Yes, I know it’s only my subjective opinion that JRR Tolkien is the best high-fantasy author of all time. But here are my nine reasons why, especially written for moral men, doomed to die.
Levels of Lore
You can travel up or down the levels of Tolkien’s legendarium. Let’s agree that The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is the central text of JRR Tolkien’s world. Do you find it a little too dark, detailed or longwinded? Then you can move down to The Hobbit (TH). Do you want to know more about the background and context to LOTR? Then you can move up to The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. And from these, would you like to focus on some of your favourite events and characters? The you can move sideways to The Children of Húrin, The Fall of Gondolin etc. Perhaps you want to know more about the author himself and his how his stories developed? Then you can move deeper to his letters and complete works.
(And, by the way, this is why the LOTR films worked while TH trilogy and TROP series didn’t. The LOTR films got the level right to match the books. TH films forgot that they reflected a book that was a level down and tried to reproduce three more LOTR films. And The Rings of Power series forgot that it was a level up from LOTR, and therefore needed to be even more serious and grand in tone and scope. Instead, it was a mishmash of different levels that felt more like an attempt to reproduce Game of Thrones than anything in Tolkien.)
Tolkien takes his time to start and end his epic tale. There are six books in LOTR, collected in the trilogy of volumes whose names we know. So, there are two books in The Fellowship of the Ring, two books in The Two Towers, and two books in The Return of the King. Tolkien takes the first of these six book merely to set the scene. The quest of the ring doesn’t start until the second book. Same with the ending. The LOTR is like a plane journey. Unlike Homer, he doesn’t start in the middle of things. There’s a take-off, a journey, and a landing. You have time to orientate yourself in this strange, new world. And you have time to enjoy a multi-layered ending, with (almost) all bits properly wrapped up.
The sheer scale and scope of material that Tolkien created along with his tales is mind-blowing. Chronologies and annals. Family trees. Calendars. Multiple languages and alphabets, with points on pronunciation, names, and translations. Songs and poems. Places and special objects. Maps. Customs. Measurements. Metals. The history of houses, orders, races, and beasts. Notes on different peoples and realms. Not to mention a creation story and eschatology for the entire universe. And, on top of all this, he did his own art work! Tolkien isn’t just the author of a story. He’s the subcreator of a cosmos.
For someone who has created such a comprehensive work, Tolkien is content to leave some matters unexplained and mysterious. What happened to the Blue Wizards, the Entwives, and the dwarf rings? What was the true nature of Tom Bombadil and Ungoliant? Was Smaug the last dragon, and Durin’s Bane the last Balrog? (And do Balrogs have wings?) These are not insignificant questions…mostly. Yet we find no definite answers. And that’s alright with me. In fact, it’s quite a clever tactic on JRR Tolkien’s part, since issues like these will keep his fans guessing and debating until the Dagor Dagorath, when Morgoth returns (whenever that is).
Never the Same
It’s possible to reread Tolkien’s works many times without a sense of tedium kicking in. On my first reading of LOTR, there were parts that I simply didn’t appreciate. In fact, I must confess to my shame that I skipped over the songs and thought the entire Tom Bombadil episode was a waste of time that added next to nothing to the plot. Others have told me that the time Tolkien takes to describe details of journeys – sky and weather, temperature and trees – and conversations between characters stretches their patience to breaking point. But these rich features are exactly what makes Tolkien re-readable, even apart from the pleasure of reexperiencing again his stories and the language in which he tells them.
Tolkien’s tales are not just one fantasy series among many. They aren’t even the best of their kind (although they are). It’s not even that they are the first of their kind (although they are in every way that matters). His stories are the absolute archetype of their kind, and he is their founding father. The British mathematician A N Whitehead once said that European philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” such was Plato’s centrality to it. Yes, there were philosophers before Plato, kind of. But he gathered up their thoughts and put them together into one new and far-reaching whole. Those who came after Plato had the wealth of his ideas scattered through their own thought, whether they knew it or not. So it is with JRR Tolkien. There were proto-fantasy stories before, and new fantasy stories after, but his work is an inescapable benchmark by which we not only judge but even understand all other efforts.
Theory and Practice
There are some who are great writers of stories but who don’t delve much into the theories behind them. There are others who write profound books about archetypes, plot, and all the elements of literary criticism. But they don’t dare produce or publish stories of their own for public consumption. Tolkien did both the storytelling and academic theorising about stories. The fact that he was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, and then English Language and Literature, in one of the world’s top universities, is not accidental but central to his success. This academic side is most evident in the essays Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and On Fairy-Stories, as well as the poem Mythopoeia.
Plots Within Plots
Tolkien’s main tale feels so full and complete because it incorporates so many other type of story plots into itself. Christopher Booker argued that there are seven basic plots: Overcoming the monster, Rags to riches, The quest, Voyage and return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Which is LOTR? According to Booker, all of them! It is an “instance of a story which is not shaped by a single basic plot but which contains elements of all seven woven together” (p. 316). Joseph Campbell called this the monomyth or the hero’s journey, which is a circle of venturing forth, winning a victory, and returning home. Tolkien phrased it as There and Back Again.
Finally, I feel that Tolkien’s work is so great because it not only contains multiple plots into one but because it contains multiple literary genres. Yes, we call LOTR a fantasy or even a high-fantasy novel. But we could just as easily call it an Adventure story, a Chivalric Romance, Medieval fantasy, Heroic epic, Fairy tale, Folklore, or (to use Tolkien’s own word) Mythopoeia. I would argue that there are strong and central Horror genre elements to Tolkien. Others see sci-fi and cosmic features in it.
I very much like the fantasy works of Ursula Le Guin, Julian May and Sheri Tepper too.
But, for all these reasons and more, I love JRR Tolkien.