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To Survive, We Must Kill Our Father: The Wretchedness of Tolkien - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
September 16th, 2003
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To Survive, We Must Kill Our Father: The Wretchedness of Tolkien

I remember my response when a teacher asked me whether I liked Moby Dick:

"The book itself sucked - but the Cliffs' Notes were riveting."

So ask me what I think about Lord of the Rings, why don't you? Oh, never mind, I'll just go off -

Tolkien is the biggest hack piece of shit ever to stumble on a story that ever existed. He may, in fact, be the poorest writer ever to create any sort of folktale with resonance. His plots are meandering, his descriptions are overblown in only the way that a boring old English windbag can get, and his dialogue is more wooden than his Ents.

It's time to destroy Tolkien.

Why Tolkien Is - And, More Importantly, Should Be - Irrelevant
Now, before I get into detail on why Tolkien sucks, let me get one thing straight: Most of Tolkien's admirers will defend him by pointing out that if it were not for Tolkien, the idea of a vast fantasy saga would not exist. And in that, I completely agree.

That's one of the reasons I hate him.

First off, let's get the "the first is always the best" hoo-hah out of the way: How many of you women are going to Freudian therapists to discuss how your penis envy and sublimated love of rape is really what causes your problems? The point is, of course, that quite often a thing that jumpstarts something valid is not something valid in itself. It is a great rough draft, but in the end we have to say, "Hey, thanks for inspiring other people to do a lot better than you did!" and move on.

Tolkien is one of those things.

Furthermore, the shadow of Tolkien has been fouling fantasy for a long time now. Every serious fantasy book must be three novels long, and it must feature a protagonist who needs to get (or understand) the foozle while he slowly goes mad trying to get it to where it needs to be, and a Big Dark Protagonist who's mean and controls armies. Every fantasy series has a long-buried ancient civilization and a funny language to speak.

Flip through the series, folks: Terry Brooks? Well, he's a Tolkien clone. But Stephen R. Donaldson? David Eddings? Fritz Leiber? Terry Goodkind? Melanie Rawn? Anne Mccaffrey? Michael Moorcock? Even Dune is, in many ways, a large and elaborate Tolkien riff.

And even if they don't specifically emulate Tolkien, their books are often written as a reaction to Tolkien - Terry Pratchett's Discworld, Piers Anthony's Xanth.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that every fantasy novel written since Tolkien is, on some level, a reflection of Tolkien.

(Well, that's not entirely true. There were some smaller series, like Amber and the Wold Newton universe, that managed to mostly break free... But they weren't really popular, and in many ways were more science-fictiony than fantasy.)

I think that to find the first fantasy novel that really told Tolkien to go to hell and blazed its own path, we have to look to George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, which features no elf, no dwarf, no fucking Sauron clone... Just a bunch of really interesting humans duking it out in bloody battles.

And upon seeing how well Martin did it, and how interesting his world is, I was infuriated. I've had to spend my entire life reading fantasy series where authors spent so much time outline what an elf was like that they forgot to actually give individual elves personality...

And here we have Martin, who said, "Hey! Tolky! Blow me! I'm gonna put all of my effort into creating vivid human characters instead of creating some long and elaborate backstory for my series! And it's better than what you did, okay?"

We've spent all of these years thinking that the key to a good fantasy series was a vast and elaborate backdrop, because that's what Tolkien concentrated on. And really, the key is characters and plots, which are the least important part of Lord of the Rings. But still, every fantasy wannabe starts out where?

It's not the people or the plots. Oh, they have people and plots... But ask them, and they'll tell you about the city, and the history, and the races, and the people and plots are just sort of a sidenote.

Ask any other fucking genre what they're writing about, and it's the people and the plots. (Sometimes sci-fi concentrates on the place, but mostly to its detriment.) Yes, mystery writers sometimes fall in love with the mystery, and techno-thriller writers sometimes fall in love with the hardware... But thanks to Tolkien's ass-backwards planning, fantasy is the only genre where setting is routinely considered to be more important than character or action.

Thus, Tolkien's amazing accomplishment was that he he not only jump-started the fantasy novel genre, but he set it back fifty years at the exact same time.

We must move on. We must leave Tolkien behind, like we would Freud. Don't look back, or - like Lot's Wife's author friend - you'll be turned into a pillar of bad writing.

