“The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal.”
G. K. Chesterton ~ Orthodoxy
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is on my list of five-star books. It was the first book I read in which the setting was as much of a character as the characters were. Before then, I had never read a book in which the setting was so meticulously crafted. The Lord of the Rings taught me two important lessons about writing: (1) Attend to details. (2) Keep the characters real.
In my opinion, the genius of Tolkien’s fantasy world is that it is peopled by recognizable characters—Chesterton’s “normal humans” who are startled by the extraordinary adventures in which they find themselves. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the others all behave like regular Joes; people who think, feel, and act pretty much how I would in the same circumstances. (Although, I must confess to a strong temptation to having a “come-to-Jesus” talk with Sauron; he must be a lonely guy to act like such a jerk.)
For me, the dominant character trait of the book is volitional integrity. In all their adventures and mishaps, the main characters in LOTR try to do what is right; they all make an effort to behave themselves. Since I am a character-driven reader, I especially appreciate it when the main characters are decent sorts; it is my personal fantasy that this is how normal humans should be.
Of the three stories of character, the back stories stands out in LOTR, as evidenced not only in the appendix but in Tolkien’s companion book The Silmarillion. Even though little of the back stories make their way into the book, it helps keep the characters real.
W. Somerset Maugham wrote that a certain character in his book The Razor’s Edge was someone whom he would gladly travel with for six months, but with whom he would hesitate to spend a winter evening. I ask myself that when it comes to characters. Are they six-month people or winter-evening people? The characters in The Lord of the Rings are six-month people. If I ever have those kind of adventures, I would like to share it with them. On the other hand, I would not relish the idea of spending an evening with any of them; I mean, what would you talk about?
(Note to self: The exception would be Sauron—that boy needs someone to bust his chops, but in a nice way.)
What do you like or dislike about Tolkien’s fantasy? How do you rate it? Is it a six-month or a winter-evening book? I am curious to know.