Something I’ve noticed about Tolkien is that he’s often criticised by readers both for being too complex and yet, paradoxically, too simplistic.
Evidently these two positions aren’t expressed by the same people, but it’s nonetheless an interesting contradiction.
Is Tolkien too complex? Too simplistic? Let’s dig into this further.
Tolkien's Reputation for Complexity
Anyone remotely aware of Tolkien’s work will be familiar with the criticism that he ‘takes X number of pages to describe a tree/leaf‘ – a charge undoubtedly deserving of the phrase cliché.
Only recently, I was chatting with a friend who has yet to pick up a Tolkien novel, having been put off due to this observation.
This is nothing new.
I recall Tolkien’s attention-to-detail, specifically of the natural world, being called out as long as 20 years ago. Having given up during the Old Forest chapter – the litmus test chapter for readers of The Lord of the Rings – as a nine-year-old reader, I think I complained about the same thing after hearing it from an adult.
But here’s the thing – like most clichés, there may well be a pinch of truth in between the hyperbole. After all, Tolkien was undeniably concerned by creeping industrialisation.
His writing certainly has an environmentalist bent to it, with the menacing fire & industry of Saruman standing in direct opposition to the aged, ethereal presence of the Ents. The battle for Isengard in particular pits industry in direct opposition to nature.
And yes, Tolkien is rather fond of trees. Most readers who give up reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time become ensnared in the Old Forest chapter, as I did, as of course did Frodo & his companions.
Yet, on the other hand, there are plenty prepared to line up to argue that Tolkien’s writing is too simplistic and lacking in real world details.
Is Tolkien's Writing Simplistic?
George R. R. Martin – another fantasy writer who happens to have R.R in his initials, and author of the successful A Song of Ice and Fire series, is one such person.
Martin, in an interview with Rolling Stone once remarked:
“What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”
George RR Martin, on Tolkien
Martin’s tongue was perhaps slightly in his cheek, but it does represent a prevailing view that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is a bit ‘vanilla’, or basic in its plot resolution and character motivations.
If somewhat nitpicky, this isn’t an entirely redundant criticism – aspects of Tolkien’s plots are characterised by fate, circumstance, and a dash of good fortune.
Some characters lack complexity, and issues of power aren’t always explored in as much depth as they might be. (e.g. the people of Gondor want a king? Would Denethor really just give up the throne? Would Aragorn’s return not spark a civil war? e.t.c.).
Fantasy authors are amongst the most talented world builders in fiction. They painstakingly craft worlds populated with people, cities, and laws. To seek greater depth, and a stronger internal logic within a fantasy universe isn’t unreasonable.
And yet I can’t help but feel that these criticisms over a lack of complexity miss the point of Tolkien’s writing. Nor are many other fantasy writers able to create the blend of beautiful prose, timeless lore, and scope of ambition within Middle-Earth.
The Context of Tolkien's Writing
To explore this further, it’s worth looking into a wider historical context of Tolkien’s novels.
Fantasy was in its infancy
Consider when Tolkien was writing. The Hobbit (a book written for his children) was published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings in 1954.
There wasn’t a particularly large commercial fantasy market, mainly because fantasy itself was in its commercial and reputational infancy. Tolkien was, of course, not the first fantasy author – a title greatly disputed and perhaps one for another day – but his writing stood largely alone in the mainstream (bar a certain author and friend C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia).
Fantasy in the 1930s looked very different to the contemporary landscape. It was more simple, rooted in the ordinary everyday, and this humbleness is a core message behind the hobbits’ journeys through the land of the big folk.
Tolkien is more concerned with broader themes of good & evil, rather than the intricacies present in more contemporary sci-fi and fantasy books, such as power levels, magic systems, and so on.
Could this be mistaken as simplistic? Perhaps, but there is an undeniable beauty in Tolkien’s writing.
Less concerned about the mechanics and politics of his world, Tolkien spends more time exploring the geography of Middle-Earth and the people who live there.
Tolkien as the perceived father of fantasy
Whether Tolkien is the father of fantasy or not, he certainly popularised it. So naturally, his successors have borrowed elements from Middle-Earth to greater or lesser extents.
This does mean that reading Tolkien for the first time can feel overly familiar. You’ve likely experienced Tolkien-esque elements in books ranging from Harry Potter to Discworld, or games such as the Warhammer Fantasy tabletop game or the World of Warcraft MMO.
Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and Orcs are almost tropey races at this point, so it’s easy to feel jaded by the atypical mellowness of Elves, the grizzled bad-tempered dwarves, and the poor attempts to deviate from fantasy races such as Orcs by simply calling them ‘Orks’.
But this is a modern high fantasy problem – not Tolkien’s.
The Lord of the Rings is a quest narrative,
not a political intrigue
Due to the sheer creativity on display, it’s hard to read books written by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, and not wonder ‘what if…’?
Does this mean that George R. R. Martin’s observations have merit?
After all, Middle-Earth is a vast world, populated by a wide variety of beasts, birds, and beings. Dwarves, hobbits, men, elves, easterlings, orcs, wizards – and so much more.
In some respects, these writings have fueled readers’ need for granular details. It’s not unreasonable to want to know, for example, how Aragorn was able to claim the throne with very little dispute.
The key difference between Tolkien and Martin’s books, or even Frank Herbert’s Dune, is that both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are quest narratives. They just aren’t concerned with palace intrigue and political deception of the above examples.
And that’s okay.
Tolkien’s stories were written for his children
The excellent The Lord of the Rings movies have somewhat skewed people’s views of the books. And who’s to blame them – they’re amazing films that have redefined how movies are made.
However, because of the epic visual scope of the movies, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Tolkien’s writings were written primarily for his children.
Could he have written a fantasy novel with more gore and more political intrigue, akin to Martin’s A Game of Thrones? Sure – Tolkien fought in the Somme. He knows real war. It just isn’t the predominant concern of his writing.
Incidentally, Tolkien did start planning a darker sequel to The Lord of the Rings, provisionally named The New Shadow. He eventually abandoned it after deciding it wasn’t the right tone for his novels.
Prose versus Plot - The core issue?
In reality, Tolkien’s mixed reputation probably comes down to readers’ experiences of complex prose versus basic plot. I’m not certain that these are necessarily fair criticisms, but they do seem to be the prevailing views.
His prose is known to be rather flowery and, perhaps a little too over-descriptive in parts. Take this very brief example, highlighted by A Lent of The Lord of the Rings:
Meanwhile the plot in his works (The Hobbit particularly) do tend to rely on pre-ordained fate, and in some cases a deus ex machina.
Most are familiar with the eagles plot hole, which argues that there was no discernible reason why the eagles couldn’t have flown Frodo & friends to Mordor. There’s a fantastic study by Sean Crist which came to the conclusion, using textual evidence, that there was no reason the eagles could not taken the ring to Mordor.
To conclude, it is possible that some are put off by the complexity his prose, whilst others are disappointed by his sometimes overly convenient plot resolutions. And whilst these aren’t criticisms I share, there is a sound logic behind both.
The Lord of the Rings is not a perfect trilogy of books (in spite of my tongue-in-cheek insistence that they are). However, they are timeless for a reason. Frodo’s journey is relatable on a human level, whilst the moral and ethical lessons contained within will endure for evermore.
What do you think? Do you find Middle-Earth to be a little simple? Too complex? Just right? Let me know in the comments below.
5 thoughts on “Are Tolkien’s Books too Complex?”
Half the point of Denethor’s character is that he would *not* just surrender the throne, and Boromir is in the same vein.
But here’s the point I really care about:
That list of plants, supposedly a stylistic defect, is one of an ancient lineage of a device called the congeries, the master of which is Charles Dickens. The _point_ is to overwhelm the reader with a heap of images (the word “congeries” means “heap”), to create an effect through surfeit of detail. The reader comes away with the overall impression, with the details creating the texture. When you see a Christmas tree decked out in hundreds of twinkling lights and ornaments of many shapes and sizes and colors, the point isn’t to see every little detail, and it would be ludicrous to criticize the decorator’s skill by saying, “There are too many ornaments on that tree; I can’t look at all of them at once!” You can look at the ornaments individually, but the purpose is the overall effect, which is lovely and colorful and festive.
The Tolkien congeries in question is in Ithilien. Frodo and Sam have just come from the Dead Marshes and the desolation before the Black Gate into the Garden of Gondor, and you expect Tolkien to just say, “Oh yeah, and there were some nice plants”?
You’re _supposed_ to feel overwhelmed: to choke on the gasping desert crawling with noxious slime and “twisted dragon-shapes vomited from the tormented earth” at the edge of Mordor—and then to feel the lush yet only nascent springtime of a land that the Shadow hasn’t yet reached wash over you with the same calm, sweet elation you experience when, after schlepping down a crowded street in the middle of summer and climbing up a flight of stairs, you pull open the heavy door of a church and feel the cool, faintly scented air bathe you in peace and stillness and joy.
