After some lackluster reading recently, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.
It’s been nearly two months since my last entry in this mini-series, so I thought I’d provide some additional thoughts. I am almost halfway through The Return of the King and only just now realizing that I read through all of The Two Towers without a single post like this. Oh well. I’ll try to highlight some story lessons from the last book-and-a-half and then perhaps wrap up this mini-series once I’ve completed book three.
Like last time, I’m just going to jump in. I’ll try to keep these in chronological order relative to the sections/chapters that inspired them.
Glimpses of the Wider World
Tolkien is obviously known for his world-building prowess, but I think there are several examples of this that are not talked about often, and which particularly intrigued me.
The first is several references between books 2 and 3 to the “war in the north”, a large assault that Sauron sent from the Black Gate to the kingdoms of Dale and Erebor, where the descendants of Dane and Bard had to hold their own against virtual annihilation. I haven’t yet read the appendices at the end of The Return of the King, but I know this is referenced somewhere in there.
Still, it’s astonishing to me that a massive part of the War of the Ring is mentioned only in passing. I want to read about the war in the north! Can you imagine how long this series would have been if Tolkien had actually included the different battlefronts? That would have been at least two additional books.
Anyway, I think this point is lost on movie viewers. Peter Jackson’s films, by necessity, focus on the immediate battles shown in the books, but to casual viewers, it makes it seem like the war was fought and won in exactly two battles — four if you count the skirmishes between Faramir’s forces and the Haradrim, and the last defense of Osgiliath.
The second time I really felt the wider world was in the third book when the Rohirrim are marching to Gondor. They apss through the woods, where Wild Men guide them in secret past additional forces Sauron had sent into Rohan, thus allowing them to reach Minas Tirith in the midst of its siege.
- Demonstrate scale of events, not just place. In a previous post I mentioned the sense of scale of the world itself, such as a 10-day journey to pass over/under one mountain. The first example I mentioned above, the “war in the north”, lends scale of a different sort to the story. This is a scale of events. This massive war, the one that would define the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth and set the stage for the Fourth, had to have more than just a few battles or a few primary actors. Even though we don’t get much detail about the defense of Dale and Erebor against Sauron, the fact that we hear about it tells us that this is not just a war for Gondor. It truly is a war for all of Middle Earth, and the Free Peoples are too scattered to fight side-by-side. This is a war of immense proportions, and Tolkien allows the reader to imagine what that looked like.
- Diversity within smaller geographic regions. I think this is a point that a lot of fantasy misses. Most peoples in a given region or “nation” are shown as monolithic cultures with little internal diversity, unless the story is specifically detailing internal political strife between different groups. “The Ride of the Rohirrim” shows us that although Rohan is a powerful kingdom, they are not the only cultural group within their own borders. The Wild Men have a history of conflict with both Rohan and Gondor, but they find common cause against the orcs that are rampaging across Rohan.
Characters Who Feel Too Small for the Moment
In the chapters leading up to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, both Merry and Pippin express to various characters that this coming war feels too big for them to have any real part. This is exemplified in Pippin’s offer of service to Denethor, where he admits that his service may be of little use to the Steward of Gondor, and when Merry pleads with Theoden to allow him to ride with the Rohirrim to battle and is subsequently denied.
Not only did these characters feel the dread leading up to the battle, but they also could not believe their experiences after the fact. Pippin sits with Merry in “The Houses of Healing”, where Merry expresses his own insignificance in this war:
Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not.”Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King, Ballantine Books, 1965, pp. 179.
- Allow your characters to feel emotional distress in the moment. Even in the lead-up to the war and the immediate aftermath, when there is still much for the characters to accomplish, these moments of both vulnerability and uncertainty of their own place in the story makes them feel relatable. How could we expect a hobbit from the cozy, protected country of the Shire to fully grasp a conflict of this scale, even as they are witnessing an event as momentous as the return of the King to Gondor. I think this is what endears the hobbits to readers so much. They are the most human of all the characters because of these vulnerabilities.
- Allow your characters to feel the weight of their actions after the fact. I always enjoy retrospective moments from characters in stories, a chance for both the character and the reader to process what has happened. These scenes often reveal much more about the characters than the more action-packed scenes that usually precede them. I think they also help maintain the emotional tone of the story. After several chapters of speeches and foreboding and war songs, a simple conversation between two friends helps the reader marvel at the previous 100+ pages of politicking and battle.
I intended for this post to be shorter than previous installments and it somehow ended up longer. I’m cutting myself off.