Literary Lessons for a Scholarly Holiday

Well, I’m Back Home Again in Indiana for the holidays, with very little to do except read my old journals from high school, goof off with my siblings, avoid former acquaintances at the gym, and visit the la-di-da grocery store that just opened up around the corner.

Which, actually, is plenty.

Most of the Christmas gifts I received were books…


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…or other literary paraphernalia, including (but not limited to) this Anna Karenina “litograph” poster, created using text from the novel, and these hilarious Pride and Prejudice tree ornaments.

But that wasn’t the end of my readerly Yuletide.

For as long as I can remember, and probably much longer, there has been an orange and an envelope at the bottom of my Christmas stocking. The orange, of course, is just an orange. But the envelope contains a year-end bonus to supplement our usual family wages (unconditional love and the occasional home-cooked meal, that is).

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. There are strings attached to that envelope. We have to earn what’s inside it through a demonstration of knowledge—or, failing that, a brief bout of humiliation. Because on the outside of that envelope, there’s a question.

And the question is never easy.

My question, this year, was: Who were the leading members of the Inklings?

And even though the term meant nothing to me, I gathered up a quick round of clues (“Ink,” from the name itself, and then “mid-century,” “British,” and “fantasy” from my Question Master uncle) to quickly reach Tolkien as an obvious front-runner.

“Yes, Tolkien,” said my uncle. “And his friend…?”

“Oh, C. S. Lewis,” I rattled off like a professional nerd. And then I got to open up my envelope with the dignity that comes with a trivial triumph (PUN INTENDED OBVIOUSLY).

Now that I’ve done the appropriate research, I can tell you that the Inklings were an all-male literary group that met regularly at Oxford during the 1930s and ’40s. At their meetings, members would read and discuss their latest projects, drink beer, and make fun of lesser writers. One of their favorite rendezvous points was the Eagle and Child, a popular Oxford pub.

I’ve been to that pub. I’d even heard that Tolkien and Lewis visited often. But I never knew, until last week, that they called themselves the Inklings. And even for someone like me, who thinks Tolkien is over-hyped to grotesque proportions and finds Lewis just a tad boring, this new information is adorkable and charming enough to evoke fond memories of both beer and Christmas.

The trivia ransom game is far from being our weirdest holiday tradition (sneaking this traumatizing ET doll into each other’s coat pockets and suitcases is closer to the top of that list). But it remains one of our most stressful enlightening. I pass on this knowledge today in the hopes that you, too, look for literary lessons inside your local pub and at the bottom of your Christmas stocking.

Just don’t expect much out of the orange.

Unsurprisingly, Tolkien and I Do Not Share Many Fans

Last night, I saw that my review of The Lord of the Rings on Punchnel’s* had a new-ish comment. A long comment. A MEAN comment (kind of). Since my LOTR review, here and elsewhere, has always provoked more arguments and mean comments than anything else I’ve written, I was not surprised. I went from slightly hurt (how dare he disparage those of us who snark for the sake of it!) to slightly confused (why not go to, say, the New York Times, instead of a rowdy entertainment webzine, if he’s looking for a diplomatic and consensus-driven book review?) and on to slightly amused (I reread my review and rediscovered the LOTR memes. Bless them, oh Lord) as the evening wore on.

I took the time to write out a response today and decided to share it here. I really enjoy discussions over differences in opinion, even if they are mostly pointless. We are, after all, entitled to our thoughts—and no one could ever convince me that those 1000+ pages of Tolkien were anything but miserable.

Here’s his comment:

The past few years, I’ve noticed that young writers on the Internet seem to think snark is a substitute for thoughtful critique. It’s not.

To be fair, Jamie, you did make some valid points. I counted three:

1) Pacing. Yes, it’s a slow-moving tale, especially in the beginning, and a very long book overall. (Note, though, that Tolkien wanted the work split into five books, not three volumes. So blame the publisher for that.)

