? Seriously, it’s been nearly 70 years since the books and nearly 20 since the films. Still, knowing the rabid Gopher pit that embodies the Internet: on the off-chance that you haven’t been exposed to The Lord of the Rings, the following post contains spoilers.
I can’t tell if it’s considered heresy, vogue, or passé to take a shot at The Lord of the Rings these days. Being one of the fantasy genre’s big names, it seems to be along the lines of criticising Metallica or Slayer. Old and respected with an absolutely fanatical fanbase who will devour your ankle bones should you so much as look askance at it, but otherwise up for reasonable discussion amongst the wider readers of the genre.
Naturally fantasy as a genre owes a significant amount to Tolkien. Worldbuilders the world over take their inspiration from him as, no doubt, do a portion of con-lancers and linguistics enthusiasts, not to mention general mythos and legend lovers. The guy was impressive and as a result his influence permeates giant swathes of media decades after his death. In fact, he managed to have such a inadvertently profound affect on anything remotely fantasy related, that more modern tastes have started to push against his influence. The irredeemably haughty elves, inexplicably Scottish dwarves, and remote tower dwelling wizards who like to expound, at length, on anything and everything at the drop of an impractically long hat, became first a standard and then a cliche. There are already a bunch of people on the Internet who have explained why most cookie-cutter fantasy books utterly fail to live up to Middle Earth, and why most of the pervasive stereotypes have been influenced by Tolkien’s writing. But this is not about that.
There are various parts of Tolkien’s writing that grate. I read the Lord of the Rings as a kid, and then re-read it again a little over a decade later. At the time I imagined that my main problem would be the pacing of the book. I remembered it being a glacial monster, sloughing from one forest to another, stopping to describe each leaf on every tree of Fangorn Forest, in unnecessary amounts of detail along the way – much like George R.R. Martin describing pies. To my surprise, the pacing was the least of my issues.
What started to make itself apparent to me as I progressed through the trilogy, was the way the books accidentally charted the progression of Tolkien’s skills as a writer. There’s a notable shift in the mechanics of the storytelling, from The Fellowship of the Ring to The Return of the King that really stands out. In that sense, I think every writer should have a read through The Lord of the Rings, as a sort of way of gaining some perspective on the whole process. The Fellowship of the Ring is a book that showcases some growing pains. I have the thought that there must be a number of writers who have read through The Lord of the Rings and periodically nodded to themselves in recognition, ‘yeah, been there, done that,’ or found a reflection of one of the ‘technical’ bits of the process they were getting to grips with at the time. It’s fascinating stuff. It also demonstrates why we, as writers, should perhaps pay more attention to Stephen King or Robert McKee.
One of these developing skills is simply knowing how to keep the drama going. Every writer in history has trouble with this, so I’m certainly not jabbing a self-important finger at Tolkien, but it stands out particularly in Boromir’s death and burial. I honestly think that Peter Jackson handled that scene better than Tolkien did, and that’s leaving aside the awkward levity of Frodo and Sam’s escape in the novel. The burial specifically is what irritated me about this section. In print it starts The Two Towers, rather than ending The Fellowship of the Ring. The scene runs roughly parallel, Frodo runs from Boromir, there’s some arguing with Hobbits, the Uruk-Hai appear, Boromir has a heroic death defending Merry and Pippin. In the film, they stick him in a boat and he sods off over the edge of a waterfall. Simple and effective, gets across the ‘vague connection to warrior burial’ bit and there’s nothing lost for it. Everyone chases after the captives (“they’re taking the Hobbits to Isengard-gard-gard!…”) and we keep the sense that we’re on a time limit and events have taken a turn for the worse. The books are a little more ponderous about the whole situation.
We get on fine up until Boromir gets turned into a pin cushion, and Aragorn becomes a temporary priest-figure for lack of a better available candidate and they have their pre-death ‘guys who hit people with sharp metal’ heart to heart. Tolkien mentions that Boromir has killed at least twenty Uruk-Hai, which is important for reasons other than simply marking him out as a bad motherfucker. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas strip down all the Uruk-Hai make a pile of their stuff. How long does that take? Then they pile it into a boat with Boromir. I wasn’t given the impression the boats were particularly big or that the combined gear of more than twenty super soldier Orcs would be an inconsiderable weight for a small paddle boat, so how are they finding the space for a large man, his gear, and the gear of many even larger blokes? Is this one of those “because Elves“ deals?
Once they’ve done that they have a bit of a singalong. I get that this happens a lot in the trilogy, it’s half a musical, but there’s a time and a place. Oh no. Aragorn decides to start singing. Legolas joins in, because… well because he’s a sodding elf and anything you can do Elves can do better. So Captain No-Crown and Elf-Sue Hair Clip Ears decide that while their friends are being kidnapped by roid-rage Orcs, that’s the perfect time to perform a duet on a random bit of river bank while they watch the corpse-dinghy slowly fill with water and sink. I like to imagine Gimli is just sat in the middle like, ‘Uh, guys, The Hobbits are going that way. Listening? Oi, you two! Chop chop, Hobbits. You know: Small, eternal baby-fat and hairy feet? Boromir literally just died defending their right to second breakfast. They’re being carried away by an army of gym bros to be imprisoned in the world’s most grimdark monument to protein shakes. We might want to get around to doing something about that. Any time now.’ Aragorn and Legolas just continue trading verses. There a brief pause for Aragorn to admonish Gimli’s whining, ’Hush this pragmatism, Stunty. Myself and Knife-ears haven’t finished this epic rap battle!’
