J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing style is not only something to be admired for its intrinsic literary quality. It is valuable because it gives a certain quality to the stories: it makes them believable. This is not to be found in the rich and carefully planned action, nor in the descriptive parts.
If we are to strip down the prose of all its aesthetic load, we would eventually be left with an enormous, complicated block of information that builds the mythology/history. There is a specific quality to it that makes some people often put the books aside in frustration, or return to reread them for a better understanding. Paradoxically, this is exactly what makes these books believable, captivating, convincing and valuable.
So much has been said about Tolkien’s writing style and what makes his books so great. We won’t go now into such literary depths, but explore the very simple truth. There is more to his writing (hinting here at The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings) than genius storytelling and well crafted beauty, and it’s what makes it believable. It’s the historical feel attached to it.
Pick any history book and you will see what this means. The style is not made to serve beauty or fantasy, nor is it meant to entertain. It sacrifices those literary aspects in order to favour the informative purpose. Historical books are also hard to read. It is is no secret that many have faced difficulties trying to read The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. It is exactly because of this trait. It is the latter book to depict this style fully, since there is far less exploration of the character’s thoughts and emotions and more of an account of deeds and events in a chronology. It is this quality that makes these books a challenge for the reader. You cannot always follow every thread. The details overwhelm you. There are countless years, names and locations to remember. The names are sometimes repeated, but identifying different characters. It’s a dense web you have to make your way through. It’s difficult and frustrating and makes you feel like you will never know the whole of it – only if you re-re-read, which is, after all, what all Tolkien fans do.
The narrator does exist at all times in a fashion that’s typical to fantasy works, but this does little to conceal the mentioned aspects. It may make them harder to spot, but they are there, nonetheless.
Indeed there are loads of landscape descriptions, for example, but, if we are to extract all the information, we would have an enormous database of characters, places, deeds, battles. All of them are so numerous it becomes overwhelming ad intimidating – just like real history. Equally, these are compelling enough, so the reader feels drawn to explore more, to structure the information received and grasp more of this Middle-earth history.
These writings are much like the Bible or the Scandinavian sagas and the Eddas. You will find the dry quality of the writing and the prioritising of historical information. The author found myths to believe in, then created his own. He created them with his invented languages. To make these believable, he knew what he had to do. He had a look at our world as it is – what we believe in, what books we read about that, what subtly unites every culture, what makes us see certain myths as worthy to believe in. He also looked at the way history is written and preserved. His philological skills were closely related to history. Up to a certain point, these can’t even be separated.
All the literary spices aside, this is what you have in the end: a very rich prose that’s completely merciless. It’s filled with countless details you know you should remember. It challenges your memory skills. It extends your attention span to years, centuries and millennia. When faced with the history of Middle-earth, it’s just like when you confront the history of our own world. Ever noticed how Tolkien repeats certain names? Boromir, Haleth etc. – these belong not only to one hero, but to several illustrious characters. To the reader, this can be extremely confusing and frustrating. However, this tactic serves very well, as it’s meant to make it all very realistic. Have a look at our own history. The same names appear over and over, attached to different people across the ages. Tolkien knew it would only be natural to repeat names than to keep inventing new ones.
In conclusion, what seems to damage the reading experience and make these books difficult is what actually renders the prose truly believable, in a subtle way. The historical feature wires our brains when reading Tolkien just like it does when we pick up a genuine history book. Middle-earth has its own chronicles to be studied and analysed, complete with maps, genealogies and languages.
This is what makes Middle-earth feel real to its fans. This is why so many of them become ‘fanatics’ who dedicate their lives to studying Tolkien, compiling the information, analysing, dissecting and writing so much about it. This is why so many parts and bits of Middle-earth history are being intensely debated by readers.
Alina H. is a freelance writer who earned a MA in Comparative Literature and Anthropology, took mythological study seriously, at the same time developing a long lasting passion for J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. She does go to conventions at times and has a blast.