Philip Reeve on The Lord of the Rings

Toby Frost

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Philip Reeve of Mortal Engines fame has been re-reading LOTR and posting his thoughts on his blog in sections. He's reached the Scouring of the Shire, which promises to be very interesting. He's particularly good on landscape, I think.

 

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If there's one thing I'd add to his thoughts on the Fellowship of the Ring and the first book its that much of that part of the story almost feels like segments which "go nowhere" in the great scheme of the plot. Something I notice with a lot of writers is that they sometimes focus so much on the very core plot that anything that isn't part of it gets stripped out. Now an editor might justify this as removing bloat from a story, however at the same time I think it removes the world from the story. Much of the Fellowship establishes so many elements and subtle aspects that builds the world up. It makes segments which come later shorter and faster, because Tolkien has done so much to enrich and fill the earlier. Furthermore as Philip identifies, it deepens the world setting.

To me its like in a computer game where you've "fast moving" over large areas. You can walk from A to B and see the little bits of detail that the creators have put into the game; encounter a wandering wolf; perhaps a random quest appears etc... Or you can go from A to B in two clicks. If you always do it the latter way even from the start of the game, the world and setting feel light and dull. Lacking in depth and meaning because there's nothing outside of the very fast focus on the "plot." However if you walk from A to B even if only once, you enrich the experience because you fill in all the little bits that aren't core to the plot.

Of course there's a balancing act and some would argue that Fellowship is on the more bloated side of the balance between enriching the setting and following the plot. Yet at the same time it also builds into the grandeur of the setting, the vast changes that are happening to the lives of these characters etc...
 

TheEndIsNigh

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Now call me an ignorant old .....

But it seem to me that a red pen could be taken to all three books shortening them to about 200 pages in total.

IMHO LOR represents the epitome of info dump at it's ultimate level.

All you need to know is contained in the condensed version of the book:-

"Bored of the Rings"
 

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Which I think is why so many newer authors tip up on writing stories and instead end up writing plot formulas ;)

And true the Lord of the Rings is a big infodump, however its important to realise that so any fantasy novels which don't info dump so heavily can only do so because of the ground work that Tolkien and the popularity of his work, has allowed to happen. Today I'd also add Wizards of the Coast and their Dungeons and Dragons franchise to that list as well. Even though it builds right off the back of Lord of the Rings it helped to create so many key tropes and elements that it allows latter books to build right off it.
 

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But it seem to me that a red pen could be taken to all three books shortening them to about 200 pages in total.

On the other hand, I might agree with Tolkien, who said a fault of the book is that it is too short. But really I think it's basically just right.

I wouldn't agree about the "infodump" charge. It seems to me to reflect a characteristic impatience of our time -- a desire to hurry on to the next clickbait or whatever, combined with an insensitivity to the building of atmosphere and meaning that comes as one absorbs the sense of lore. (I don't mean to give offense to anyone, by the way.) Tolkien is not trying to provide quick entertainment but to work a kind of enchantment that includes the world the reader lives in as well as the imagined world. He imparts what's been called poetic knowledge. Which is something I think many holders of Ph.D.s in English seem never to have had, or to have lost, marinated in theory, intersectionality, and all that stuff. But I've said that sort of thing here before.

I think, for many people, if you're going to read LotR you need to loosen the grip of your mental habits, such as (don't I know it all too well) digital distraction-wallowing. You need to live with the book. Conditions of modern life may make that harder and harder, but that is not Tolkien's fault.


Somewhat tangential, but relevant:

 

Toby Frost

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I'd say the same thing about Gormenghast and, to a lesser extent, Dune. Both series could be hugely reduced and the basic storyline would remain intact, but both Tolkien and Peake, to my mind, were trying to create new worlds in a very immersive fashion, that at points gets close to prose poetry. These days, we all know the "vocabulary" of Tolkien's fantasy before we even begin reading, thanks to D&D and popular imagination. But Tolkien was expressing these ideas (ignoring his ancient sources) in a single setting for the first time. It's rather like the dinner scene in Dune: it could be summed up much quicker, but the way that its described, and the details, really show what the setting is like. That slowness, and gradual accumulation of detail, can be very immersive to the right reader.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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But it seem to me that a red pen could be taken to all three books shortening them to about 200 pages in total.

Yet it seems to me that if this were done—considering all the characters and all the things that happen—that if this were done the result would be a 200 page outline for a book, instead of an actual novel, a mere skeleton compared to the story that Tolkien did write.

Which, frankly, doesn't sound at all appealing. I prefer a story with some flesh on its bones.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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To some extent, but Jackson and Boyens added a lot of their own material. And especially in The Hobbit, where they didn't even have the excuse of making thing shorter, because the result was so much longer than if they had been truer to the book.

In fact, The Battle of Five Armies is a good example of what The Lord of the Rings might have looked like if all the songs and history and such had been removed. It would be all hack and slash and hack and slash and little of what makes the story unique. Personally, after a certain point I find battles pretty dull.
 

