“It has been said that if the protagonists of Hamlet and Othello were reversed, there would have been no tragedy: Hamlet would have seen through Iago in no time and Othello would not have hesitated to kill King Claudius.” – Barbara Tuchman, from The March of Folly, p. 231
Bradley Birzer reminds us that J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher contributed much to his father’s legacy. It took him four years to compile and edit The Silmarillion before it was ready for publication, and other works, from the elder Tolkien’s modernization of Beowulf to the latest work, The Fall of Gondolin, demanded years of patient scholarship.
But in the same article, Birzer also points out how J.R.R. Tolkien gifted the world with his astonishing and profound creations, works that grew out of Tolkien’s personal losses and the soul-numbing trauma of war. Tolkien’s world-building not only helped him overcome the spiritual and emotional pain caused by his excruciating experience at the Somme, but has inspired countless readers as well.
What makes Tolkien so timeless is that his tales are much, much more than feel-good fables that end with the happy moral “You can do it!” And there’s more going on in Tolkien than the observation that “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Tolkien’s insight into human nature is that there is such a thing as human nature, and that it springs from roots deeper and mightier than we can understand. While murder and greed and depravity certainly exist, we possess within us timeless ties to countless generations before us, generations whose courage and tenacity are part of us even when we forget them. As Birzer notes:
“Those familiar with The Lord of the Rings know how often the stories of the Elder Days appear at critical moments in the trilogy. When the Ringwraiths are about to attack the hobbits and Aragorn on Weather Top, the ranger tells the ancient and timeless story of Beren and Lúthien, almost as a preparatory prayer in anticipation of battle. Galadriel, in a moment of confession, admits she has lived in Middle-earth since before the fall of Gondolin. When Sam and Frodo wonder what their fate is as they approach Mount Doom, they compare their own experiences with those of a previous age, recognizing that they exist in the same story, just at a later time.”
This, I think, is another aspect of Tolkien’s enduring appeal. In an age that threatens to overwhelm us with mindless distractions, we need to remember our connections to those we love in the present and to those of the past who sacrificed so much so that we could live to carry the flame into the future.
* Yes, it’s been some time since I posted. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in last-minute edits of my latest book, and am now in the process of polishing it for publication.
* The quote about fairy tales and dragons was first coined by G. K. Chesterton and re-worded by science fiction writer Neil Gaiman.
“All the great poets should have been fighters,” Muhammad Ali once said. “Take Keats and Shelley, for an example. They were pretty good poets, but they died young. You know why? Because they didn’t train.”
Ali had a point, but that jab missed its target. Not only were both Keats and Byron handy with their fists, many writers have found themselves attracted to sparring. Rod Serling, who got his nose broken while boxing, wrote the screenplay for Requiem for a Heavyweight, THE classic tale of both the allure and mental and physical hardships of professional fighting.
Josh Rosenblatt, a writer, ex-boxer, and former editor-in-chief of Fightland, suggests the seemingly disparate arts of writing and fighting have much more in common than one would think:
At the root of the sympathetic connection between writing and fighting lies solitude. Fighters have their trainers and cornermen and opponents, and writers have their editors and publishers and subjects, but in the end both are out there on their own, wrestling with themselves every time. Ask any trainer and they’ll say a fighter’s greatest obstacle isn’t his opponent but his own fear. The same is true for writers. The terror of physical destruction and the terror of the blank page are the same thing.
I think all who’ve struggled with the writing craft can identify with that observation.
I’ll add another thought on how the disciplines of sparring and writing can interact and enrich each other. Both help sharpen one’s awareness of the world around us. One cannot enter the ring with a rigid, prefabricated plan that cannot be altered when circumstances change. As General Kutuzov reminded his officers in War and Peace, “Before a battle, there is nothing more important than a good night’s sleep.” Alertness trumps planning in a world full of surprises.
And it’s the same with writing. We need outlines, but as the story evolves and grows, we have to listen to our characters and modify the narrative as circumstances dictate. That’s the key to crafting a story that feels fresh and alive.
