Tolkien & Allegory

Last week, I started re-reading Lord of the Rings for probably the fifth or sixth time. It has been about three years since I’ve read it, so I am definitely due for a read. That the series is my favorite work ever is reconfirmed every time I give it a read. Although I know what will happen, the writing draws me in every time. It feels like a sort of coming home, a tradition of familiarity in the comfort of immense talent–a perfect nostalgic sense to evoke during the holiday season!

This go-around, I actually read something new in the book–the author’s note in the forward. I claim to love Tolkien, but for some reason my anxious mind always wanted to get to the story and skipped over this part. Now, being an author myself, I found this segment fascinating to hear another author’s perspective. One quote really stood out to me. Tolkien was speaking about readers’ questions about whether or not the story was an allegory to the current events during the time of writing (WWII). Tolkien had this to say:

“I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” –J.R.R Tolkien

This quote really spoke to me as a former English major. I couldn’t begin to guess hour many hours of explication and class discussions we spent trying to figure out the “author’s true meaning” in everything from works of poetry to novels. Admittedly, historical evidence does show that some works are meant to be allegorical (Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” comes directly to mind), however, I like Tolkien’s view to consider applicability. Part of the beauty in a work of literature lies in the unique impression it gives to each individual reader. If a Lord of the Rings fan wanted to apply the context of WWII to the trilogy, and that gave the work more meaning to them, they are free to do so (although Tolkien might argue some of their points on the matter!).

Literature is not only the author’s freedom to write what words he will, but also the reader’s freedom to interpret or apply the words in the way that makes sense to him. It should not be the author’s task to move every single reader to the exact same conclusion or interpretation as that would take the magic of the human mind out of the equation.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)

I am sorry for the lack of posts this week–everything is off balance with my travels of the past weekend, but I am going to try and get back on track with the traditional Wednesday post about a book which has inspired me. Today I am talking about a series. A series which was tragically cut short and is very different from any of the other inspiring books I have written about on here. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or Millennium series. I picked up the first book in the series randomly one summer when I was in college and looking for a snappy read to pass a long road trip–the book perfectly fit the bill. Not sure what to expect, I was instantly swept into the action and the non-conventional characters. Aside from being a compelling thriller that is sometimes physically impossible to put down, the three books in this series have lessons that all writers can take inspiration from. 

First and foremost are the characters–they aren’t your typical protagonists. Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed, bisexual, computer hacking genius with a photographic memory is not the standard archetypal female protag. And Mikael Blomkvist, while on the whole a very classic, likeable protagonist, is not without his confused, rather infuriating womanizing tendencies. Thus, these two protagonists are presented to readers and given ultimately compelling situations and challenges, making the reader invested in them, even when they don’t deserve it. These kinds of characters which blur the line between black and white right and wrong are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting types of characters–readers indentify with them, trust them and root for them while in reality, if they were to meet these people on the street, they might shy away or be judgemental. Through the art of writing and the act of reading, one is transported to a much more open-minded place. 

Next, I must credit Larsson for his treatment of controversial issues. He is not afraid to introduce rape, murder, and socio cultural issues onto the page. He shows this underbelly of society which most people might not want to talk about and makes it front and center to his plot line. Larsson’s advocacy for women in these books is incredible; through Lisbeth Salander, he shows a woman being put through hell and by placing her in a contemporary setting, he reminds readers that her story is not fiction for some. 

Larsson’s treatment of the contemporary setting is something I take inspiration from as well. Many of the books I read are historical or fantasy, so it is important to read things set in the present. Larsson does this in a very gripping manner. The reader feels like they have actually visited Sweden after reading the book, and (in my case anyway) leave the reading feeling very inclined to actually make a visit over. The books portray the very essence of how an American feels after traveling to Europe–that they have just experienced something very familiar and yet distinctly foreign. 

The only aspect of Larsson’s series that I don’t enjoy is that fact that it ended. The ten books originally planned are now just three due to the author’s untimely death. I read somewhere online that the outlines for the remaining seven books exist. I was talking to my Dad about how I was cheated out of the remaining books and said I hoped someone would write them for Larsson someday based on his outlines. Dad’s response, “Maybe that someone could be you.” If only I could do them so much justice! 

Finding Inspiration From Some of My Favorite Books

I am going to do something a little different than the usual writing or talking about writing post. Books have always been my inspiration and instruction for being a writer. I never enrolled in a college class strictly focused on creative writing–it was all learned (aside from, admittedly, the presence of some innate talent) through the books I’ve had my nose in since I was very young. Today, I am going to talk about some books which have inspired me. If you guys like this kind of post, let me know as I am thinking about making every Wednesday a post about books.

First, my favorite book of all time: The Lord of the Rings (counting the trilogy as one book). I became obsessed with this book in junior high, and have read it several times. In college, I even took a course over Tolkien. While I know I am not alone in my fandom, this book has always reserved a very special place in my soul as a writer. It challenged me, it intimidated me, and it deeply moved me. The challenge came from the craft of the words themselves. Tolkien was a master storyteller with an extensive vocabulary. I attempted to read the trilogy in sixth grade and was taken aback by the reading level being over my head–something that I had virtually never encountered at that point! The intimidation was present in the sheer immensity of the world Tolkien had created–histories of whole peoples, languages, traditions–as someone who knew she wanted to write someday, I was overawed by how much attention Tolkien had given to the task of world-building. Finally, the emotional ties I felt to the story were very strong. Some might question this attachment in such an epic fantasy. Surely so many worlds are being built, so many battles fought, so many adventurers stepping out their doors onto the road that the reader would sacrifice connection with the characters for this depth of action? However, this is simply not true and this factor is what names Tolkien as a master. I had never cried over a book before, but by the end of LOTR tears were in my eyes–Frodo’s sacrifice to rid the world of evil had moved me, despite the fact that there was never a narrator detailing Frodo’s innermost thoughts, and the story certainly didn’t stick with him throughout the entire book. Thus, LOTR has definitely inspired me to create rich worlds, to hone my craft, and that sometimes a sad ending can be very powerful in terms of resonating a theme.

I suppose since I have discussed one favorite book in this post, I should do homage to one of my other very favorites, The Great Gatsby. This was a book I hadn’t read (embarrassingly enough) until recently when the film version was about to come out, so I panicked and immediately read the book before seeing the movie. After that situation was rectified, it was obvious that Gatsby would be one of my favorite books of all time. A very small book, much of the action is given over to the white space, while the text is dominated by lavish and beautiful description–mirroring the theme of the roaring 20s superficiality. The descriptions and the aching melancholia this book brings to the reader are the reasons this is one of my favorites. As a writer, I can learn from it the valuable use of white space and just how powerful it can be to let readers fill in the gaps on their own. Word choice is another thing I love about this book–I will never forget the subtly masterful use of the description “bleeding fluently” to describe the condition of a talkative woman who had just been slapped in the face–her words were flowing as freely as the blood. Brilliant.

There is always something for everyone–not just writers–to learn from classic novels like these. Next Wednesday I will post about a couple of my more modern favorites.