TheEndIsNigh

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@Teresa Edgerton

In researching this response I found this


Which, if one roots around the site, seems to give the entire text of all three books.

The thing I was looking for is this section:-

Then a minstrel and loremaster stood up and named all the names of the Lords of the Mark in their order: Eorl the Young; and Brego builder of the Hall; and Aldor brother of Baldor the hapless; and Fréa, and Fréawine, and Goldwine, and Déor, and Gram; and Helm who lay hid in Helm’s Deep when the Mark was overrun; and so ended the nine mounds of the west-side, for in that time the line was broken, and after came the mounds of the east-side: Fréalaf, Helm s sister-son, and Léofa, and Walda, and Folca, and Folcwine, and Fengel, and Thengel, and Théoden the latest. And when Théoden was named Éomer drained the cup. Then Éowyn bade those that served to fill the cups, and all there assembled rose and drank to the new king, crying: ‘Hail, Éomer, King of the Mark!’

Now I like little bit of background, but I count seventeen characters, none of which add anything to the story.

It was when I read this, way back in the 70's, I learnt to skip info dump both in LOR and subsequent books.


I suppose I owe JRRT something for teaching me that not every word in a book deserves to be read.

Since then, if I see a paragraph which is just a wall of text longer than four lines, it is skipped. OK maybe the first and last few words are read, but I couldn't care less for the bulk of the "dump".

Oh I know you'll all be giving me grief for this philistinism, but in the short time we all have left it behoves us to make every second count.

So for now - Back to my Corronation Street/Dallas box sets.
 

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TEiN said:
Now I like little bit of background, but I count seventeen characters, none of which add anything to the story.

Not in their individual selves, maybe (apart from Baldor the hapless, and Helm Hammerhand) but this section, the accession of Éomer to the throne of Rohan, is High Fantasy.
It's dropped into a formal style, and the naming of the Kings of the Mark gives on one side the sense of the history and depth rolling back through the years since the founding by Eorl: yet emphasizes how short that history actually is, compared with, say Rivendell, or Minas Tirith. Gollum is older than the Royal House of Rohan. Saruman was closer to the truth than might be comfortable: "What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs".
It adds to my image of Rohan being like an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, as opposed to Gondor resembling Byzantium. I'd argue that far from adding nothing to the story, that list of seventeen characters adds depth, colour and richness to the narrative.
And I doubt very much that in my visualisation of the Cosmic All, I'll really miss the 4-5 seconds that it took me to read..:)
 
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Teresa Edgerton

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I'm not going to give you grief, TEIN. You like what you like, and other people (including me) like what they like. I know your persona here is that of our friendly curmudgeon, but why need either one necessarily be worse? And why even bother saying that something ought to be shortened/changed when 1) everyone knows that it won't be and 2) millions of people have enjoyed it just as it is. Would more people like it if the prose was leaner, or just different people? Of course that is a question we can never answer, so in the short time I have left, I'm not going to worry about it.

But here is an interesting question that has occurred to me today. We've been acquainted for a good few years. And in that time I have learned what you don't like (including certain TV shows that you seem to watch religiously) but I have no idea at all what you do like. Could you give us an idea of other books in the High Fantasy line that you have enjoyed?
______

Good point, pyan, about Gollum being older than the House of Eorl. I've never stopped to think about that, but it is an interesting insight.
 

Toby Frost

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Isn't that what Peter Jackson did?

No, I don't think it is. A few years ago I got into a conversation with someone who was disgusted that the orcs didn't have a conversation with Aragorn at the battle of Helm's Deep. He couldn't understand why cutting it made the film better. (This is the guy who introduced me to the phrase "Ah, but if you'd read The Silmarillion, you'd understand that...") I think Jackson deserves considerable credit for making films that (to my mind) remain true to the spirit of the books and turning them into a viable Hollywood trilogy that would actually make it to the big screen.

Personally, there are bits of LOTR that doesn't do much for me - the singing, the family trees, Tom Bombadil - but the core of it works for me. If I was to prune it (and I wouldn't want to) I'd lose about 50 pages at most (and TEIN's example would be among them*). I do think that it is treated with a little too much reverence by some of its fans, but ultimately, it is what it is, and that is generally important and good.

(*I suspect this is a homage to the wordy, name-dropping style of old epics, but that doesn't get it off the hook for me. It doesn't work as the accumulation of interesting detail for me. I see it as just a slightly absurd list of names, rather like that Beyond the Fringe Shakespeare sketch where endless noblemen are mentioned.)
 
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TheEndIsNigh

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@Teresa Edgerton

Using:-


as a list of High Fantasy:-

Piers Anthony's Xanth series (Really enjoyed)
Terry Brooks's Shannara series (but never finished the series see LOR)
Trudi Canavan's The Black Magician series (Really enjoyed)
C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series (Enjoyed both times as a child and again as an adult)
Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (Good, but the endings were always poor IMO)
Roger Zelazny's Amber series (Excellent)

I couldn't find the Witch World series listed under High Fantasy but I also enjoyed them.

