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Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Me and Tolkien - A Love-Hate Relationship

I know that above title sound more than a little strange, but it's the truth about what I feel about Tolkien's work as a writer. He is one of my key inspirations for why I pursue a career in writing, but it's also a kind of writing that I'm trying not to emulate beyond some very basic framework.

I first encountered Tolkien in a major way when I watched the first part of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy "Fellowship of the Ring", first part of the author's seminal The Lord of the Rings. I was utterly overwhelmed by the grand sweep of the story and locations, and even by the (as I saw it at the time) mystic Elven language. It's even better when you're watching the extended cut. After that, I experienced the next two movies, a reading on cassette tape of The Hobbit, and even a full-cast BBC radio dramatisation which I think ranks among the greatest radio productions in the history of the medium. I got to know a lot about the world of Middle Earth, and I greatly enjoyed the versions of the story I encountered. I even give a positive nod to Jackson for successfully adapting one of the most far-reaching narratives into a form that doesn't give itself easily to multi-thread storytelling.

But then something clicked in my mind. I realised that I didn't like the majority of the the world that Tolkien had created. I found his writing style boring, overly grandiose and even rambling. I didn't like how he all but forgot any portrayal of how the orc society existed under Sauron's rule, how simple most of the interactions between races seemed to become, how many of his key plot points seemed to come out of nowhere or seem contrived (Eowyn and Faramir's romance for one, which is just one of the clumsiest 'love at first sight' scenarios I've ever seen). Most of all, in the original work, I didn't like how he placed women mostly in the background, with none of them forming part of the Fellowship or (with the notable one-time exception of Eowyn) doing anything really active that made a difference to the world. If you actually look at surviving stories from the Norse and Germanic tales that provided his inspiration for Middle Earth, you find plenty of female figures who were powerful, standing the equal or superior of men. Even Galadriel didn't feature much in the original story beyond the first book, where she acted more as a rather vague guide, and even showed a weakness that I'd have expected her to master through all her millennia as a Ringbearer... The films did their best to rectified these last points, but the rest sadly stands.

But aside from faults-to-be in my own work, I saw how much of a grip it had on many other authors' work. Some are unconsciously influenced by his work, while others such as Eragon and its sequels are blatantly imitating it. Because of this, I try to steer away from his style. I keep it entirely focused on characters, work to keep description within its boundaries, and I also focus a large amount of my text on what might be called the 'villains'. Heck, I try to blur the distinction between 'heroes' and 'villains' to the point where it's just two side of a conflict with clashing yet understandable views, like any conflict in real life. No Ming and Flash Gordon scenario in my novels and stories; only showing how Ming is trying to rectify a broken system, and (perhaps) how Flash commissioned that campy film as propaganda to justify a human takeover. My, that would be a film to see.

The above text may seem clumsily worded or expressed, but the fact is that my feelings towards Tolkien can't be easily described in print or in speech. I appreciate and admire the grand scope of his world and the amount of depth he put into it, but I don't like either the writing itself or how it's pushed future generations into unconscious or conscious imitation. It's like my feelings for Lovecraft: I appreciate his scope and creative imagination, but his overly complex writing style and racist views put me off reading his stuff a lot of the time these days. I appreciate both Tolkien and Lovecraft, and they pushed me towards my career as a writer. But I consciously try to avoid their styles, and I consider myself better for it.

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