A Hundred Pages About Trees

Does everyone still enjoy Tolkien? I know I do, and almost every fantasy writer I’ve ever heard talk about him seems to as well. Or at least they say they do when his name comes up at cons.

But sometimes I wonder if current fantasy readers agree. Recently, while standing in the aisles of The Compleat Strategist (a great game store in Manhattan, just down the street from the Empire State Building), I overheard the following:

“I hate Tolkien. For every fifty pages of good stuff you have to read a hundred pages about trees.”

By good stuff, the fan was talking about magic and battles, of course. (Dwarves, too, I hope.) And when he was disparaging the pages and pages about trees, he wasn’t talking about the Ents. He was talking about the way the landscape of Middle-earth plays such an important part in Tolkien’s books. The descriptions, many of them elegiac, of trees and fields, meadows and brooks, farms and mountains, which Tolkien uses to arouse in his readers (but clearly not the one at the store) a sense of wistfulness and wonder that are every bit as important to the story as Aragorn or the ring.

To a more modern reader, I think, the slow, deliberate style of writing can be a bit tedious. Modern readers are accustomed to stories with more forceful narratives, with opening scenes that thrust them right into the action. Tolkien, on the other hand, begins with a party, and fireworks, then skips forward five years (or whatever it is, I’m on the road and have no books to reference) to a house sale. Not the sort of opening to intrigue anyone browsing through the shelves. Combine this with the fact that there are almost no politics in Tolkien, and few female characters, two very important additions to most modern epic fantasy, and I start to wonder. How would The Lord of the Rings sell if it came out brand new tomorrow? No hype, no movie, just another trilogy among dozens. Would it bomb? Would it hit? Would it even earn out?

What do you think? And when did you first read it? Are the books as popular now as they were fifty years ago?

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  1. 1. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

    The Compleat Strategist might not be the best place to sample fantasy readers’ reactions to Tolkien. It IS a game store, first and foremost. Slightly different set of expectations, there.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Paul – This is true, but the line was too good to pass up.

  3. 3. Marlene Dotterer

    I think it would catch on. I’m reminded of Patrick Rothfuss and his Kingkiller Chronicles. Not as verbose as Tolkien perhaps, but the Rothfuss’ quiet, unassuming narrative is darn close to wandering around the shires and mountains.

    I’ll admit, I skim through many of Tolkien’s pages. But I can see and appreciate the masterful storytelling.

  4. 4. Shakatany

    I read “The Hobbit” when it first came out in the 60s and liked it: I then tried the first book of the trilogy but about 50 pages into “The Fellowship of the Ring” I gave up and never finished the books. I guess I’m like the guy in the game store only this was half a century ago. There will be people who like the books and there will be people who won’t.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    I’m like Shakatany, except that I kept trying and finally got through LotR on something like the sixth try. I respect Tolkien’s work, but don’t love it; the things he cares about are simply not the things *I* care about. And I’m one of the heretics who likes a great many of the changes made in the films, including things like giving Aragorn doubts about his worthiness of being king, or having Faramir give in to temptation before he rises above it — because character is one of my primary doors into story, and so I’m more invested in characters who experience that kind of conflict. The part of me that has read and studied Norse sagas finds LotR interesting, but that isn’t the part of my brain that gets really fannish about a story.

  6. 6. Alma Alexander

    I read that and I almost CRIED. WHy is it necessary for everything to HURTLE? WHy can’t there be a slow charm, a loveliness, time taken to get lost in a new and unfamiliar world and to explore it slowly and gently and carefully and respond with awe, or even just delight, or to have a chance at any response at all before you (or some character) picks up a hulking great baseball bat and starts whaling around with it? Don’t we get enough of it in real life ™ when you can go to a midnight showing of a new movie and get mown down by a lunatic with an arsenal?

    I am a “slow” writer, myself. I ease into a story. I believe that the setting is a character as and of itself and that any story which can be summarily taken out of one setting and plonked down someplace else without losing something is not worth the read. I want the battle I am reading about to MEAN something, not just be a vicarious way to enjoy slaughtering without taking the chance of taking physical harm yourself. Virtual blood – even if it’s slopping ankle deep around my feet – simply fails to matter – not unless I have already taken the time to know those who have spilled it, and for the spilling to MATTER to me.

