Guest Post: 3 Things Tolkien Taught Me

Tolkien 2012

Renae is a teenage reader with eclectic tastes.  She posts reviews on YA novels, literary fiction, historical works, etc. at her blog Respiring Thoughts.

Like many people, I first came to Tolkien when I was young. My dad reads The Lord of the Rings every year or two, and, the way my five-year-old self saw it, if it’s good enough for Daddy, it’s good enough for Renae. Since then I’ve taken to reading The Silmarillion every year instead of The Lord of the Rings, but that’s another story altogether.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing takes up a large minority of my reading time. As a reader and as an ocassional writer, he’s taught me a lot. About dedication, about significance, about what matters most in a book. So I thought I’d share a few of those lessons with you.

1. You think you’re finished. But you’re not. Stick with it.

Middle-earth was a lifelong project of Tolkien’s, one he never fully completed. The Silmarillion as we know it is probably not The Silmarillion J.R.R. would have wanted it to be. Any man who can spend decades creating a fictional world and mythology is a man I admire.

So the next time you want to give up (say, if your characters have gone out of control or your plot has more holes than Swiss cheese), don’t. Some things take time. Some things need to be constantly worked at, constantly refined.

2. It’s the worldbuilding, stupid.

The biggest factor I took away from The Lord of the Rings when I was a kid is the importance of building a realistic setting. Tolkien wrote volumes of material on Middle-earth, most of which were published posthumously. The world he created, quite simply, is the best I’ve ever read. I find myself constantly comparing the worldbuilding in books I read with Tolkien’s. I know I’ve set my standards high and I know I’ve set myself up for disappointment.

But then I read some recent YA releases. The worldbuilding in some of those books isn’t even comparable to Tolkien’s. And whether or not you’ve read Tolkien, it’s important. It’s very important.

3. The stories that stay with you.

There are some books that make an impression on you that sticks. You can’t stop thinking about the story. Maybe it’s a book from when you were younger or maybe it’s a fantastic new release. But it’s one of those books that you love, sometimes without even knowing why.

Look for those stories. Make a little dragon stockpile of them. They’re the ones you’ll wish you had more of.

As Samwise says: “Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too young to understand.”
Respiring Thoughts

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: 3 Things Tolkien Taught Me

  1. David says:

    Number 1 is very encouraging to me, slow writer that I am. I wouldn’t recommend most authors spend 15 years on a single book (remember, LotR was written as one volume), but it’s true that some stories just take longer to develop, and sometimes they benefit from it.

    Number 2 is actually less absolute, though. Worldbuilding is incredibly important for most high fantasy stories, but it’s no substitute for the story itself. And too often, I think it is. The influence of LotR (and, especially, the movies) has been that more fantasy authors than ever are pouring tons of energy into worldbuilding, but the stories they tell in those worlds aren’t often up to snuff. Take Robert Jordan, whose stories, from my experience, were utterly smothered by the weight of his world-building. Sure, he built a complex continent with histories and tradiitions and multiple cultures and mythologies, but what does that really matter if I don’t care about what’s happening in said places? Or, for movies, take Avatar. They built a Na’vi language and put a respectable amount of detail into the culture (derivative as it all was)–and artistcally they put a ton of effort into the worldbuilding–but failed to tell a good story with interesting characters. Now compare these to Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, which has very little worldbuilding but tells a truly wonderful story, and is pretty near perfect.

    Tolkien’s brilliance lies not only in his being the best worldbuilder (or subcreator) that fantasy literature has ever seen, but also in his ability to consistently tell great stories with real, strong characters that inhabit his worlds. In fact, it’s because of his stellar example that I’m now more interested in putting worldbuilding in its proper place, rather than exalting it for its own sake. Not all fantasy stories require tons of worldbuilding, and fewer still require a “realistic” setting. I think of George MacDonald’s fairy stories, greatly admired by Tolkien, which often take place in surreal dreamworlds that seem to lack things like a real history. MacDonald often doesn’t even propertly name some important characters or places, and doesn’t appear to worldbuild in the Tolkien sense. Yet his stories have exactly what they need to create an immersive experience. In fact, that would make an interesting study: how does MacDonald build his worlds? He doesn’t do it through the normal high fantasy ways of creating lots of names, places, languages, histories, “cultures,” etc.

    So it depends on what your fantasy story needs. Some that seek either a more historical or more mythology-based setting will need more robust worldbuilding in the traditional sense. But others, often the fairy stories, need worlds built of different stuff.


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