Why Tolkien Sucks
I think the best way to present my argument is this: I've spoken with any number of hard-core Tolkien fanatics. They nitpicked the movie, hated the minor changes, and squawked like parrots on the bulletin boards.

When I ask them how many times they've read LotR, the answer is always in the teens, and often higher: Twenty. Fifty. A hundred.

Except they never have.

Ask them closer, and what you'll find is that even the most die-hard of the fanatics skim their way past certain segments of the book. The long-ass poetry is a frequent fast-forward button, but often the tedious descriptions of the countryside and the pseudo-history get the flip.

In other words, most of Tolkien's die-hard supporters can't read everything he writes.

And thus I repeat: The Cliffs Notes are riveting.

Tolkien is a folksy writer - but his unique delusion is that he considered his world to be almost a real history. The details were crushingly important to Tolkien, which lends his world a weight of gravitas that cannot be beaten....

But his writing also meanders. He spends a lot of time focusing in on things that better writers would discard. His plots are filled with side-trails that wind nowhere, just like real history, and interchanges that really don't matter much at all. But like a man with no editor, Tolkien regurgitates it all so that you can see it.

There are those who will say that part of the charm of Tolkien is that his books read like history books. To which I say: This isn't real life. And worse yet, he commits the fatal flaw in that a lot of these sidelines are boring.

If his most devoted fans skip major sections of the book, how the hell can you call it a great literary work?

His writing is long-winded and tedious and focuses on the wrong areas. His dialogue is leaden. He loves his own poetry, which is cute but not particularly meaningful.

And his characters?

Hang on.

What Tolkien Does Right
Many people say that Tolkien does get the characters right, and I have to agree... To an extent. I've said that most of the work that a writer has to do is to put his characters into meaningful situations, and you're really done.

It's true. You don't need to write well if you can put your characters in a place the readers can identify with. And in that, Tolkien excels above all others - Frodo going mad as he tries to save the world. Samwise's love of a partner who is slowly growing apart from him. Aragorn's reluctance to take power, and the elves' dilemma of beauty becoming irrelevant.

Tolkien had a right knack for finding parallels to modern living that struck right through the heart of everyone. I wish I had his talent for this, because buried beneath a couple thousand pages of muck and mire lay these unassailable gems.

That said, what do we know of Frodo? He's brave, and he feels sorry for Gollum, and he's a hobbit who'd rather be home.

A thousand pages go by, and we barely know anything about the man aside from those three facts. Every character in Tolkien's books is gloriously - almost aggressively - one-dimensional, each given a task to carry out and placed lovingly in situations where, for a brief moment, you become Frodo. Or Sam. Or whoever.

I will say that the characterization in Tolkien is as crappy as the rest of the book, but Tolkien's ability to find the right place to put these little chess pieces is what gives LotR its majesty.

If you hold a piece of paper with a line drawing on it in the right way, it will appear to be three-dimensional. The drawing is still two-dimensional, however, and it's probably not a terribly good drawing at that.

Admire it for a fine optical illusion, but don't think it's good art just because it fooled you.

The Movies
Are the Cliffs Notes. The movies are a joy to watch, with vivid characterizations defined by actors with facial expressions, body language, and a vibrancy that's not present in the original chapter. Peter Jackson has a deep love of the books... But even more so, he realizes rightfully that a lot of what Tolkien does is boring, and needs both punching up and streamlining.

The movies are a joy. The books themselves are relics.

It's time to leave the old windbag behind. Yes, his world is charming.... But as a writer, I encourage you to find some other way to go about it. The history's not the key thing; it's the people.

Make the people come alive, with depth and desires and plots that go in unexpected directions, and you'll have a book that might one day outshine the master.

And when you write, pray. Pray that you can channel Tolkien's amazing ability to find sympathetic situations for your babies, and yet avoid the rest of Tolkien's many and crippling flaws.

Throw away the ring, folks. It's time to stop being invisible under the shadow of Sauron.

(232 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

Comments
 
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From:ladytabitha
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:40 am (UTC)
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Don't forget Robert Jordan and The Neverending Fuckin' Wheel of Time series.
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:54 am (UTC)
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Jordan's a transitory writer. As far as I'm concerned, he was trying to break away from Tolkien and failed. And then decided that his books needed to move slower and slower and slooooweeerrrr......