So why is this a problem? The first is that when your friends are being kidnapped by an army of monsters to be taken to a guy powerful enough to make and command an army of those monsters, you don’t stop for a singalong. It’s that simple. If you do respond to a crisis in this kind of blasé fashion, then you create one of two outcomes: The first is that you destroy the suspension of disbelief in your reader. They feel the response is simply too unnatural to accept and it becomes an out of place contrivance. The curtain falls down, and the gears grinding away in the background are exposed. The other is that they stay immersed in the world, but they are forced to draw some conclusions about the characters and/or the settings. This is the better outcome, because at least they’re still with the story. Also, death of the author dictates that this is pretty much going to happen regardless. However, depending on the kind of idea you want to set up, this can fundamentally undermine your efforts.
The Fellowship are set up as the heroes. They’re the good guys and the other guys are the bad guys, etc. While I can’t overstate my joy that fantasy and sci-fi have moved away from the kind of naive and simplistic black and white moral duality often associated with them as genres, we understands that the members of the Fellowship are supposed to represent pillars of conventional morality. So Aragorn stopping to belt out Auld Lang Syne on a river bank is supposed to make him look noble. Perhaps this was considered as such back in the 1950s. In which case those people really needed to belt up and get their sodding priorities straight. Joking aside, I don’t think anybody at point has considered this to be what “noble” people look like.
This leaves us with a conclusion about either the character or the setting. On the character front we surmise that Aragorn just doesn’t care. Anybody who knows outright that some vulnerable friends are in a great deal of danger but considers some random cultural knick knacks to take priority of the lives of their friends, obviously cares more about the cultural knick knacks. Which severely undermines the suggestion that Aragorn is actually the archetypal heroic bloke he’s been set up to be. Alternatively, if a character behaves ion the way, the setting becomes a great deal more ominous. Perhaps the character is saving this own skin because the setting doesn’t allow them to ignore protocol without severe punishment. This is a authoritarian dystopia vision where the cultural knick knacks do count more than a person’s life and you must sit and recite the Nursery Rhyme of the Glorious Leader before you are allowed to intervene in the terrible thing happening to your friends right in front of your eyes. Why? Because everybody literally has a better chance of survival if you do follow the rules than if you don’t.
The setting scenario I outlined doesn’t work for Middle Earth, unless I missed some massively important subtext somewhere. However, I think it illustrates the potential for these kinds of expectation and conclusions to be drawn, and better yet set up and manipulated. These conclusions aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They can be used to significant effect, and so long as the new information you give your reader fits with what you’ve previously indicated, if only subtly, and continue to present, then you’ve got something extremely engaging. You have to be consistent, though. If your character is presented only one way, with little or no room with alternative interpretation, you’re just breaking character in order to make the story fit with where you want it to go. If it’s not going that way, then you’ve either got to find a way to make it get to where you want it to go without destroying the believability of your characters, or you change the destination. Ideally you’ve got a destination or result in mind that fits with the characters and you don’t suddenly find yourself having to embellish or twist around too much, but characters can be unpredictable and things happen. Take it as an opportunity, not a failure.
Aside from the damage to the suspension of disbelief, Aragorn’s corpse serenade also undermines the momentum that the scene sets up. You’ve got the emotional impact of having a character killed off, the stakes have been raised and the audience are more invested. There’s time to let some personal drama settle there – chase after your friends and let Boromir’s corpse rot in the open, or give him an ignominious burial in the middle of the wilderness before chasing after your friends and hopping that the time you took to deal with a dead person didn’t result in more dead friends. Then there’s time to let the emotional impact of that death percolate. It would illustrate some of those heroic characteristics if Aragorn and co. finally got to Minas Tirith after an exhausting journey, and used the brief window between sanctuary and a defence against a giant Orc army, to remember and pay tribute to their dead friend. Sing the dirge then. The fact that in the books they go through a physically tiring and laborious process to loot a few dozen Orcs and perform an elaborate memorial service, given the circumstances, slows the whole things right down and destroys the sense of immediacy and tension that all the events have previously built up.
Thinking about thinking
Characters actions can have unintended consequences. They influence how a story is interpreted, and that interpretation may be drastically different from the one intended by the author. While I find that very interesting and it’s always enjoyable to see those unexpected interpretations, it’s always worth considering how those audience response can be guided by your characters reaction to an event. When they don’t line up with what has been previously presented, you get dissonance in your reader. Ideally they change their interpretation of the character in question. They can also have their immersion broken at a crucial time, destroying all the effort you’ve put in to create drama and tension. Consider the time frame your characters are working on, especially in the high stakes scenes. If you suddenly pull the brakes on a series of events that have gathered a lot of momentum, then ideally that sudden slow down adds to the effect of the drama. Dramatic whiplash can be very effective and memorable. It can also completely wreck a scene if handled incorrectly.