By Jamie Lutton
For the reader who is bewildered by the mania over Tolkien, here is why he is read, and reread, by legions of fans.
1. He spent 12 years on The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, writing it on old student's papers, as he was too poor to buy extra paper.
2. He showed the manuscripts to some very smart, and critical friends in a club he belonged to, who made him rewrite it, again and again - The Inklings.
3. He was one of the most important linguists of the century, and he created the languages in the book, as the core of the books, so the book had structure.
4. He was inspired by real myths, like the epic myths of the Finnish and other northern people, and used words.
5. The hero of the book (Frodo or Sam, depending on who you ask) is the poor s.o.b. swept up by events in history, not the Hero with The Sword. This is the mistake made by most fantasy writers; they make the Hero with The Sword the focus, instead of an everyman or everywoman.
6. He first wrote a popular fantasy book - The Hobbit - for children 20 years earlier, thought about it, and decided to make it an adult book. His letters say that the book 'wrote itself': in particular the Black Riders, took the book away from him. This is the sign of a great book. (The same thing happened with the writing of The White Goddess by Robert Graves: he chronicles this in his account of how that was written in his collection of essays).
And of course these books are dated They reflect the world Tolkien lived in. When the movie adaptions were done a few years ago, for example, Sam was made a lot less servile. The movies did leave out the poetic and epic feel Tolkien was aiming at, and are only a faint shadow of the books. The Ents are far too shallow and silly in the movies, for example. I suppose an twentieth century director could not make a walking Tree that was thousands of years old truly vivid and terrible. In our century, we have killed too many millions of trees like the orcs in these books. Tolkien cuts a bit close here; that is one of the reasons I think he is so popular. We recognize Middle Earth's evils and virtues as our own, writ into fantasy.
Even if you don't pick up Tolkien, as it does not appeal, I suggest Gary Willis's Lincoln At Gettysburg. There is a connection between Tolkien and Lincoln that I noticed, last night. Both Lincoln and Tolkien are brilliant writers in very different areas, but the methods are similar. Both labored very hard, and evolved their work over time - with the help of their peers.
Tolkien would bring scraps of what would become Lord of the Rings to his friends at the "Inklings" - a group of professors and writers that included C. S. Lewis. They would discuss the bit of work at hand, and other things they had all worked on individually. And so it was with Lincoln, and his circle of friends.
In Lincoln at Gettysburg, Gary Willis gives a history of Lincoln's circle and the evolution of his writing and thinking before he gave the Gettysburg Address, and the political climate of the 1850's that led to the Civil War.
I note the connection, as both writers have produced works that make the world blink, and many try to copy, and fail.
People who follow in the footsteps of Tolkien, and write fantasy fail, as they do not spend a decade on their book before they release it. And political figures who have followed Lincoln fail to write like him fail, as they do not evolve, and change, and listen to intellectual peers, and try to wrestle with their writing, to improve it. Only Winston Churchill wrote nearly as well, and there is much more to select from, to find his best, as he was very prolific.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was 30 years in the making. Gary Willis book on it and the Civil War is not to be missed. It is also a small, great refutation of the current argument that the war was 'just' about state's rights. It was about extending slavery to the North and the territories. Gary Willis, here, settles the question brilliantly.
(It's odd that there is controversy at all, since the declarations of the causes of secession issued by the Southern states say slavery was the cause of their secession.)
Nowadays, politicians and novelists have shortcuts. Politicians can hire speechwriters, and novelists have access to more resources. Both have word processors; But the genius is missing. I have not seen a politician rise who is as brilliant as Lincoln, or who can write as well.
Nor do I hear tell of fantasy as good as Tolkien, though writers arise who write nearly as well. Some writers, like Le Guin, who wrote first for the young adult market, has written some good fantasy that is not derived from Tolkien, that are quite good. But writers who are in the same class as Tolkien are very rare. The demands of the paycheck push writers to put out books that are half-baked. A Fantasy writer will usually put out one book that is good, and the rest are rushed, and pretty crappy. And most of it has direct lifts from Tolkien or earlier fantasy writers.
Tolkien had a day job teaching at Cambridge, which gave him time to work on Lord of the Rings. And he had also the royalties from the Hobbit, which he revised after he wrote Lord of the Rings to improve and make consistent with the later works.
Lincoln had jobs in various political offices that he held, so that he had time to refine his writing skills. Besides reading Lincoln at Gettysburg, pick up Lincoln's Speeches in the Dover edition, available at any large University book store, for about $2. This inexpensive edition is worth having on the smallest shelf, and chronicles the development of his style.