I gave up.
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From:jarodrussell
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:43 am (UTC)
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But let me ask the big question... How do you feel about Neal Stephenson?
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:53 am (UTC)
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First two novels, fucking brilliant. Couldn't get through Cryptonomicon.
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From:ex_fyrefairy885
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:50 am (UTC)
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I think that the one-dimensionality of Tolkien's characters is one of the key reasons LoTR makes such a great set of movies.

Read any Ursula K. LeGuin? Utopian fantasy...with no Tolkien that I can find. Almost reads like Ayn Rand sometimes. (Same era as Zelazny.) Neil S. is good for similar reasons. I also like Folk of the Air. (My mom's favorite fantasy novel of all time.)
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:41 am (UTC)
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Always meant to read LeGuin, but never got around to it. Actually, I have a huge (and oft-depressing) knowledge gap of the biggest female fantasy writers. It's not intentional, but it's there.
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From:yendi
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:52 am (UTC)
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Spot on, on so many levels (other than the casual acceptance of the argument that he was first, which he so wasn't). I'm not sure I'd agree that causing reactionary writings like Pratchett would be a bad thing (as long as the Pratchett books stand on their own, which they eminently do). I'd also toss out James Stoddard's High House books as another fantasy series that decided that Tolkien's formula blew.
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:55 am (UTC)
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Who was first if it wasn't him? Just because other writers got there first doesn't mean they count; they had to be POPULAR.

Causing reactionary writings is bad because it stifles creativity. Pratchett's a solid exception, but so many other people have gotten caught up in, "I'm writing about elves who are dimwitted and dumb! Ha ha! I am so clever!"

Never read Stoddard. Never even heard of him until now....
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From:shawnj
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:53 am (UTC)
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How long until you think someone tells you that you're wrong and that they read every word of that trilogy and would place Tolkein on the pedestal with people like Orwell, Hemmingway, or Joyce as the best novelists of the 20th century?
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:56 am (UTC)
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Ten minutes, max.

I can't get through Joyce, either.
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From:das_hydra
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:53 am (UTC)
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I usually can read *anything*. Even medical text books excite me.

I just can't get through more then a few pages of anything Tolkien related.

I felt like a failure.

Now I don't, and thusly feel GLAD I cheated and read the little timeline that gives away everything in the back of my copy.
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:57 am (UTC)
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A lot of people can't. There are many, many secret Tolkien-haters out there. But we're all in the closet.
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From:mikester
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:53 am (UTC)

Great minds think alike.

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I thought you might find this amusing...I posted this on the old Retreat BBS:

"Message # 1792. Reply to #1791
Date: 06/15/94. Time: 16:56:52. Read 39 Times.
From : Mikester
To : Stranger
Subj : Stories?
RECEIVED


And because of Tolkien, every other damn fantasy novel that comes out is part of a trilogy."
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From:kennfusion
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:55 am (UTC)
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What is literature? What does a novel need to do in order for you to consider it worthy or reading?

I can tell you why I like the trilogy. I think he does an excellent job at portraying the variations of free will within the characters. Every main character in the series has choices to make. I believe that Tolkein explores the variance in human nature with this.

The best example I can give briefly would be through Boramir and Fharamir (no idea if I am spelling their names right). Boramir gives in to the lure of the ring and the power it could bring him, and the ability it would give him to make the world better as he sees it. On the other hand, when his brother learns a book later that he has the ring bearer in his midst, sends him on his way. He does not waver in this (unlike in the movie, where they change this). In the books though, we have 2 brothers, same genes, coming from the same environment and yet how they make decisions of "good and evil" differ greatly.

It is these types of details that make the trilogy worthy of reading.
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 09:58 am (UTC)
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What is literature? What does a novel need to do in order for you to consider it worthy or reading?

It has to be entertaining enough for me to get through it without snoring. Beyond that, I'm pretty much open.

It is these types of details that make the trilogy worthy of reading.

It is these types of details which makes it a riveting movie. As far as a book, you got a ways to go.
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:43 am (UTC)
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I've heard that. I should read that in my *cough cough* copious spare time...
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:05 am (UTC)

True...

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I gotta say yer pretty much right on this one.

