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  • Writer's pictureA.J. Sobel

J.R.R. Tolkien: Brilliant but Dry

Like a lot of people my age, I was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien through school. The Hobbit was on the reading list for English class, so I sat down and started turning pages.

It was an incredible ride. The world, the characters, the story — it was all so fully realized that I half-wondered if someone from Middle Earth had told him this story and he just transcribed it.

To me, The Hobbit is the ultimate fireside book. It’s the one you pick up while you’re sitting in a comfortably broken-in chair next to a fireplace, drinking cocoa (I think I was eleven or twelve at the time so an Irish coffee was off the table).

This made perfect sense when I found out that this was Tolkien’s crack at a fairy tale for kids.

Needless to say, I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring with high expectations. Expectations that were almost immediately dashed.

This may get me lynched as a writer, but try to bear with me here.

Where The Hobbit was warm and inviting, Fellowship was cold and aloof. Where the former led you through a full and bright world, the latter left you alone in a place that was almost devoid of life. This isn’t from a meta perspective either (although the world does seem somewhat empty); this is entirely from a writing standpoint.

I have absolutely nothing but the utmost respect for J.R.R. Tolkien and his abilities as a world-crafter. He stands second to none in his writing accomplishments. But for whatever reason, I just could not get into his trilogy in the same way that I did The Hobbit.

Lord knows I’ve tried. Every few years, I’ll pick it up again, starting fresh, wondering if it’ll be different this time. Within a hundred pages, my eyes are glossing over the lines like I’m reading a textbook. It’s just that dry.

I want to love it, I really do. The movies were incredible (the trilogy not whatever the fuck they were doing with the adaptation of The Hobbit), the wiki pages were enthralling. I’ve found several YouTubers with channels dedicated to the world Tolkien built and I think I’ve watched almost everything they’ve put out.

I love the world he created. Unfortunately, the way he writes about it has just never clicked with me.

The most apt comparison I could make is that it feels like I’m reading bible verse. Florid description and metaphor carrying you from scene to scene to such an extent that you don’t really notice anything is happening until the hobbits have been taken to Isengard (ba-dum-tish).

And the songs… Jesus Christ the songs… Why are there so many songs?!

The ultimate expression of this writing style is, without a doubt, The Silmarillion. Which, ironically, I read in its entirety. In this instance his style of writing makes sense when you consider that the creation myth Tolkien came up with is quite similar to the Judeo-Christian Genesis.

To me, Tolkien’s downfall seems to come from the fact that he is so focused on the minutia of any given scene, character, or location, that the wider story just gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s the micro-vs-macro debate that all high fantasy writers thrust themselves into at some point or another. It is… inevitable (Thank you, Thanos).

High fantasy (Chronicles of Narnia, Game of Thrones, The Dark Tower series, the Witcher series) demands an almost encyclopedic knowledge of facts of the world that is being created. Whether or not these facts and details make it into the book, the author still has to know them in order to keep the narrative cohesive.

The pitfall lies in the fact that the writer wants to fully expound on every inch of that which they have created; and justifiably so (Look at this cool thing, now look at this cool thing, and this cool thing, and this cool thing!).

Detail after detail after detail is thrown at the reader until the plot has ground to a halt and hundreds (maybe thousands) of words are wasted on things that are entirely immaterial to the story.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s one that Tolkien yeets himself into every single time.

Now, before you close the page all upset that I’ve maligned one of the greatest writers of the modern era, I would just like to reiterate something: J.R.R. Tolkien was a brilliant man and the world he created serves as a benchmark for everything that high fantasy can and should be.

That being said, I find it incredibly dry and it’s one of the rare books that I would rather read the cliff notes of than actually sit down and read.

1 Comment

Pete Francis
Pete Francis
May 29, 2021

To be honest I too struggled to get through the trilogy after finding The Hobbit very entertaining, probably because I was 17 and just lacked patience in trying to mind-meld with the author. I do know that Tolkein was a devout Roman Catholic and you know that dense interlocking detail and meticulously inspected logic are part of the voluminous theological works of Catholic writers. Also I imagine having been exposed regularly to the Bible from his youth he may have been drawn to the historical detail, the familiar-by-frequent-reference geography (doesn’t Mediterranean mean ”middle earth”?), and the poetry. You mention the many songs— the Pentateuch, you probably know, was passed down through generations not in writing but in oral formulaic poet…

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