writing problems

Retelling Tolkien

THE LORD OF THE RINGS is a classic. It’s the series that revived fantasy and gave the genre a place on the shelf and a slice of the market. I love LotR and wrote and read my share of fanfiction.

lord of the rings tolkien old hardback copies on shelf

But LotR isn’t good. It’s not good writing, nor the best storytelling has to offer. Plenty of folks can’t survive reading it cover to cover.

It’ll always be classic. But if it debuted today, it wouldn’t sell.

Many beginning fantasy authors write LotR retellings. They don’t call them that, of course. When I state in my rejection, “it reminded me a little too much of Tolkien,” I can get heated replies.

I read fantasy for a living. It’s clear when I read the first page these authors haven’t read much else in the genre. All ideas are recycled. The prose is as stale as a history textbook with stiff dialogue — much like LotR.

The characters have no personhood or truthful motivation to them. Like Aragorn, who’s a hero because it’s who he is. Or Sauron, who wants to turn the world dark and ugly because that’s what evil, all-powerful tyrants do. Tolkien’s characters were each monoliths to a character trait or universal arc. It’s beautiful, but not repeatable.

The solution to this problem is simple: read more. Read broadly. Read both YA and adult. Read recent fantasy: they show where the market is. Read diverse authors. Then you’ll see which tropes to avoid and which to play with.

2 thoughts on “Retelling Tolkien

  1. Count me in with the folks who couldn’t finish Lord of the Rings! I finished The Hobbit and the first book of the trilogy, but I didn’t care enough about the characters to continue reading The Two Towers after the first few pages. For me, a non-fantasy reader, to keep reading a fantasy, I have to find the characters sympathetic, compelling, and deep. In other words, all the things that join together for “good characterization”. I wish I could say LOTR had that–so many people adore Tolkein that I feel horrible not liking his work–but for me, the books don’t work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I have to admit that I read the Hobbit & LotR about once every other year. I love the overall tale, but completely agree with you that they are not the best written books on the shelf. The characters are mostly monolithic, the language is often stilted (it’s a useful exercise as a writer to just count the number of times “suddenly” is used), and there are those damn epic poems everywhere. (Not to mention Tom Bombadil whom I loathe and always skip over.)

    Still, the epic sweep, the lovable Pippin & Merry, the faithful Sam. I just want to spend time with them…

    Liked by 1 person

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