Tag Archives: The Hobbit

#amwriting: Tolkien, one-star reviews, and our shifting language

the hobbit movie poster 3Tolkien did NOT use too many words in The Hobbit, and the movie was NOT better.

The book is one thing, and the movies are something else completely. The movies, while they are awesome, exciting, and great fun, do bear some relation to the actual book. The basic plot, some of the high points, and various characters are all taken from the book. However, the movie most certainly does not chronicle the tale as Tolkien originally wrote it.

In the book (for starters) while elves are long lived and it is accepted that he must have been alive at the time, Legolas was not a character. Therefore, he did not have a love interest featured in the book. So, no– Tauriel did not exist in the book, The Hobbit. But she did in the movie, The Desolation of Smaug, and she was a great character there. In reality, no female elves are featured in the original book, The Hobbit, in more than passing, so that pretty much scotched any chance of romance for Kili in the novel.

If you read the credits at the end of the movies, you will see it clearly says “BASED ON” the book, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Now, let me address the concept of “too many words,” a direct quote from one of the many one-star reviews of the book,  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and posted on Amazon several years ago:

J.R.R. Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. That tells us he was educated, but he was writing stories for his children when he wrote The Hobbit and developed the world of Middle Earth. Because of that connection to his children, we know he was writing at a level they could understand. A master of languages, he invented the elfin language. We should assume he had a moderately good grasp of the English language as well.

What modern readers may not realize is this: Tolkien was writing in the early part of the twentieth century. He served in the British army during the First World War, the notorious War To End All Wars. That war was fought one hundred years ago.  Things were different then, he wrote in the literary style of his time.

The problem with the book is not in Tolkien’s writing. It is in the eye of the modern beholder who has no appreciation for the literary style of that era. That is a fair consideration, as reading the literature of this era takes time and persistence, and many readers don’t have the patience. No reader should feel guilty for not enjoying a book their friends loved. It happens to me all the time.

the hobbit movie posterThe Hobbit remains a classic of modern literature because it details that intrinsic thing all great novels consider, the search for self. That quest to discover who we are and what we are capable of is what drives Bilbo to keep going, even in the face of terrible events. Underneath the trappings of fantasy, the elves and goblins represent humanity in all its many imperfections, as does the hobbit himself.

Writers of modern fantasy might try to read what the early masters of the genre wrote, and discover what made their work classics. It will be difficult because the gap between the style and usages of today’s English versus the English of even one hundred years ago is widening with each passing year.

Readers must be patient and set aside their knowledge of what works in today’s literature. In other words, stop looking AT the words as disparate parts that you could write better, and read them in context. You might be surprised at what you will find.

Writers are always readers, and Tolkien often discussed his fondness for the work of William Morris (b.1834 – d.1896). Morris was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and English Arts and Crafts Movement. Tolkien and many of his contemporaries loved Morris’s prose- and poetry-romances.

Tolkien himself said his own work followed the general style and approach of Morris’s work. The Desolation of Smaug portrays dragons as detrimental to landscape, a motif borrowed directly from Morris. Tolkien had what he considered an accepted canon for how dragons should behave to work from.

But exactly what does “canon” mean in the context of a literary genre?

Wikipedia says, “In fictioncanon is the material accepted as officially part of the story in an individual universe of that story. It is often contrasted with, or used as the basis for, works of fan fiction. The alternative terms mythologytimeline, and continuity are often used, with the former being especially to refer to a richly detailed fictional canon requiring a large degree of suspension of disbelief (e.g. an entire imaginary world and history), while the latter two typically refer to a single arc where all events are directly connected chronologically. Other times, the word can mean “to be acknowledged by the creator(s).”

The modern image and mythology of the elf as he is written into most of today’s fantasy has been directly modeled on the elves of Tolkien’s Rivendell, whether the author knows it or not. Even the elves we find in the onslaught of modern urban-fantasy-romances are created in Tolkien’s image—close to the earth, immortal, and somehow nobler and more clever than we mere humans.