I especially found the part with Tom Bombadil to be a drag. Was glad they left him out of the movie (except, if I recall, for a possible glimpse toward the end). (In general, whenever the movies left something out, it was a good decision; whenever they added something, it was hackneyed, sometimes ridiculous, and often plain bad writing.)

2) Narrative priority. The long, long descriptive passages could’ve been both more compact, and better integrated into the narrative. Though here, I think Tolkien was just writing the book the way he wanted; it’s as much a descriptive travelogue (in the tradition of great travel stories) about the world he was creating, as it is a narrative of events.

3) The songs and poems. Readers should feel no shame in just skipping over those. Tolkien, although a respected scholar of languages and folklore, wasn’t a great poet.

I’ll address some of the other points here (speaking as someone who’s enjoyed the book but is not a rabid Tolkien fan):

Claim: Gandalf “does precisely nothing”.

Well, he does provide invaluable knowledge, and save the entire party from a Balrog, and save Helm’s Deep, and defeat Saruman, and lead the forces of Gondor to hold the White City. And so on, and so forth.

Claim: Eowyn does nothing but “become a punchline”.

Well, she does kill the Witch King, the most dangerous of those nine undead Nazgul things. And, no, she doesn’t become a punchline. Here you seem to be blaming the novel for one of the many poor artistic choices in the movies.

Claim: Female characters are under-represented and underwritten.

True. But, given that Tolkien (a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century) was writing in the 1950s, what do you expect? You could apply the same complaint to the vast majority of literature published before the past few decades (and a lot of current literature, for that matter).

Claim: Long-winded style.

True; but that’s not good or bad; it’s simply a matter of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum. And, again, the style is not atypical of most fiction written before the mid-20th century. I don’t write like that; hardly anyone does anymore. But it has its charms, among them the sense of receiving words from a different time; this works with the presumed gulf of time since the events described. (Tolkien always said he meant Middle Earth to be taken as an ancient age of our own Earth, not as a wholly imaginary world.)

Note that your specific example (“many times half an hour”) is a poor choice. I don’t recall the specifics, but I know the phrase was a deliberate choice, intended to resonate either with an earlier reference in the book, or with the general assumption that half an hour would be a normal conversation, and many times that would therefore be a talk of length and (presumably) import. Once again, this is part of a traditional story-telling style that will of course seem old-fashioned to modern ears.

Well, you see what I’m getting at. Please continue to write reviews; but do put a little more thought into it if you don’t want long-winded, tedious responses from pedantic middle-aged bastards like me.

And here’s my response:

Aww, come on now, where would we be without snark? No Chandler Bing, no Veronica Mars… I wouldn’t want to live in that kind of world.

In all seriousness, I don’t believe snark and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive—but it seems humor and Tolkien often are. I am always intrigued to see Tolkien fans, both casual (like yourself) and rabid (hehe, I love that word), take up arms against every attack on him, no matter how playful. Every time this review has appeared somewhere new online, and every time I discuss Tolkien with an acquaintance, I get the same response: “We can agree to disagree on every other book… but your opinions and impressions of Tolkien are WRONG.”

Why do we rush to his defense quicker than any other author’s? Why do we treat him with kid gloves—as an idol and a genius instead of what he was: a gifted linguist; a pioneer, perhaps; but an average writer? I have faith that Tolkien’s millions of fans can one day cope with the occasional bout of criticism. He certainly doesn’t seem bothered.

To address a few of your points specifically:

My dispute over the volumes is that Tolkien viewed LOTR not as a series (of 3, 5, or 100 books; I’m not picky) but as a single novel. I think the publisher had the right idea, and I interpret Tolkien’s insistence on viewing the work as one novel as snobbish. What’s wrong with a series, if the material lends itself well to this? The real point, of course, is that IF Tolkien was going to demand that LOTR remain a single work, he needed to edit it. As a series, the length is more acceptable.

