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.

Exposition Explication 

Many of my followers’ comments on the chapters of Capacitance I have posted thus far have concerned the richness of the description of the setting and characters. Certainly exposition has been both a strength and a weakness for me as a writer. I’ve had the tendency to lean on it too heavily, but it has also enriched my storytelling ability (as some of you have pointed out).

There is a fine line between too much and too little exposition. I personally lean towards too much, simply because I enjoy the details. I love picturing a character’s outfit in my mind and describing it on the page. Filling and furnishing the place where a character lives is really fun for me as I was (for a brief semester) an interior design student. It’s just too much fun to give Mara’s penthouse black obsidian rock countertops when I don’t know if this is even possible or practical in real life (I certainly don’t have the budget to find out!). This is the magic of storytelling—as a writer, I have the ability to create whatever I want and place it on the page.

However, as a storyteller I hold a lot of power, and with that power comes responsibility. I have an obligation to the reader to give up some of that creative magic and leave some spaces free of description to allow their minds to fill in the gaps. This is one allure that draws readers to books; reading allows them to exercise their imagination and creativity. The story never looks the same in each individual reader’s mind. Hearkening back to Tolkien, for example, my dad was an avid reader of Lord of the Rings when he was in high school and college. Of course, we went to see the movies (maybe three or four times!) when they came out. My dad commented how different the settings were in the movie as opposed to what he had seen in his mind. He specifically mentioned Rivendell; while Peter Jackson styled the Elvish haven in a classic, fantasy style, Dad had always visualized the dwellings and structures as a more modern architectural style. I have always found this very interesting, and it is a phenomenon made possible by the fact that Tolkien simply did not go into detailed description of the architectural style of Rivendell. Thus, my dad, Peter Jackson, and each reader (whose original vision wasn’t skewed by the movies like mine was) is able to have their own, unique view of the setting.

Capacitance may have too much exposition at times, but I believe it is necessary. It helps draw readers into the world and helps them get closer to the characters. I do not have the enormous burden of a heavy fantasy to build as Tolkien did. Instead, I am attempting in this first installment of the trilogy, to draw readers closer to the characters themselves, to build a connection with them that will carry through in the events to come. Inductance does not have as much exposition. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, the second installment of my trilogy is very action packed and quick paced. In Capacitance, I introduced readers to the characters and showed their potential; now, in Inductance, they are using that potential and events are happening rapidly. I wanted the plot to move fast, and exposition—by default—slows the plot down by forcing readers to take time to consider and visualize.

Tomorrow I will be posting more thoughts on Inductance. I have made a lot of progress this week, and I’m excited to share. Until then, have a wonderful Thursday!

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.