Tolkien Lessons: How His Work Influences My Work (Guest Post by Linda White @BookManiaLife)

Tolkien Reading Event 2017

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the complete schedule here.


Tolkien Books

Last year, I attended a local con here called CONvergence. I was an Invited Participant (their caps, not mine) and they asked that I be on at least four panels. I was looking at the schedule and one session jumped out at me right away – Perambulatory Journeys. All I could think of was Tolkien. I mean, I could think of no others.

Curious, I put out a call on Facebook, and lots of folks came back with other suggestions. Who knew? But Tolkien was tops on my list. The conversation at the panel was great, and even delved into Pokemon territory (this was right before the game got hot).

Sometime during this whole process, it hit me that I was, myself, writing a perambulatory journey. I wasn’t trying to copy Tolkien, but my characters needed to get from point A to point B, and since my work is set in Neolithic Great Britain, there weren’t a whole lot of options. They walked.

How long does it take to walk from Salisbury Plain to Orkney? How many obstacles would they encounter? What would happen to them along the way? How would they eat? These were all questions I would have to face. Research. Lots of research. My world was real. I knew that my characters were walking a fixed number of miles. Tolkien had no such limitations. How far was it to Mordor, anyway? In some ways, I kind of envied him. Why hadn’t I been brilliant enough to invent the whole world, even if only to save myself all these bothersome details? But that didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell, so it was a moot question. Would sure have made things easier, though.

And the other obstacles. Crossing water made me research the types of boats that would have been used at the time. I couldn’t just invent it. And for food, I am not going to go ahead and invent something like cram or lamas bread, because really, that’s been done. For me, it ended up meaning a lot of research into the foods that would have occurred naturally – berries and nuts and other hunter-gatherer fodder. But these were real considerations. And Tolkien had to consider them too – if only so that his world would be consistent. He couldn’t have wooden boats used in an area devoid of trees. He couldn’t have too many gentle comforts (think how many times they had to run or were captured and lost everything!). The small thing like Bilbo finding his pipe intact towards the end of his journey made it all that much more touching.

I am rereading The Lord of the Rings right now, and enjoying it. I think I have read it twice before, but it has been years. I am finding swaths that I don’t remember, because the movies are so ingrained on my brain. But those parallels are helpful too. What did the movie makers leave out? Why? What is really necessary to tell the story? It is helpful to look at a story that I know really well (and to be fair, doesn’t have the emotional attachment that I probably have to Harry Potter), and make these comparisons. Then I look at my own work and think, huh. What is this scene doing? How can I set up this bit so that it is useful later? And if I introduce this character just once, and never mention him again, is he really necessary?

So while I don’t want to write the same story – I don’t want to be derivative in any way – there are lessons here. I have realized I have several books about the world, apart from the multiple copies I own of the stories. So complex, and so deep. This time on my reread, I am looking further into the background. I am actually using the books that I have, like A Guide to Middle Earth by Robert Foster and The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook (which is like an encyclopedia).

Apart from the obvious walking parallels, Tolkien is never far from my mind when I think about writing. If you’ve read the biography by Humphrey Carter (which is excellent), you will know that Tolkien started out with languages, and generally invented the story and the world to give his languages a culture to belong to. It’s absolutely fascinating, especially for me, someone who once tried to build a major in linguistics (it didn’t exist at my college and there weren’t enough classes to cobble one together). He spent years playing with these languages. Then he spent years writing the stories.

Unfortunately, he also spent a lot of time playing solitaire in his study, and every time I think of what he could have been doing instead, it makes me cringe. And I take that as an example for myself, when I find that I am a) spending too much time on bookstagram or Twitter or b) spending too much time diddling about doing things that simply will not matter.

We only have a given amount of time on this earth, and we must use it wisely. And if you’ve got a story to tell, a world to tell people about, do the telling! Don’t fritter away your time. And do the homework. Make it worthwhile.

About the Author

Linda White will be collecting books as long as the floors hold out. And she wants to read them all! She loves beautiful books. Read, travel, hike, book arts, paper crafts. She runs BookMania, an editorial services agency, and Publishing Bones, a website for writers. You can also visit her on Twitter and Instagram.

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