Me, I'm playing Morrowind. I'm sure its full of Tolkien stuff, but I'm not a really hardcore Tolkien buff, so I'm prolly missing half of the things I should be. Hell, I dont even know half of the stuff thats mentioned in the in-game novels, like the Battlespire or that kinda thing.

For me, if I don't go "oh god, this is just like Lord of the Rings", I'm happy. You dont see any crack-addicted Tiger-people in LOTR, for example :)

-C
Oh, and any one of the Tribunal - hell, maybe even just Vivec - could kick Sauron's ass.
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From:ysabel
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:13 am (UTC)
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Marry me?
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:43 am (UTC)
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Why? It wouldn't stick anyway. I KNOW your habits, woman. *g*
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From:dawntreader90
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:15 am (UTC)
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i admit that i am trying to get through reading the LOTR trilogy. and i also freely admit that i have read at least three other book in the time it has taken me to get through half of book one.

The Hobbit wasn't so bad, actually. i rather enjoyed it. LOTR however? i can't seem to make myself make time to read it. it's almost an "ugh i should read" feeling when i think about it. that's bad.

my biggest pet peeve is that once you get to know a character the group moves on and you know you won't see the character again. the SIDE characters have more interest for me than the MAIN characters.

as for books that are good but not like LOTR, have you read The Snow Queen/The Summer Queen duology from Joan Vinge? those books are the reason i ever got into reading sci-fi/fantasy novels in the first place. (that and reading the Narnia books as a kid.)

i'd say those are two totally un-Tolkienly book series.
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:44 am (UTC)
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The Hobbit wasn't so bad, actually. i rather enjoyed it.

I LOVE the Hobbit. It's short, and sweet, and well-told. It doesn't digress too much.

Trimmed down, LotR could be a Hobbit.

Never read Vinge. See my earlier comment regarding my lack of female fantasy authors. I feel so guilty.
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From:rakafkaven
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:29 am (UTC)
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I don't know that Tolkien can be held so completely responsible. The flavor of fantasy you describe is certainly ubiquitous, but I don't know that it dominates. Cheesy romance novels are everywhere, but they haven't destroyed all literature that involves genitals. Much like Harlequin, I think Tolkien-take-offs serve a particular mental weakness that draws a lucrative audience.

I would posit that the focus on setting at the extreme expense of character comes from the same portion of the hindbrain responsible for the statistically intimidating amount of porn that features zero men. It's not that the afficianados are particularly pro-lesbian or pro-gyno-onanism. It's just that there's no room in their fantasies for a dick that isn't theirs.

Crappy escapist fantasy with transparent protagonists will persist as long as there's an audience that wants to imagine themselves as the only dicks of substance in the world. Tolkien didn't start this. He just wrote well enough (it is a mature writing style, and the boring bits just add to the adolescent perception of literchoor) to legitimize it.
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From:rakafkaven
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:35 am (UTC)
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That said, I disagree with lumping Donaldson in with the J.R.R. Jr.s. His first Covenant trilogy was a very clever deconstruction of the sort of escapism I mention above-- the setting is all-important, and most of the NPCs are really just an extension of the setting. He shows that a three-dimensional character can still fuck it all up, as his protagonist is a real dick in just about every way possible. I found the series to be a very intelligent metaphor about the escapism it uses.

We won't mention the second series. Really. I assume Donaldson was hungry, had a crack habit to feed, or was very angry with the publisher.
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From:shadesong
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:30 am (UTC)
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I fucking love you, man. This post has rocked my world so thoroughly - you have said exactly what I was too damn lazy to say.
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:46 am (UTC)
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You and Yendi set me off. It's been boiling for awhile; I just wish I'd had the time to polish this more, but I may try to submit it professionally....
From:blackthorned
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:30 am (UTC)
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Very true, it took me 3 weeks to finish the series & after that I never picked them up ever again...
...though I did enjoy the Dune series a lot, I found that more so exciting but it also got into a lot of topics that I was interested in

...as a side note, the two made for tv series they've done for Dune & Children of Dune were awesome...so maybe that fits w/ your "good for a movie, bad for a book" type as well
...hopefully they continue the series for the other remaining books
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From:theferrett
Date:September 16th, 2003 10:47 am (UTC)
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I like Dune. Took me awhile, but I liked it. I also keep hearing good things about the Sci-Fi adaptation, and will prolly TiVo it when it comes out.
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