You’re right about Gandalf (you’ll have to pardon the embellishment; sometimes I get carried away with my boredom) but not, I think, about Eowyn. The “no living man” line DID appear in the novel and reeks of careful foresight. Based on Tolkien’s general disregard for women, I believe it’s safe to say that he “allowed” Eowyn to kill the Witch-king ONLY because it made for a clever (?) punchline. Otherwise one of his maaaaaaany male characters would have done it, and Eowyn would have officially accomplished squat.

On that note, I’m tired of hearing excuses for writers who “wrote what was typical at the time” (in other words, “were sexist/racist/homophobic/etc.”) as if progressive thought were a 21st century invention. Tolstoy, and Flaubert, and Thackeray all apparently thought the most ordinary of women could make for fascinating protagonists (and, obviously, supporting characters), and they came long before Tolkien. There’s nothing wrong with a cast of predominantly male characters unless, as with Tolkien, it validates an exclusively male-centric perspective. It’s hardly a coincidence that most of Tolkien’s rabid fans are boys and men. And, for the record, I absolutely do make this same complaint of literature both old and new—and it’s because I give authors, most of whom have brains, more credit, and I expect more from them rather than making excuses.

Oops… I’ve now also committed Tolkien’s foremost sin with this long-winded response. In any case, I’ve genuinely enjoyed this discussion and want to thank you for commenting. You’ve given me food for thought (my favorite kind!).

*Update: Unfortunately, when Punchnel’s launched their new website design in 2016, none of the shares/comments from the previous version were carried over. It’s lucky, then, that I copied this conversation here, right? (Except, of course, that it’s not lucky at all, because I am a mature and responsible adult who spends her free time backing up her every keystroke.)

New York Reads and LOTR

I’m working on a couple of series for LitroNY and Punchnel’s, and they just so happen to be book-related—overlapping nicely with my posts here.

First up is Literary New York: A Recommended Reading List, which is exactly what it sounds like. If you’re planning a trip to NYC in the near or distant future, you’ll obviously need a relevant reading list. Now you have one.

Second is the latest Classic Review on Punchnel’s: The Lord of the Rings. If you missed that one the first time around, it’s worth reading now if only for the links to hilarious memes.

Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers (Electric Literature)

If you’re looking for advice on how to write long-winded, poorly-paced, male-centric bestsellers, you can park yourself right here. Some Tolkien enthusiast (apparently there are a lot of them) cobbled together random letter excerpts and life experiences meant to represent Tolkien’s writing strategies, then turned them into a text-heavy infographic.

All I can say is GRAIN OF SALT, people. Tip #8, “Real People Make Great Characters,” is only true if you don’t mind getting sued for slander. And please, please ignore Tip #7, “Dreams Give Us Inspiration.” Stephenie Meyer based Twilight on a dream, and look where that got us.




#41 The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien


So there’s this hobbit. You may have heard of him. He is unwisely chosen to venture beyond the gates of hell to destroy a powerful ring on which the fate of Middle Earth depends—a quest that should ABSOLUTELY kill him but doesn’t. He’s joined by a few burdensome fools (to remind us these are unlikely heroes, like most British protagonists) and a few legendary warriors (to lend a little credibility to the expedition, or something).

Oh, and there’s a wizard. But don’t get excited; he does precisely nothing.

There are some pretty blatant problems within this widely praised and beloved narrative. And because it’s more fun to mock than to revere, I’m going to skip gleefully past its merits and picnic among its many flaws.

Problem #1: Length

Really, Tolkien? Three towering volumes to finish one story? Take a cue from Strunk & White and edit.

I take issue with the length particularly because I sense a deliberate effort to drag out the story at timesbut that’s another problem. (It’s Problem #4, actually.)

For now I’ll just say that I could easily overlook his page count if Tolkien simply treated The Lord of the Rings as a series instead of a single novel. But as it stands, if we consider the actual plot/substance of this monstrous tale, the length is totally unnecessaryas well as a major contributor to Problem #2.

Problem #2: Pacing

Halfway through Fellowship, I checked the handy little map of Middle Earth to see how far our dear hobbits had come, as they finally—FINALLY—reached Rivendell. As it turns out, Rivendell is exactly one inch away from the Shire.