Yes, that was one sentence. That sort of thing isn’t a defect; it’s a style. A style that’s not currently, well, in style, but a deliberate authorial technique and not a sign of ineptitude. Whether you as a reader enjoy it is another question entirely.
John, this was a brilliant read; I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The first thing to say on the complexity/simplicity argument regarding Tolkien is that it depends on which of his books you’re referring to when making your case. I don’t think you can conclusively say of Tolkien’s corpus as a whole that it’s too complex or too simple.
Second, there are two types of complexity and simplicity regarding this argument. 1) is on the subjective level – I.e you personally find them too easy or too difficult to read. That type of argument can be thrown out immediately as that’s about you as a reader as opposed to a deficiency on Tolkien’s part as a novelist. 2) is on the objective level – we’re looking to gauge in general whether the average reader finds Tolkien’s books too simple or difficult. It’s my understanding that we’re debating 2).
Based on 2) it seems trivially easier to say that Tolkien simply got it just right and found some kind of equilibrium between complexity and simplicity. This can be based purely on the empirical evidence (particularly concerning The Hobbit and LOTR) – they’re indisputably some of the most successful books of our age, they’re books that are part of our pop culture, they’ve spawned some of the most revolutionary fantasy films and they’re the precursor to other great fantasy books/films (Game of Thrones to name one). It’s not like his books have fallen into obscurity and just hold curiosity for academics.
However, I do think his books are more complex than simplistic (more so stylistically but also based on content) for the average reader but that the complexity isn’t in anyway a hinderance to the enjoyment of reading Tolkien or a detriment to their readability.
A few further comments on what you actually said:
1) You were right to refer to The Silmarillion. If anyone claimed that Tolkien’s corpus was too simple then I’d swiftly refer them to The Sim. One of the most complex books I’ve ever read in terms of its world-making. Also, if someone was to refer to The Sim as an argument for why Tolkien is ‘too’ complex then I would argue that The Sim is to be seen as supplementary to the Hobbit and LOTR in terms of explaining the world of those books. It would be a mistake to consider The Sim’s complexity as indicative of Tolkien’s writings in general.
2) I’d have pushed your reference to CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles further as I think the comparisons are apt. Lewis’ NC is quite considerably more simplistic than The Hobbit and LOTR, particular stylistically. The NC is far less complicated in terms of its sentence constructions, sentence lengths/demarcations and vocabulary. The content is debatable; it could be argued that conceptually NC is more complex as it heavily involves Christian allegory with a Platonic kind of spin. Regardless, the same charges against Tolkien could be quite as easily levelled against CS Lewis. Again, Lewis’ NC has had brilliant success (perhaps not as much as LOTR) so he himself could be said to have ‘got it right’.
3) Regarding your comment on Tolkien’s difficult prose vs basic plot, I always thought Tolkien wrote in a very Victorian style akin to something like Dickens. Dickens constantly wrote in lists and ridiculously long sentences similar to the excerpt you use as your example from The Twin Towers. Whilst it is a common criticism of Victorian literature that they pedantically describe things in ridiculous detail (we know they were paid by the page), Dickens and Tolkien used long lists and convoluted sentences for particular literary purposes. It’s not as if they did it for the sake it or to arrogantly demonstrate how intelligent they were or to simply baffle their readership.
Tolkien got it just right, end of.
When people say the book is too complex, I scratch my head a bit because I read it in sixth grade and understood it just fine. Certainly I was a more avid reader than a lot of kids, but i am not some unusual genius. I think an adult should be able to follow it. And though I like the nature descriptions because I think you can tell Tolkien actually knows a lot about nature and isn’t BSing it like many authors, I think finding them boring is different from finding them difficult.
I also agree the book isn’t strictly about political policy, and I am sure that is one thing many readers like about it.
Couldn’t agree more, Briana. I’m reading through it again right now (just starter The Two Towers) and it doesn’t seem particularly difficult. Not like the Silmarillion which is certainly harder to follow.
Still, I can understand why some struggle to get into it. The dialogue is pretty overwrought in parts, and the pacing of the first half of FOTR is veeeeery slow.
I think there’s a tangential merit to some of the criticisms, but I think they’re largely overblown.
Still a ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ read for me all day long!