The love of a beautifully crafted tale will always endure. While future generations may have to learn to read and understand English as we speak it today, a true appreciation of Tolkien’s influence on modern epic fantasy literature will live on.

hobbit-battle-five-armies-bilbo-posterWhen I decided to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their original form, I had to take a college class. In that class we learned to read and understand Middle English, and then wrote our own modern translations. It was a lot of fun, but many great modern translations are out there if you don’t have the patience to read the original.

In the future, modern translations of Tolkien’s work will be published, and new fans of his work will emerge, just as in the case of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a novel fully titled The history of the valorous and wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha. It was written in early modern Spanish (the equivalent of Shakespearean English) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. New translations are published every few decades.

So, Tolkien didn’t use too many words, and the movies were not better than his books. They were good, but they were different stories, one based on the other, but not following it.


Wikipedia contributors, “Canon (fiction),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Canon_(fiction)&oldid=760595154  (accessed January 17, 2017).

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Elements of the story: Circumstances and Objectives

the hobbitAt the outset of any good story, we find our protagonist, and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs, and Hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the Situation, which is the core idea of your plot. This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself in the beginning of the story. 

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a respectable hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is living a comfortable life in a prosperous, sheltered village, and has no desire to change that in any way. However, a casual, polite greeting made to a passing wizard sets a string of events into motion that will eventually change the course of history of Middle Earth.

the hobbit movie poster 3The wizard, Gandalf, tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition’s “burglar”. The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo becomes a little indignant, and joins despite himself. The next morning he has second thoughts, but the last minute Bilbo literally runs out the door, with nothing but the clothes on his back.

  • How will the story start?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: Objective

the hobbit movie posterA protagonist has no business showing up on the page unless he/she has a compelling objective. If he doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

Bilbo does have an objective. Once he gets past his feeling of having made a terrible mistake, he desires nothing more than to help his friends achieve their goal: that of regaining their lost kingdom. Gandalf exerts a parental influence over Bilbo at the outset, guiding him and pushing him out of his comfortable existence.  But it is Bilbo who has common sense and compassion, who gradually takes over leadership of the party, guiding and rescuing them from their own greedy mistakes. This is a fact the dwarves can’t bear to acknowledge, and also a fact he doesn’t realize himself.

Those turning points where with each adventure Bilbo gains confidence and a tool or weapon he will later need are what make up the best parts of the adventure. That is what you must inject into your adventure, be it urban fantasy or science fiction.

  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is he going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?

Perhaps your tale is set on a space station. What does your protagonist need that is in short supply? What does he have to do to get it?

Perhaps you are writing an urban fantasy. Perhaps your main character is a vampire. He/she requires sustenance–what will he/she do to get it? Or conversely, if a human, what will he/she do to avoid becoming vampire-food?

Protagonists begin their tale in their current surroundings. They are thrown out of their comfortable existence by circumstances, and forced to identify objectives they must achieve or acquire in order to resolve their situation.

hobbit-battle-five-armies-bilbo-posterCircumstances and Objectives combine to form the plot. Character A desires Objective B–and will do anything to acquire it.  Along the way, Character A has a series of adventures that force him to grow and change, but which in the end give him the strength, the moral courage to enable the final resolution.

Thus, whichever you conceive first, characters or objective, you need to know why your character is willing to leave his circumstances and embark on his adventure. That objective must be compelling enough for him to risk everything he values to achieve it.

But what if a side character has such a compelling story that the book becomes about him, and not our hobbit? If you notice that is the case, rewrite your book so that the character with the  most compelling story is the protagonist from page one.

Potential for gain must outweigh the potential for loss–so if he is risking his life, there had better be a damned big payoff at the end, whether monetary or in moral coin. Without that risk and potential for gain, there is no story.