    Go, Tolkien. I much prefer his golden grace to the mindless crazy pace of worlds hurtling to their doom without looking back. Give me immersion, any day, rather than just throwing Operation Fantasy Shock and Awe at me and expecting me to enjoy it.

  7. 7. Mary

  8. 8. Mary

    I read it all in one ravenous weekend (with The Hobbit) when I was a teen.

    As for what sort of hit it would be if it came out now instead of then — impossible to tell. Even if the fantasy genre was regarded as a genre in this alternate universe, and that can’t be taken for granted, what would it look like? What would it regard as the definitive works of fantasy to which LOTR would be compared? Would many people overlook it because they expect all fantasy to be dark and morally nihilistic? Or fluffy and unrealistic?

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Mary — I’ve often described Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as what the fantasy genre would look like had it been founded on Lud-in-the-Mist instead of The Lord of the Rings.

  10. 10. Mary

    ah, yes. Now the question is: What would the reaction to Lord of the Rings be if we thought of fantasy as stuff like Lud-in-the-Mist and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell?

    Action! Decisiveness and clarity about the world! Character against nature rather than meshed into a Jane-Austen-like social setting!

    But that would only put a thumb on what was distinctive about it in such a world. Some would like, some not, but what would the comparative ratio be?

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    Marlene – The Kingkiller Chronicles are a good example of a current takes-its-time fantasy. Thanks for pointing that out. Though I don’t think I’d ever call Tolkien verbose. Slow, yes, but not overwritten.

    Shakatany – The Hobbit and LOTR are very different books. The Hobbit was written as a children’s book, LOTR was not, though many kids still read it. They were also written twenty years apart, as the Hobbit came out in the ’30s. I like to think of myself as a slow writer, but I’m James Patterson compared to Tolkien. And, as you say, there will be people that like the books, and people who don’t. If there weren’t, there’d be a lot fewer books, which would be no fun at all.

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    Marie – I think Aragorn’s ambivalence about being king is done quite well in the book. A lot subtler than the movie, but it’s still there. And, as Shakatany says, all books are not for all people, which is a good thing.

    Alma – “I believe that the setting is a character as and of itself and that any story which can be summarily taken out of one setting and plonked down someplace else without losing something is not worth the read.” Exactly.

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    Mary – I remember seeing that link when it came out. Spot on.

  14. 14. Rebekkah N.

    The merit of a book isn’t about when it’s published. However, whether or not it gets published, is about current trends. The trends are for faster paces, and that’s what readers expect.

    But that said, would Dickens sell today? Would James Joyce? How about Shakespeare, written in English that takes ninth graders hours to decipher?

    I think no, Tolkien probably wouldn’t sell to a traditional publisher today; but I think yes, it’s still a fantastic book. The reason young people still read the classics even when they have difficulty reading them (besides English teachers) is the sheer weight of history behind the classic. But then, for many, the addiction to the writing style sets in, the love of the language and the hunger for the plot. So they go back for more.

    So well-written books that capture that literary style (capture, not imitate without the meat behind the description) would still be read today. But they might have to be self-published to be available, and they would be much slower to pick up an audience, because it’s not the kind of writing style readers are leaning towards for light-duty reading these days, and readers who want heavy-duty reading have such a mountain of well-recommended classics to work their way through first.

    For example, I loved Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell. But I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been recommended to me. And I don’t think the friend who recommended it would have read it if it hadn’t been recommended to her. It’s not exactly a pick-off-the-shelf kind of book for me; it’s a ‘be prepared because it will take you a while to get into, but when you do, you won’t be able to get out’ kind of book. And without that warning, I wouldn’t have stuck to it.

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Rebekkah – I agree with what you say about current trends vs merit, though I do think LOTR would be published today. There is still a market for slower books. You also make an interesting comparison with Jonathon Strange, a book I think would have made much less of a mark had it not been so heavily promoted by its publisher and the critics. Promote LOTR that way today, and it might be just as big a success as ever, because the narrative is so compelling to so many, regardless of the pace.

  16. 16. Scott Seldon

    Whether or not any given person likes a book or not does not impact the quality of book or its acceptance today. Popularity of classics can vary a great deal. I’d say Tolkien’s work was classic even when first published.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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