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.