As the old year drew to a close, I abandoned a contemporary fantasy for the tried and true — a re-reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which you may recall from the post Fantasy Friday – Reading the Greats.
In explaining my decision, I said, in part,
I want a book of substance, that says something and makes me think larger. I want a story that touches my heart and makes me cry. Or laugh. I want a story I will want to re-read some day.
What book better qualifies than one of Tolkien’s? He is the master of fantasy, certainly. But why? Once we know Frodo makes it safely to Rivendell, once we know who the nine are who will make up the Fellowship, once we know the mountain won’t let them reach the pass, once we know who doesn’t make it out of the mines of Moria, why read it all again?
Today I read the last of writing instructor John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story which ends with the chapter “The Never-Ending Story” in which he addresses the factors that make a story live on. Such stories are the ones we re-read. Such stories are the ones that influence us long after we’ve put them back on the shelf.
Truby looks first at stories that do the opposite, then presents ways in which a writer can create the kind of story that doesn’t leave the “must read” lists. Most of what he says, however, is quite different from Tolkien’s work. Is Mr. Truby wrong, then, in his estimation? Actually, no, he stretches his theory to include books like The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
These are stories that are plot heavy and story-world heavy. The characters are important but less so than what they accomplish and how it affects the world. These are the types of stories that usually do not make the have-to-re-read list since the driving force is “what happens next?” Once the reader knows the outcome, the need to re-read evaporates.
But Tolkien’s work is different. He does two things which Truby identifies as elements creating an “infinite story tapestry.”
Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings [readings] move to the foreground. Add elements of texture — in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world — that become much more interesting once the audience has seen [readers have read] the plot surprises and the hero’s character change. (p. 420)
I remember the first time I re-read The Fellowship of the Ring. I had all but forgotten the character Tom Bombadil and much of what happened to Frodo and friends in the Old Forest. But this time, reading again after much less time had elapsed, I knew what was coming and focused on different aspects. I even thought ahead to Fangorn and the Ents.
I also have a better grasp of how The Hobbit fits into the history of Middle Earth. There are many, many more references to Bilbo’s story than I remembered. (And now I wonder if that’s because I re-read The Hobbit since re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring. )
One reason writers should read great literature is to learn. To be honest, I hope it’s one of those “caught, not taught” things because when I read Tolkien, there’s just so much to enjoy that I forget to look at how he put it all together. Is there anyone better in fantasy?