 

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William Morris, Tolkien, and Modern Elves

Pauline Baynes' map poster of Middle-earth published in 1970 by George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books.

Pauline Baynes’ map poster of Middle-earth published in 1970 by George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books.

Lately I have been ‘guru-ed’ to death on various different writers forums by a few indie authors, whose own work is a great deal less than stellar, harshly criticizing the quality of writing of everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to Robert Jordan.

Some people–I wonder, do they even read the comments they write? I am going to tell you straight up: Tolkien did NOT use too many words in The Hobbit, and the movie was not better.  Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, he invented the elfin language and as such, we may be assured he had a moderately good grasp of the English language, and the literature of his time.

He wrote in a lyrical style, with descriptions and side quests, things that enthralled avid readers like me who understood how to set aside a day to just to enjoy a good read.

The movie, while it is awesome, exciting and great fun, bears some relation to the actual book but certainly does not chronicle it. In the book for starters, Legolas was not a character, he did not have a love interest, and neither did Kili.  If you read the credits at the end of the movie, you will see it clearly says “BASED ON” the book, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

the hobbitThe problem with the book is not in Tolkien’s writing. It is in the eye of the beholder who never learned patience, or appreciation of a well-told story.

Fortunately, we now have an emerging generation of young women who consider “Pride and Prejudice” to be their favorite book of all time, and this gives me hope. Pride and Prejudice is about manners, yes–but it is also about that intrinsic thing all great novels consider, the search for self, and underneath the trappings of fantasy, the elves and goblins, so is the Hobbit.

That quest to discover who we are and what we are capable of is what drives Bilbo to keep  going, even in the face of terrible events. I have hope that if Jane Austen’s work is once again considered to be popular reading among young people, then the love of a beautifully crafted tale will never entirely disappear and the true appreciation of Tolkien’s great works will once again be celebrated.

What I frequently see in these forums see is an aggressive type of person who criticizes but lacks an understanding of what he/she is ranting about. They claim to be in writing groups, but if they are, I feel sorry for their fellow writers.  These people are the carrion-eaters, the ones who will pick an author’s work to the bone, and casually dismiss it, destroying a fellow authors sense of self-worth.

What a person who writes fantasy needs to know is what the masters of the genre wrote, and what made their work classics.  In other words,  stop looking AT the words as disparate parts that you could write better, and read them in context. You might be surprised at what you will find!

Well at World's End, William MorrisEven Tolkien had inspiration for his works, and he freely admitted he was a great devotee of the work of William Morris, an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and English Arts and Crafts Movement. He loved Morris’s prose and poetry romances. Tolkien’s own work follows the general style and approach of Morris’s work. The Desolation of Smaug as portraying dragons as detrimental to landscape, has been noted as an explicit motif borrowed from Morris, just as countless fantasy authors borrow the modern concept of Orcs, Elves, and many other high fantasy motifs from Tolkien.

Rivendell_illustrationThe modern image and mythology of the elf as he is written into most of today’s fantasy has been directly modeled on the elves of Tolkien’s Rivendell, whether the author knows it or not. Even the elves we find in the onslaught of urban-fantasy-romances are created in Tolkien’s image.

So, now that I’ve had my rant about internet writer’s forums and the bad apples who occasionally haunt them, you’re probably wondering what  I find that is good out there? A great deal more good than bad, actually.  There are an incredible number of people who are willing to be helpful to aspiring authors, and who regularly share good information. The following is a list of good forums you might want to look into.

Writers Digest

Writers Cafe

Absolute Write

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

I’ve had a lot of fun on these forums and I learned a great deal. I never respond to Trolls, because acknowledging them encourages them to think they have power. How you handle them is up to you. Do your homework, research the great literature of your genre and write because you love it.

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years numberless as the wings of trees! The beginning of the Quenya poem Namárië written in tengwar and in Latin script, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years numberless as the wings of trees! The beginning of the Quenya poem Namárië written in tengwar and in Latin script, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

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