If you’re just catching up, this is the second part of a two-part look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. We’re using the book to explore something I’m calling the Six Pillars of a Story World—basically an overview of the essential ingredients of a great story. If you want to get the most out of the article, I recommend starting with Part One.
So far, we’ve talked about three pillars: world-building, characters, and plot. Now let’s step back from the story itself to look at some broader points.
Into the West
(Pillar #4: Theme is the Secret Ingredient)
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. [...] Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something even if you were too small to understand why.” –Sam
By now, all of the elements of the story are in place. The tale is set in the world of Middle Earth; it features hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, and men; and it revolves around a quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
But there’s another aspect to The Lord of the Rings that we haven’t covered yet. Isn’t this book kind of... deep? Like, really deep? Like, imbued with timeless, soul-churning themes and motifs that make you cry your heart out?
In high school, I hated theme. Then again, theme is the most mature and important aspect of storytelling, and I was anything but mature and interested in things that might be important in those days. Theme is in fact the purpose of a story—it’s what the storyteller is actually trying to say. You can create a fascinating world filled with great characters and an intricate plot—but unless it says something about the human condition, the story comes up empty. Great stories tend to really mean something.
There’s a debate about the end of The Return of the King. Does Frodo literally sail into the west to live amongst the immortal elves of Valinor? Or is that all a metaphor for his death? I’ve heard this debate from both sides, and I always think the same thing: it’s both, and it doesn’t matter. What does matters is the meaning of the scene: Frodo’s time in Middle Earth has ended, just as our own time will end some day. That’s built-in thematic resonance.
Tolkien was a soul-searcher, and it shows in his work. His themes are powerful: fellowship and betrayal; wisdom and tyranny; heroism in the face of evil; great things from small people; and of course death. Death is everywhere in The Lord of the Rings—not as violence, but as a sense of inevitability. Tolkien knew that all things end, and by reinforcing that throughout his story, he plants the idea in the mind of the reader. Years after reading it, you may not recall exactly what happened at Osgiliath, but you’ll always remember that feeling of a gorgeous world on the brink of its own heartbreaking collapse.
The Gift of Words
(Pillar #5: Craft is Everything)
“It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” –Treebeard
There’s this book I’ve tried to read, twice. It’s been recommended by a good friend, and by all accounts I should really like it. The concept is good; the world is interesting; the characters are unique; the themes are meaningful. Yet every time I start it, the same thing happens: I can’t get past the author’s clunky use of the English language—the prose is choppy and in short, the writing turns me off. As a result, I know I’ll never read this author’s work. Which is a shame, because I’d have liked to experience the story world he created.
The technical aspect of storytelling is called craft. In literature, craft refers to an author’s ability to write engaging prose. In film or television, craft is the sum of many factors: a screenplay, a director’s vision, an actor’s performance, an editor’s cuts. Every medium has its own unique requirements, but the upshot is this: the best works tend to be those rendered with the greatest craftsmanship, whereas poor craft can ruin a great story.
For all of Tolkien’s masterful world-building, his books sold hundreds of millions of copies because he knew how to write. His prose is elegant yet approachable. His voice is clear yet musical. The language he uses brings readers into his world and allows them to experience his epic story. Tolkien’s dialogue feels almost Shakespearean at times. This is all a testament to his background as a reader, writer, and Professor of Literature.
Here’s a passage from the battle of Helm’s Deep:
Against the Deeping Wall the hosts of Isengard roared like the sea. Orcs and hillmen swarmed about its feet from end to end. Ropes with grappling hooks were hurled over the parapet faster than men could cut them or fling them back. Hundreds of long ladders were lifted up. Many were cast down in ruin, but many more replaced them, and Orcs sprang up them like apes in the dark forests of the South. Before the wall’s foot the dead and broken were piled like shingle in a storm; ever higher rose the hideous mounds, and still the enemy came on.
Nevermind that Tolkien is describing a crucial moment in the story—the words themselves are highly evocative. If Tolkien had not been such a master of English (and Elvish), we might never have discovered his Middle Earth. I can’t overstate the importance of craft—it’s the gateway into storytelling.
An Unexpected Journey
(Pillar #6: The Power of Originality)
“Now there is something I have never seen before.” –Bilbo Baggins
Underscoring Tolkien’s entire creative process is the fact that he accomplished something highly original. He synthesized centuries of myths, legends, and fairy tales into a masterpiece of world building, then told a deep and meaningful story that fit that world perfectly. Most modern fantasy literature just repeats Tolkien and his immediate successors; originality is so rare and surprising that we tend to forget how much we value it.
Anyone who’s been to a movie theater or turned on a TV knows that this is a problem today across all types of media. In the publishing world, novels are targeted to fit established genre criteria. In network TV, execs are generally looking for stories that feel familiar to their existing audiences. In film, there’s a big divide between studios rehashing old ideas and creative independent filmmakers—though there are of course exceptions. The highest concentration of original work at the moment may in fact be in the world of cable dramas (e.g. HBO and AMC), but originality remains the exception to the rule.
Which is why it’s extraordinary when someone like Tolkien comes along. If there’s one thing for which he’ll be remembered, it’s that he did something entirely new. Humanity has told stories for centuries, and while some of them do take place in other realms, never in recent memory had a single person invented an entire world and mythology to the extent that Tolkien invented his. That’s a wonderful way in which to have been original!
So to wrap up, Tolkien’s masterpiece gives us six basic qualities we can look for in other story worlds: rich world-building, complex characters, a brilliant plot, meaningful themes, excellent technique, and overall originality. That’s just one way of looking at stories of course, and rules are made to be broken—but it’s amazing how consistent this turns out to be. Great stories share a kind of genetic code—maybe we can learn something by studying their DNA.
Tolkien understood all of this intuitively. In a time when people feared they might see the end of the world, he did something very unexpected: he sat down and created a whole new one. Seventy years later, Middle Earth remains a story world for the Ages. Tolkien, you bow to no one.
But Tolkien doesn’t have a monopoly on great stories. They show up every year, in every medium: in movies, TV shows, books, videogames, and graphic novels. Now that we’ve laid down some ground work about story worlds, we can start diving into stories of all kinds, and teasing out makes each one special. Stay tuned for articles on Game of Thrones, Monsters University, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and many more!
Brad Kane is a writer in the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, check out his blog or like its page on Facebook. He also has a brand new Twitter account that he is trying to remember to use.