The Lord of the Rings is the second highest selling book of all time. It trails A Tale of Two Cities, although I note that Charles Dickens had nearly a century head start. Tolkien’s masterpiece was consistently voted as the best book of the last century during a series of large-scale reader polls. For myself, I agree. But I have one question.
Undoubtedly, Tolkien was a great storyteller. He created memorable characters. His plotting was seamless, his prose fluent and poetic. But many authors can claim similar skills. What makes Tolkien different?
A blog on high, heroic and epic fantasy could do worse than attempt an explanation. And I do have one.
I think there are many reasons for Tolkien’s success, and I’ll come back to the subject in the future. For now, I’m going to focus on just one aspect. But first – a detour into history. It will, in the end, clarify my point.
The earliest archeological record for wine making dates to the late Neolithic period in the Caucuses. The people of that time (about 6000 BC) discovered that wild grape juice transformed into wine when buried in clay vessels through winter. And glad would they have been who first drank it.
Grape juice is nice. Its bold flavor is raw, fresh and vibrant. Its sweetness competes with its tartness. But it’s not wine. Wine is more subtle. Wine is refined. Wine is luxurious. The magic of fermentation turns grape juice into something entirely different. The flavors of the crushed grapes and the special characteristics of the yeast on their skins, which begin the process, come together as a whole and meld into something new. Just as soups and casseroles taste better the next day, so does wine improve over weeks, months or years. The flavors interact with each other and work together rather than compete.
The Lord of the Rings is like that. Everything works together as part of a greater whole. This gives the story depth. It makes it seem that things happen for a reason, rather than because of arbitrary chance, or author convenience. It makes things seem real. And that feeling of realness, of reading recorded history rather than fiction, of depth, is something that distinguishes Tolkien from other writers.
Many fantasy authors think that by adding appendices to their work, providing name lists, using a prologue establishing the mythological background, by giving dates for historical events in their fictional world, that they’re emulating Tolkien’s depth. But what they’re doing is tipping distilled spirits into a glass of grape juice and hoping for wine.
Tolkien’s depth comes from the melding of events, characters, names, languages and artifacts, rather than a mere dumping of raw information. If you pull on a single thread of his story, you find that the whole tapestry twitches. Shall we look at just one example to see what I mean?
When Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the Barrow-wight, they retrieve some daggers. Tom explains their history and something of the Men of Westerness, foes of the Dark Lord, who long before had been overcome by the evil king of Angmar. Nearly a thousand pages later we see one of those weapons in use. Merry has stabbed the Witch-king, who was once that same evil king of Angmar. When the Black Rider is dead, Merry watches the blade wither away on the grass. Tolkien gently reminds us, “But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago . . . and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king.”
In this way Middle-earth’s past, Merry’s more recent past, and the present are connected. Just as in real life, events have repercussions, and they reverberate through the world.
But that’s not the only link. All through the novel is a sentiment that “Oft evil will shall evil mar.” This is reinforced by the fact that had the Barrow-wight not taken the hobbits, Merry would not have had the blade, and the Witch-king would not have been slain.
This is only one example. Take just about any event, character, name, sentiment or artifact, and think about how it’s connected to something else, and you’ll soon see that very little stands in isolation in The Lord of the Rings. The whole novel is like one of those buried clay vessels. The past is always bubbling up to the present, the fermentation always working its magic.