One of the best reading choices I made this year was to listen to the audiobook of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve never found myself so keenly in the struggle and desperate need for hope among circumstances that seem full of despair. The series has challenged me to sit in the suffering of my own world and look for where hope and goodness can be found.
I’ve also been teaching a survey of American literature this fall, which has led me to reflect more on how literature has changed over the years.
How do these two topics connect, you ask? Well, not for the first time, I’ve been hearing complaints recently about J.R.R. Tolkien’s inefficient writing, and I have some Thoughts™ about why this criticism is missing the point of what Tolkien was trying to accomplish.
Prepare yourselves: We’re about to see the intersection of history, literary analysis, and fandom, three of my favorite things!
I don’t have a smooth way to begin, but let’s start by thinking about what literature was like before the Industrial Revolution. Writers did vary from each other in style, just as writers today vary. On the whole, we see very little emphasis on efficiency. These were people who valued thoughtful contemplation about all the parts of life. One of their favorite literary devices involves stringing as many subordinate clauses as possible into a sentence.
That meant they had to sit at their writing desks and spend time carefully thinking through the connections between ideas and the intricate grammar of their sentences. That meant their readers had to spend time pondering their sentences and sifting through the ideas. This was part of the fun.
Think of classics like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which is infamous for its tangents on gutter systems and bushes outside parsonages. Think of classics like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, with its quirky fixation on the whaling industry of New England. These stories made you think and think hard to find the meaning and sift through connections between the pieces.
But who were they writing to? These were people in a more agrarian society, where life moved at a slower pace. These were also people before television and when books were still relatively expensive. Literature was about story, entertainment, theme, alleviating boredom, and getting a glimpse into other parts of the world.
With the invention of the factory system, the world changed dramatically. Large populations shifted from a rural, agricultural lifestyle to an urban, factory-based lifestyle. The poor never had much value as peasant farmers, but now they had even less value as cogs in the Industrial machine. The pace of life sped up. Writers and readers alike no longer had time to sift through subordinate clause after subordinate clause.
This was a transitional period. Early on, most writers still favored a more long-winded approach, like we see in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and the like. Yet even in that work, we start to see more intention between connecting every detail to the overarching story, and his A Christmas Carol highlights the effects that a need for speed and the expense of printing had on economical writing.
By the end of this period, writers like Jack London have adopted a sparse style that only tells the facts, and writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who favored more complex sentence structures show more focus on only pertinent details.
The World Wars
Now we come to Tolkien’s immediate context. After surviving the trenches in WWI, Tolkien wrote LotR between 1937 and 1949, meaning that it began only two years before WWII and wasn’t completed until after that war.
It was born in a world marked by individual and collective trauma: The World Wars saw revolutionary increases in the efficiency with which humans could kill other humans. They also saw masses of humans stripped of their humanity during such events as the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust and also during everyday life in the trenches. Here’s a short History Channel video that gives just a glimpse into what the trenches were like:
Here in 2020, we’re well aware of how much a collectively traumatic experience can change culture. The writers living during Tolkien’s time were even more deeply shaped by their experiences. They saw the ways of their parents and grandparents as directly causing the evils they and the world had suffered in the early twentieth century. As they struggled to cope with their experiences, they adopted a nihilistic approach that saw everything is meaningless, including human life and the established literary conventions.
In short, the writers of Tolkien’s day looked at literary traditions and the idea that anything, after what they had suffered, could have meaning and said:
Writers like Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot experimented with literary devices and point of view. Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” epitomizes the effort to capture the broken, empty ways of life in as few words as possible: The short story centers around a conversation between a man and a girl who never directly address their real topic, and they end without resolution. It’s only 1432 words, practically flash fiction.
The stories from this time look at humans and see fatal blobs with no real purpose or importance. They portray evil as prevalent and prevailing and good as a mere trick of imagination. They explore the brokenness of human individuals and communities and see only violence and decay. They look at the future and see no hope of improvement.
Looked at in this light, “efficient” writing is our heritage from a very broken time in history, when Industrialism and the World Wars had resulted in humanity experiencing huge devaluing and loss of life.
Tolkien is Punk
In this context, Tolkien publishes The Lord of the Rings. It’s set in a bleak world that has decayed from glory—in that, it is a tale of its time.
Yet in that bleak, decaying world, deep bonds of friendship and loyalty drive back the darkness. Love remains, and it allows friends to persevere even against hopeless odds.
It even overcomes centuries-old hatred.
Though the hero (Frodo) ultimately fails at his task, evil is its own undoing.
However violent and cruel the world is, Tolkien asserts, “There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
I truly believe every choice Tolkien made builds these themes, including his sometimes rambling, inefficient style. One aspect of that was his intentional preservation of the rich literary history his peers were rejecting. He modeled his style on ancient models of storytelling, such as folklore and the real old fairy tales, to give his readers an entry point into them.
Within the narrative world of LotR, Tolkien’s tangents also had thematic relevance. Sure, Tom Bombadil doesn’t advance the plot of Fellowship. Yeah, he introduces weird questions that Tolkien doesn’t seem to answer. Why does the ring have no power over Bombadil, when it would addict and corrupt even Gandalf?
But part of his value is wonder. However dark the situation, there are still things we can marvel at with childlike delight. And part of his value is showing that, though rare, some things can be intrinsically good and untouchable by evil.
Why does the ring have no power over Bombadil? Because even evil is not all-powerful. Good remains unblemished.
There is similar thematic relevance in Tolkien’s tangents on the backgrounds of family names in Bree, on what happened to the ponies after they got separated from the hobbits, on Bill getting safely to Rivendell and not being eaten by wargs. He writes about them not because they impact the end result of the story, but because they are the whole reason the story matters.
The simple Hobbits who throw frequent parties and tend the earth are why Sauron must be defeated. The brave Men who sometimes give way to temptation but can valiantly stand between the weak and the oppressor are why Sauron must be defeated. The fair Elves who sing songs among the leaves of shimmering mallorn trees and hold wisdom of bygone millenia are why Sauron must be defeated. Even the glimpse of the clear sky at sunset, the pure call of the gulls, and the hearty taste of ale shared among friends are why Sauron must be defeated.
For Tolkien, the tangents were the purpose. They were a way of fighting against the nihilism of his day, of clinging to the beautiful value of life and humanity, of finding dignity and value among the people his colleagues would have called meaningless. His tangents were his counterculture rebellion.
That doesn’t mean that effective writing is intrinsically wrong. It definitely has its purposes, and we do live in a culture shaped by our predecessors’ styles.
However, life is more than efficiency. There is value in rest, in quiet time, in hours spent with loved ones accomplishing nothing. It can be too easy, in this post-Industrial age, to operate like a machine and not have eyes for the people around us. We need inefficient stories to remind us that it’s okay to take detours and give time to the unexpected. Those may be some of our most deeply human moments.