In truth I'm more of a SF than Fantasy fan.

One thing that puts me off a book/series is when the cover makes claims in comparison to LOR as in:-

"This is the best fantasy series since Gandolf sliced Orc"

I belived it once with Shanara and although I did read a few in the series, I fell by the wayside.

Following the enjoyment of reading the Black magician series, I went mad and bought all three of the

"Priestess of the White" trilogy.

I think I paid well over twenty five of our English pounds (a kings ransom at the time). These were the worst book purchases of my life as, after wading through over two thirds of the first book, I gave up in despair and threw them all in the bin.

Making LOR shorter? Yes I believe an abridged version would give it a new lease of life.

As for Who, I haven't bothered watching those for many a year.
 

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Thanks. That tells me that our reading tastes in fantasy are very different, since except for Narnia and the early Witch World books (which I would call science fantasy, by the way) those are all series I gave up on fairly early.

But it is interesting. You cite the Amber series as excellent. But for me, after the first couple of books (I quite liked Nine Princes in Amber), I found it was dragging on and on and on. And it is a stupendously long series. But I can see that it would not please anyone to shorten it, because the layers of mystery and the intricacies of the plot are just what fans of the series loved.

As for an abridged LOTR, I think it is possible that there might have been a time when it would attract readers. But now? I am betting that after it was stripped of so many of the things that made it special, readers would compare it poorly with all the Tolkien imitators that they have, by now,read first, considering it a weak substitute for Eddings and Brooks and the like. I think it would flop spectacularly.
 

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In fact, as I mentioned above, I think LOR had a large impression on my dislike of long descriptive fantasy. In that respect JRRT may have lots to answer for with many readers. Being such an extensive work I think he left little room for others to expound of the genre without being measured against his tome.

In my youth, science fiction was all I ever bought to read - I read other things, but to deserve my hard cash it had to be SF.

Nowadays I'm happy to read other things with quite a bit of info dump therein.

I enjoyed the Cadfael series (Ellis Peters) and the Falco roman detective series (Lindsey Davies). The difference is that the info dumps are more factual and interesting in themselves.

Nine Prices was possibly my first introduction to fantasy (read before LOR) so it might be my cynical depression hadn't fully developed. I think at the time I varaciously read anything in the local library's SF section (those were the days). The librarians made no differentiation between SF and F so if it was there it was read.

One of my first "series" experiences was the Lensmen series. Unfortunately the library only had the last book of the series and I read it unknowingly - The library often removed the covers of hard books.

Some years later, while at university I discovered the Lensmen series in paperback and again hard cash (more importantly hard university grant cash) was parted with. Eventually I reached the the last in the series only to find it was the one I read years before. That put me off reading series works for some time. It's also why I bought all three of the White witch series, because I've started a series of books only to find the third of fourth book becomes unavailable and it can be years before you can continue - Or never can because it goes out of print altogether.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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TheEndIsNigh said:
In fact, as I mentioned above, I think LOR had a large impression on my dislike of long descriptive fantasy. In that respect JRRT may have lots to answer for with many readers. Being such an extensive work I think he left little room for others to expound of the genre without being measured against his tome.


Which I am sure was the furthest thing from his mind. There was no fantasy "genre" in the way we mean it today. He was just writing the kind of book he wanted to write, with all the kinds of things that had most meaning for him. If the book overpowered those to follow, then surely that's no fault of his ... if fault it could even be called, when this overpowering impression could not have occurred unless there was something in the story the many readers had been longing for without previously knowing it was the thing they were secretly looking for. Which sounds to me like something to be praised rather than criticized. It is not like shorter books suddenly ceased to exist. There were still plenty of those. (I know. I was reading them!) But suddenly there was the possibility of books longer and richer. Not just because of new books being written in the Tolkien mode, but older books with some of the same qualities (and some excellent qualities unique to themselves!) that were brought back into print because of Tolkien's success. As well as a great many other books that saw print for the first time, fantasy books of all sorts and all lengths. There were hundreds of excellent fantasy novels in great variety that publishers probably wouldn't have touched if it were not for the resultant fantasy boom.

It was a flowering and a broadening of what fantasy meant. It was the gaming companies that came along a while after and codified everything so that for many readers it was all set in stone. That was the stifling influence. Tolkien had been liberating, but the game companies lured people into playing their games and convinced their customers that fantasy had to be experienced a certain way or it broke the "rules" they had just invented.
 

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Stopped there - and went and read the whole thing. I do like Phillip Reeve's turn of phrase ("We discover that the mysterious Strider is actually Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, slightly to the annoyance of Boromir, whose family has been keeping it warm for him down the generations.").
He also has some nice hits at the modern fashions for paring a story to the bone (which, I'm afraid, I have no time for) and "Show, don't Tell", which would have reduced the story almost to TEiN's estimate of 200 pages. I understand that a lot of people prefer bang bang BANG stories, but it worries me that this style is being produced to the detriment of longer, more descriptive books, because someone says that they're better,

Good stuff - thanks, Toby, for finding and posting it. (y)
 

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