A couple of thoughts on Tolkien’s writing

2015-01-03

in Books and literature, Rants, Writing

One neat thing about J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the way in which the story is set within multiple frames. The Hobbit, for instance, is sometimes presented as the account written of his adventures by Bilbo Baggins. It is also presented as part of the Red Book of Westmarch: a fictional collection of hobbit-written texts.

There are times, however, when another level of narration is introduced. An all-knowing narrator hints about events that will happen long in the future (for instance, speaking of Bilbo and the eagles: “Bilbo never saw them again – except high and far off in the battle of Five Armies. But as that comes in at the end of this tale we will say no more about it just now.”), or comments about the ways in which characters have misunderstood their situation (as when Bilbo climbs one of the shorter trees at the bottom of a valley and mistakingly concludes that Mirkwood forest extends great distances all around him). One way in which this narrator jumps out is in terms of using modern metaphors quite out of place in Middle Earth – talking about trains, gunpowder, and telescopes.

This higher-level narrator, I would say, is Tolkien himself, speaking directly to the reader. The relationship is a playful one, as well as one that frequently tries to create sympathy. The reader is often reminded of places where characters are not at their best because of hunger, fear, fatigue, and the like.

All told, it’s an enjoyable and useful element in Tolkien’s masterful style of storytelling.

Another aspect of the books which I appreciate (and which was quite lost in Peter Jackson’s films) is that Tolkien never makes the enemies encountered by the protagonists into pure mindless monsters. We hear orcs talking to one another – sometimes complaining about how little they enjoy servitude to Sauron. Even the giant spiders in The Hobbit speak with one another before Bilbo starts to provoke them. Such character development contrasts positively with the film version of the orcs, who are simply incompetent sword-swingers lined up in the thousands to be slaughtered by the heroes in excessive battle scenes.

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