Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Sufficient art, cunning, or material…”

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Map of Middle-earth

I now wanted to try my hand at writing a really, stupendously long narrative and see whether I had sufficient art, cunning or material to make a really long narrative that would hold the average reader right through. One of the best forms for a long narrative is the adage found in The Hobbit, though in a much more elaborate form, of a pilgrimage and journey with an object. So that was inevitably the form I adopted.

J.R.R. Tolkien

As Tolkien knew, every novel, regardless of the scale or modesty of its conception, begins as a test that an author sets for himself. No matter how many times you’ve been through the process before, a novel always presents itself initially as a set of unanswered questions, both about the details of the actual story and about the author’s own talents and capabilities. And the only way of resolving such questions involves many months or years of sustained work that may, in the end, turn out to be fruitless or misguided. Reading the passage above, I’m fascinated by the fact that Tolkien’s original challenge to himself was simply to write a very long book that would hold the reader’s interest—an almost impossible proposition for most writers—and that his most crucial decision, to build the book around a pilgrimage or quest, was in some ways a technical solution to the problem of structuring this massive narrative.

And the key word here is cunning. Tolkien never had any reason to doubt his own intelligence, or his ability to generate extraordinary amounts of material for his imagined legendarium, but the tactical, tricky, flexible craft required to keep the pages turning was another matter entirely, and there’s no particular reason to believe that even a professor of philology at Oxford would have the skills required. (For one thing, they seem to have largely eluded Tolkien’s posthumous editors.) Reading Tolkien’s letters, you get a sense of a very shrewd storyteller who is well aware of the workings and practicalities of his carefully constructed fantasy, as in his treatment of those notorious eagles: “The Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine,'” he writes. “I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.” Credibility, usefulness, cunning—these are the words of a writer highly attuned to the tricks of the trade. We’re all on a similar journey. And the road goes ever on.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2012 at 9:50 am

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