I read recently that the idea for The Hobbit and, subsequently, The Lord of the Rings stemmed from an idea in the form of a sentence that Tolkien had written down on a scrap of paper and then forgotten about, only to come back to later on: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He didn’t even know what a hobbit was yet, but from that small idea sprang entire worlds and languages, characters and journeys and cultures that would not only become, arguably, the best fantasy saga of all time, but also a story that would become something close to a reality in the imaginations of generations of readers. How that happens is part of what I find so fascinating about the craft of fiction, and also the most utterly daunting. How does one start from an idea and shape it into a whole world?
But what can be said, really, about J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that hasn’t been said before? So far, most of the books I’ve done for this blog have been classics, but none can boast the cult following of this one. I could try to come up with some original idea. I could try to analyze it, perhaps from a racial perspective (as a dear friend said from the wrong side of a glass of Maker’s Mark, “but the only dark-skinned characters are Orks!) or a feminist one (Eowyn is a freakin’ valkyrie) or a postmodern neoclassical one, but I think that would show a presumption of wisdom rivaled only by Saruman. No, this time I will forego all attempts to explain. I’d rather simply talk about why I think this trilogy has such an unshakeable hold on the hearts and minds of millions of LOTR-lovers, and why it has me spouting Elf-lore and hobbit wisdom at the slightest provocation from whatever unfortunate soul innocently alludes to these books.
In a time where trilogies and sagas and series are an epidemic, where people are constantly chattering about direwolves, fifty shades of something or other, or horcruxes, what is it about this trilogy that makes it more than a book, more than an epic, but a part of most readers’ consciousness? There are a multitude of possible reasons. But for me, on this second time through, the thing that stuck out most was as simple as this:
As someone who is constantly thinking about words, about what people say and how they say it, I can recognize the challenge presented by creating characters who are believable, who capture the imagination of the reader. You’d think dialogue would be easy. Communication, mostly in the form of speech, is one of the most vital connections between any two sentient beings, so it would seem like a writer would be able to imitate that effortlessly. Unfortunately, it’s anything but simple. As daunting a task as it may be to lesser mortals, Tolkien didn’t just make his characters’ dialogues believable, he gave them a life of their own. In The Return of the King, after the battle at Minas Tirith, Pippin says “Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights.” Merry replies:
But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little (179).
The dialogue of the hobbits is my favorite. Their simple, earthy wisdom, childlike nonchalance, and yet incorruptible goodness is just so, well… hobbit-like. There is something about their speech that makes it indistinguishable from the hobbit himself. Faulkner writes dialogue that brings to mind poor, white people, Fitzgerald writes words that ooze the smooth confidence of the moneyed, but Tolkien creates speech that seems to fit perfectly with races that exist only in Middle Earth. If you took that quote out of context but still within the story, it would be fairly easy to guess who, or at least which species, said it. The same goes for Gandalf’s dialogues, or Legolas’, or most notably, Gollum’s:
Let’s be good, good as fish, sweet one, but to ourselfs…. Then we shall be master, gollum! Make the other hobbit, the nasty suspicious hobbit, make him crawl, yes, gollum!…. See, my precious: if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day, three times a day, fresh from the Sea. Most Precious Gollum! Must have it. We wants it, we wants it, we wants it! (Two Towers, 304).
Tolkien obviously had a penchant for creation. The scope of his imagination enabled him to create worlds, to play God. From nothing more than his own mind, he created Elvish, Entish, and Dwarvish. He composed songs that told of histories outside of the bounds of the trilogy, forged the bedrock of lands beyond imagination, and then breathed life into characters as unforgettable as they are unique to inhabit them. But what truly speaks to his promethean abilities was his ability to give his characters a voice. The dialogue doesn’t seem to come from the third-party author, the invisible God, but directly from the characters themselves, as though they were living, breathing beings capable of their own invention. Tolkien so adeptly adapts different nuances of speech to different characters that they seamlessly become inseparable from them. He didn’t just mimic the nuances of speech in our world, he created his own, and it is their voices that bind the hearts of Tolkien-lovers the world over to these books.