Aug 14 2013 11:00am

One World to Rule Them All: The Six Pillars of Middle Earth (Part 2 of 2)

Lord of the Rings Minas Tirith

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.

Lord of the Rings There and Back Again

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.

Lord of the Rings Caradras

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.

Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
1. Lisamarie
It's been awhile since I read the appendices, but is Frodo's sailing into the West really a debate? I thought he and Sam (and later, Gimli!) really did go to Valinor, although they just lived out their lives there and died.

It's kind of funny that Tolkien is really no longer that 'original', if only because so many people have copied his style.
Pablo Sorribes
2. Paalo
Patrick Rothfuss posted this on Facebook:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
-- Gary Provost
I think it summarises pretty much what you were trying to say on the gift of words as a craft/Pillar #5. :)

What do you guys think?
Brian R
3. Mayhem
Yep, that's a really classic quote from Gary Provost's 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, which is a superb book in every respect.
Brad Kane
4. bradkane
Thanks for that great quote, Paalo! I might use it when I do an upcoming piece on the role of music and lyrics in The Kingkiller Chronicles.
alastair chadwin
5. a-j
An issue I have here is the suggestion that one kind of prose writing is objectively good, while another is objectively bad. Surely it is more that each reader has their own tastes and prejudices about style, sentence structure, subject matter etc. Bad writing is writing that fails to achieve what the author wished it to achieve. Everything else is a matter of personal taste and contemporary fashion. It is therefore not possible to quote a passage and cite it as 'good' and dismiss another style as 'bad'. What here is described as 'choppy' could apply to Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard. Many do not like those writers particularly, but are they objectively bad because they use short sentences? I would suggest not.

I also have to disagree with the suggestion that a great story needs a great theme. Not necessarily. To assume so is to fall into the trap of trying to 'decode' books in order to espy the author's intention. Yet the intention may be nothing more than to tell a good story. And this is before we get onto the problem of discerning what the theme might be. Give me a few hours and I can put together a good argument that the theme of LOTR is the importance of racial purity, the lesser qualities of women and the need to maintain a strict and rigid class structure.
Brian R
6. Mayhem
Stylistically, I don't think one sort of writing is significantly better than any other - if we continue the analogy of music, there is a huge difference between a classical piece by Mozart and Katy Perry's latest hit. But neither is ostensibly good or bad. What makes both successful is the interplay of dynamic range, tempo and tone - fast vs slow, loud vs soft, and harmonics building on each other, compared with the monotony of a metronome (or the heavy sample repetition driving some current dance music trends, which I really don't get)

Comparing Rothfuss with his lyrical sentence structures - some short, some long, but with foreshadowing and referential writing throughout, you have a complex symphony going on.
Contrast with say Dashiel Hammett in Red Harvest - he uses relatively short sentences, simple language, and you immediately get a sense of both time and place, and all the cultural baggage the narrator brings with it. And note that despite being short, each sentence has its own rhythym.
The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of
buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the
city’s main intersection — Broadway and Union Street — directing
traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped
checking them up.

On your ideas on theme ... Steven Erikson wrote a really good answer on the subject of theme when addressing the Reapers Gale questions here

An important point from it which isn't stressed well above is that while Theme is vital to a good story, it should still be at one remove from the actual plot itself - kept back behind the curtain as it were.
A story of heavy themes comes across as preachy, lecturing, telling rather than showing. In essence, it is regularly too blunt, and frequently ruins a decent story. For example Terry Goodkind's Faith of the Fallen suffered greatly from this and finally put me off the rest of a declining sequence - a decent if not fantastic story was overwhelmed by a strawman setup promoting a single Objectivist viewpoint as the one true way, and any logical challenges that would arise were steamrolled to keep the plot on rails.
Constance Sublette
7. Zorra
Tolkien’s dialogue feels almost Shakespearean at times.
It's Homeric or skaldic, not Renaissance English.

The Worm Ouroboros and the Zimiavian trilogy do attempt melding Jacobean dramatic language with the Norse saga -- but the sound and patterns are 16th - 17th English English, not Nordic. Do a comparative read and listen: how different is E.R. Eddison's text, the sound and rhythms of the text, from Tolkien's.

Tolkien is not using 16th-17th English patterns at all.

Moreover the passage you quote is not a dialogue, but description.

Dialogue is a conversation, between two or more people, "as a feature of a book, play or movie," OK?
8. stillCMK
I can't accept that there's no such thing as objectively bad (clumsy, awkward, what have you) prose. I would say there's variation in the individual threshold for how important prose style is to the reader's enjoyment, or actual ability to get into a story.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
@8, I felt like you did when I first read the comments @5. But when @6 chimed in, I realized that they were not saying there is no good or bad writing, they were saying that there were no good or bad kinds or styles of writing. Which I can kind of buy into.
However, I suppose if your stylistic choice is turgid and overblown prose, full of clumsy metaphors, then we might have a problem that we all could agree on objectively. ;-)
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
Oh, and regarding theme, yes Tolkein did a great job telling a tale that had a strong theme. But I wonder how much of that was deliberate, and how much was shaped by the tale he imagined, and the principles he held. When theme drives things too strongly, story becomes morality lesson, and loses any subtlety and charm it might have.And, while he delved deeply into myth and fable for his materials, yes, he did create something fresh and new out of those materials, and had a profound impact on modern literature.
11. Veejay J
While the world-building is amazing. Tolkien has a tendency to not focus on the coolest part of the story - and that's what stops Tolkien from being great. I wanted to see the duel between Gandalf and Saruman in Orthanc. Fortunately, Peter Jackson agreed with me and created that scene in the movie.

I think the Silmarillion has the bigger problem of ignoring the most interesting part of the story. Not depicting the War of Wrath was such a huge mistake, that it basically ruins the Silmarillion as a whole.
12. Sora Yuy
@11 Silmarillion was never suppose to be released. It was released after he died by his son to show how much he put into his stories.
13. Meng Ling
I found Tolkien's writing rather difficult to get through. I only read to the middle of Return of the King and then I got bored and stopped.

Then again, I was only twelve at the time. Maybe I should try to re-read the books. >>
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
14. Lisamarie
It might be worth it. I remember the first time I read the trilogy I was in sixth or seventh grade. I blew through it, as I was wont to do at the time. There was a LOT I didn't really pick up - in fact, I remember spending a good portion of the first book not realizing Sauron and Sauruman were different people! So, at the time, I declared that The Hobbit was better.

In eighth grade, I decided to really read it, slowly, and it BLEW MY MIND. Even now, at 30, when I occasionally re read it, I still find new stuff.

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