He could only describe it by saying it was like actually meeting one of the characters he thought he’d made up–Gandalf the Grey, the wizard. If you haven’t read the book, trust me: this is not the sort of person anyone encounters in real life.
Once you’re able to see the Christianity in Tolkien’s work, you can’t unsee it.
Everyone who works in Christian fantasy owes him a debt.
Actually, the Orcs aren’t so much interested in colonizing as they are in tailgating and honking at you to drive faster–especially when you’re stopped at a red light. When they’re not doing that, they’re operating leaf blowers.
But what I really wanted to do with this post, back in 2014, was to call attention to what was then my newest Bell Mountain book, the seventh in the series, The Glass Bridge. I still marvel at the way artist Kirk DouPonce brought Gurun to life.
I find it very hard to remember she’s not a real person. And sometimes I don’t bother trying.
Someone around here was enthused enough to prefer my books to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Well, what can I say?
I first read The Lord of the Rings in high school, and it overwhelmed me. My imagination was already on fire, thanks to Edgar Rice Burroughs–first his Pellucidar novels, and then his tales of adventure on Mars. But Tolkien–!
I was astonished that such a book could ever have been written. Burroughs’ books are short; Tolkien’s was a monumental trilogy. You wind up spending a lot of time in it. The marvelous thing about The Lord of the Rings was that it positively came alive for me: it made me believe in the story that it told. Perhaps it was the mass of detail: Tolkien’s imaginary world is vast. To this day, after many re-readings, I’m sure I could find my way around the Shire, and I’m sure I’d like it there. And I’d know which places to avoid–Mordor, Mirkwood, and the Mines of Moria.
I’ve never seen any illustrations of LOTR which satisfied me. That’s because Tolkien’s art made his people and places real to me, as if I’d actually been there, seen them; and any illustration is, of course, someone else’s imagination, and can never show me anything exactly how I’d already imagined it myself.
It gave me a burning desire to write fantasy. I can’t even guess how many pages I turned out in notebooks, and on my old manual typewriter, trying to imitate Tolkien, trying to match him. But I can say it took several decades for me to realize that the world didn’t need another Tolkien: any fantasies I wrote would have to be my fantasies, and no one else’s. And that took another couple of decades to accomplish.
It’s important to remember that when LOTR came out, there was nothing else remotely like it. Since then, the fantasy genre has been suffocated with Tolkien wannabes, shamelessly ripping off his once-upon-a-time unique creation. I still love Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves and warriors, etc., but find everybody else’s cheap imitations intolerable. I suspect that if my first reading had been now instead of then, it wouldn’t have had the impact that it did.
Burroughs and Tolkien inspired me, and I doubt my own books would ever have been written if I hadn’t read theirs first. I still stand up and salute The Chessmen of Mars, and in my imagination, search for the road to the forest of Lothlorien.
When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in high school–and I’m currently re-reading it, I don’t know how many times–it blew me away. I didn’t know it was possible to write such stories; but a couple of chapters into it, I knew I wanted to write fantasy. It took me over 40 years to come up with Bell Mountain.
A lot of people write fantasy, but according to any number of readers, few write it well. After Tim Wildmon interviewed me on his internet TV show, he turned to his assistant and shook his head. And said, “He made the whole thing up! Whew! I don’t know how you do that.”
Practice, man, practice…
People ask me why I have to sit outside to write it. Well, the phone doesn’t ring outside. I’ve got trees and sky, birds and squirrels, to keep me company. And I have to get myself into a world that doesn’t exist except in my imagination. I have to be able, in my mind, to see it and hear it and touch it. This takes a great deal of concentration, easily broken.
I have to relate to characters that I invented as if they were real. Although I’m inventing what they say and do, think and feel, I can’t just have them do anything I want. They have to behave as if they really live. Again, lots and lots of concentration. A character like Helki the Rod doesn’t just grow on trees. He has to say and do whatever he would say and do if he were real.
I have to see these landscapes, it has to be a movie in my mind. And I have to resist the temptation to load my story with elves and dwarves and wizards and all the other stock characters that burden so many other fantasies. No invincible female warriors, no crusty but benign old sages. Impossibly beautiful, know-it-all elves, uh-uh. Otherwise, next thing you know, all you’ve got is a pile of cliches.
It’s all very difficult, a constant challenge–but it’s the kind of work that I love best. The finished product has to be very different from everybody else’s finished product. I reach back into vanished worlds of the long-gone past and pluck out animals that most of my readers never heard of before. Creatures known to us only imperfectly, from bones and scientific speculations that may or may not be accurate.
Nor can I do any of this without prayer. Lots and lots of prayer.
Which leaves me, when a book is finally done, figuratively gasping for breath and wondering, “Well, now what do I do???” But the Bell Mountain stories are a kind of history, and in history there’s always yet another chapter.
In Augusta, Maine, a public school employee was recently disciplined with “coaching”–can these people do euphemisms, or what!–for saying, in a private conversation with another employee who is also a member of her church, “I will pray for you.”
Well, hey, hey! She was “instructed” never to say such a thing in any private conversation. Hello! Aren’t private conversations private anymore? Not in a public school, they aren’t. The employee has filed charges against the school district for religious discrimination.
Even more disturbing, school officials told her that she cannot use “phrases that integrate public and private belief systems.”
Whoa! Hold it right there! Since when does America have any “public belief system”? Has the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment been repealed? Did it happen while we slept? Who established a “public belief system” that binds us all? (“One ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them…” –Tolkien)
These people have got to be sent packing, before we all wake up behind barbed wire. Who do they think they are?