Imagine my despair. Imagine me weeping into my tea and cursing the name of Baggins. Imagine me slowly, inevitably succumbing to madness like Gollum singing the praises of His Precious.

Problem #3: Narrative Priority

Tolkien spends much, much, MUCH longer describing meals than battle scenes.

See for yourself if you don’t believe me.

Also, was LOTR intended as a musical? Because Tolkien breaks into song every five minutes. I’m surprised Disney didn’t take over the film script and turn Frodo into a lovable hunchback Hunchbaggins.

Problem #4: Long-Winded Style

The only thing more tedious than the hobbits’ journey across Middle Earth is Tolkien’s manner of describing it. Consider this excerpt:

And then they talked for many times half an hour.

Seriously, Tolkien? WTF is this? A lesson in superfluity? Just say they talked for several hours, or for a long time. Or, better yet, let us assume they had important things to discuss, since they’re trying to save the world, or something. (I can’t quite be sure because you haven’t gotten around to telling us yet.)

Problem #5: Female Disappearing Act

Where are all the women??? All of the major LOTR characters are men. Most of the minor characters are men. And since there are no plot-contrived circumstances that eliminate women from the story (à la Lord of the Flies), we can only infer that Tolkien forgot about them. He just didn’t think women had anything to contribute to his thousand-page tale, I guess. Of the small handful of females to be found in Middle Earth, all are completely useless.

Here is a comprehensive list of Tolkien’s female characters:

  • Arwen: Elf. Does nothing, ever.
  • Galadriel: Elf. Wise, beautiful, creepy. Has a swan boat and lots of male friends.
  • Eowyn: Human. Falls in love at first sight with Aragorn, then does nothing, ever, except become a punch line.
  • Shelob: Enormous arachnid-like creature with hundreds of eyes. Does not even manage to kill Frodo and Sam—two small, starving hobbits with zero fighting skills.
  • Rosie Cotton: Hobbit. Marries Sam, because [???].

And for those of you inclined to argue that “women didn’t fight in medieval wars!” I’d like to remind you that this isn’t history. This is fantasy. Tolkien could write his fictional wars however the Middle Hell he wanted to. He could have had flying raccoons attacking hipster vampires while a pale, blond pirate/elf twirled arrow batons like a giddy cheerleader.

But, instead, a man lauded for his imagination left out half a world’s population.

Problem #6: Too Much Happening Beyond the Text

Speaking of imagination, Tolkien creates this richly detailed storyscape—languages and all—but can’t seem to communicate everything he wants to say about it even within this long, long book. And because editing appears to be beneath him, he insists on including irrelevant, superfluous information just because he thought of it.

The average reader does not want to refer to a map every other paragraph, or keep charts of the eleventy-seven names bestowed on every individual character. And appendices? Plural?

Fuck you, Tolkien.

Problem #7: Immature Worldview

LOTR is downright childish in its lack of nuance. Evil characters are supremely, definitively evil, and good characters are inherently, eternally good. No one is remotely realistic; they are either idealized or caricaturized. Some have mythical character backgrounds, yes, but so few have any depth.

Worse writers than Tolkien have tackled the grey areas of human nature, and juggled the weight of individuality, much more compellingly.

In sum—dare I say it?—I preferred the movies. Better yet are the memes. Oh, man, the freaking memes. They never get old.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Bitter diatribes aside, this book remains quite a feat. I mean, it must have taken Tolkien hours to come up with all of Aragorn’s nicknames.

Now that all is said and done, then, my answer to this question will have to be a reluctant ewrij’aYoE;cjxjik?e038rrrrr. (That’s “Ugh, fine” in Elvish.) (Also Welsh.)

Favorite Quotes:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.

“As for me,” said Boromir, “my way home lies onward and not back.”

Beyond the shadows we may meet again!

Forth rode the king, fear behind him, fate before him.

Read: 2013