Finally, as Ali noted, staying in shape is vital, especially for wordsmiths who sit for hours in front of a computer.
Writers, whether new or seasoned, know well the central struggle of the craft, which is, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “Getting the words right.”
When you nail it, there’s nothing like it. The scene that sizzles, the story that moves readers — that’s what we live and work for as writers.
To me, no other fictional work has better captured the promise — and risk — of language than Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic, “A Wizard of Earthsea,” which tells the story of a boy learning the art of wizardry. The boy’s aunt, a dabbler in spell-making, introduces young Duny to the mystical relationship between the entities of our world and the names by which we know and influence them:
She praised him, and told him she might teach him rhymes he would like better, such as the word that makes a snail look out of its shell, or the name that calls a falcon down from the sky.
“Aye, teach me that name!” he said, being clear over the fright the goats had given him, and puffed up with her praise of his cleverness. …
When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist like the hunting-birds of a prince, then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle. To earn the words of power he did all the witch asked of him and learned of her all she taught, though not all of it was pleasant to do or know. pp. 4-5
Young Duny (later to be known as Ged) learns that the purpose of developing his power is to enhance and protect life. One of the themes of Le Guin’s riveting tale is the danger that a wizard can misuse that power if it is wielded carelessly.
The point, of course, is that the power of language is not only real, but necessary for a full life as a human being in society and the world. When used thoughtfully, language connects and anchors us. I like the way Joe Moran of Liverpool John Moores University expresses the process in this Literary Hub article:
For the American writing teacher Francis Christensen, learning to write was also about learning to live. He believed that teaching his students how to write a really great long sentence could teach them to “look at life with more alertness.” It should not just be about ensuring that the sentence is grammatically correct, or even clear. The one true aim, he wrote, was “to enhance life—to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self.” He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”
“To give the world life by wedding it to the self.” Beautiful. Such moments make the rejections and rewrites worth it.
Zachary Hill had just finished the rough draft of Sakura when he suddenly died. Zach’s friends and family were naturally devastated. But two of his friends, both authors, did what only writers could do for Zach and his widow, and that was to polish the manuscript and get it published. Another friend and author, Larry Correia, is getting the word out to sci-fi/fantasy fans:
Zach was a very good friend of mine and one of the all around coolest people I’ve ever met. He finished the rough draft of this novel three days before he died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism.
Paul Genesse and Patrick Tracy are talented authors, who were also friends of Zach’s, and they vowed to finish his last book and get it out there because Zach thought it was the best thing he’d ever written.
No matter how good you are, rough drafts still need lots of work, and working with Zach’s brother Josh, and a great team of artists (it is beautifully illustrated) and editors, they did a fantastic job. They’ve received no compensation for this. It was done as a labor of love, and all the royalties go to Zach’s widow, Makenzie.
What a beautiful thing to do. Please pass the word about Sakura: Intellectual Property to other writers and readers.
I’ve long admired the works of Dick Francis, whose horse-racing yarns captivated readers and critics for over four decades. As the title suggests, his books lured readers who may not have been horse enthusiasts (myself included!), but who found themselves snared by a seductive opening. And once lured, readers couldn’t help turning page after page thanks to the author’s passion for his topic, his flawed but resilient characters, and engrossing writing.
As this CrimeReads article explains, Francis authored over 40 international best sellers thanks to his natural talent as a storyteller, remarkable discipline, and a writing routine that included his wife Mary, who not only edited his manuscripts, but performed extraordinary research for his stories, including learning to fly a plane. (?!)
In my opinion, Dick Francis ranks up there with Mickey Spillane not only as a crime writer, but as a master of the first-person point of view. The first person, I think, provides both the flexibility and constraint that lets the writer achieve the depth of intimacy and detail that make a story come alive. By centering the writer around one character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, the first person helps focus the writer’s efforts by giving a place and a consciousness on which to anchor that story in both the writer’s and reader’s imagination.