King Theoden, from the Lord of the Rings movie (which I didn’t see, but never mind)
There are hundreds of characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but only one that stirs me to the point of tears: old Theoden, King of Rohan. I love this guy! And I do mean love–as if he were my grandfather. How in the world did Tolkien do that?
When we meet him, Theoden is a broken-down old crock who has been skillfully manipulated to sap his morale and make him feeble before his time. But he comes back from that. The hero inside him, once he has been healed by Gandalf, bursts out like a fireworks display. At the same time, he is gentle, kind, and even humble: and everything he does, everything, is motivated by just one thing–by love. Love for his family and friends, love for his allies in the war, love for his country and its traditions. And love for every little thing with which he has been blessed. Love that is willing and able to sacrifice himself for what is right, for what is true.
Tolkien doesn’t tell us so. That never works. He shows it in what Theoden says and does, in his every word and action. Easy to say, but hard to do. If great art was easy, everyone would do it. It really is an amazing feat of art to create a character that a reader can actually love. Lots of authors can create characters that amuse us, or annoy us; but to inspire love is something special.
Hard to do: but for any writer, well worth trying.
I don’t know about you, but I like a little mystery mixed in with my fantasy. And this is what J.R.R. Tolkien provided when he plugged the character of Tom Bombadil into The Fellowship of the Ring.
Who or what is Bombadil? He lives in the Old Forest, where he is the Master, sharing his cabin with Goldberry, “daughter of the river.” We don’t exactly know what she is, either: only that Tom must keep her supplied with water lilies. We meet them when Tom saves the hobbits from being devoured by Old Man Willow, another enigmatic being whose nature is never clearly defined for us.
The chapters featuring these characters (“The Old Forest,” “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” and “Fog on the Barrow Downs”) are, I think, my very favorite section in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy–and it’s because they’ve kept me guessing for all these years and I still haven’t guessed right.
Bombadil is “the Eldest” in all of Middle-Earth. He’s not a man, an Elf, a hobbit, or anything else: he is the only one of his kind. When he commands, everything in and around the Old Forest, except for the weather itself, has to obey him. And yet he’s almost a ridiculous figure, with his nonsense-songs, his funny clothes, etc. But the One Ring has no power over him–none whatsoever. Which can’t be said of any other creature.
The bottom line is, we don’t know what he is, we can’t find out by reading The Silmarillion or any other Tolkien book, and Tolkien himself never, never reveals the secret.
That is very, very cool! And it adds an indefinable spice to Tolkien’s fantasy. Just as there are things in our own world that we have never understood, so it is in Middle-Earth.
There are a lot of writers who wouldn’t dare to do this; but Tolkien was off in his own imagination and he didn’t care what anybody thought of it.
I admire him for this; but I haven’t tried to imitate him. Just as there is only one Tom Bombadil, there was only one Tolkien.
I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy when I was a kid in high school–those Ballantine Books paperbacks, pictured above, with those wonderful covers–and it set my mind on fire. That fire is not yet out.
My wife has bought me new copies of these books, as the ones I had were falling apart, and now, after letting a couple of years go by, I’m ready to read The Lord of the Rings again.
Aside from the pleasure that this story has never failed to provide, I ask myself, “What will I learn from it this time?” Because every time I read it, I find something new in it. Happily, I’ve outgrown the desire to imitate Tolkien: there was only one of him, and I’m not it. But there are still techniques and writing tricks to be learned, still visions to see more clearly than before, and still new truths to discover. As always, it’ll be a feast.
In the intervening time, I’ve read more about Tolkien and his work, so I should be prepared to gain new insights. Besides which, it’ll be fun.
(And now I have to stop because The Neighbor from Hell, who moved away months ago, I have suddenly sighted from my window. Please say this is only a bad dream!)
Some folks are going to read this and say, “What a philistine! Why, he has no literary taste at all!” I can’t help that. Anyhow, I enjoy reading other bloggers’ lists of their favorite books, so why not post one of my own?
Here they are, in no particular order.
*The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t have to explain this choice, do I?
*The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Not only is this, for me, the model of what a Christianity-based fantasy ought to be: but it also features the most fascinating story-start I’ve ever read. It’s been around for going on 70 years, and people will still be loving it 100 years from now.
*20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. When I’m reading this, I never want it to be over. We’ll never quite figure out what makes Captain Nemo tick, but that only makes him perpetually intriguing. You don’t expect this kind of depth of character in a science fiction novel from the 19th century–or any other century.
*Freddy and the Ignormus by Walter R. Brooks. Fantastic children’s fiction laced with humor that will delight adult readers. Freddy the Pig takes on a terrifying challenge which may or may not be real–and who but Walter R. Brooks would ever describe a beetle as “motherly”?
*Nemesis by Agatha Christie. Miss Marple takes on an investigation without knowing what the crime was, or even if there truly was a crime. More than just a puzzling whodunit, Nemesis explores the deep working of God’s justice in a fallen world.
*The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. More than any other book the creator of Tarzan ever wrote, Chessmen takes you to a place you never imagined, and makes you think it’s real. Plus it offers the most entertaining non-human character you’ve ever met–Ghek the Kaldane, all head, no body, who, in spite of himself, learns how to be human.
So there you have it–books that I come back to again and again, always with pleasure, and which have taught, and continue to teach me, much of what I know about writing.