When I decided to start writing these Why [Insert Author Name] Is Awesome blog posts, I wasn’t sure with whom to begin. At first I considered G.K. Chesterton, and then James Herriot, and then P.G. Wodehouse.
In the end, of course, I realized there was only one author with whom to begin this exciting new series of posts. One author to rule them all.
Ladies and gentleman, I give you the man who created a universe on the backs of letters and exam papers, writing in his study late at night when the world was asleep, reinventing mythology for the modern age—and doing it in his spare time.
I give you John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, my childhood hero and the father of the fantasy genre.
Of course, Tolkien didn’t invent fantasy. As I noted in my short, untidy and highly idiosyncratic history of the genre, its inventor was probably a Scottish minister named George MacDonald. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of him. Not many people have. He may have invented the fantasy genre, but Tolkien was the man who made it famous.
Enough preamble. Let’s get down to business.
What makes Tolkien awesome?
The thing that amazes me most about Tolkien is that the world he created is vast—vaster than vast—vastly vast. Tolkien’s world, Middle-earth, is huge. Worlds like Narnia are tiny by comparison.
The history of Middle-earth, meticulously chronicled, spans tens of thousands of years. Its geography (which changes over the centuries) is recorded in maps. Tolkien created languages, cultures, genealogies and even legends—myths within his myth. I once read that Tolkien holds the record for creating the largest fictional universe ever devised by a single person.
Tolkien’s literary style is sometimes a bit ponderous, and many readers are discouraged by the slow pace of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings, his masterpiece. It’s not a fast-paced, action-packed novel. It takes its time creating a world for its characters to inhabit, and patient readers are rewarded with a story made more powerful by its fullness.
Personally, I love Tolkien’s style. It’s not flashy or funny or avant-garde, but does a beautiful job of conveying images and experiences vividly.
Tolkien weaves many familiar images and archetypes into his world. Gandalf reminds us of Merlin. Rohan comes straight out of Beowulf. The elves and dwarves are borrowed from Norse mythology, and the Shire is unmistakably English. While Aragorn wears armor and wields a sword, Bilbo wears a waistcoat and wields an umbrella. These disparate elements somehow never clash.
Although many of Tolkien’s characters are superb, some lack depth and intricate characterization. With three or four exceptions, the fourteen dwarves in The Hobbit (the prequel to The Lord of the Rings) are so undeveloped that they blur together.
The villain, Sauron, isn’t really a character. Although he’s mentioned frequently, he never actually makes an appearance in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is more like a threat, an unseen presence haunting these stories like a shadow.
Gollum, by contrast, is developed brilliantly: a minor villain whose slow, faltering steps toward redemption make him a surprisingly compelling character. Gandalf, a wizard, is unforgettable: gruff, powerful, impatient and kind. Bilbo, a timid hobbit, demonstrates a unique sort of courage—not showy heroism, but a quiet, determined bravery built upon resourcefulness and common sense.
Even Tolkien’s dialogue is memorable. It lacks clever quips and one-liners, but succeeds on a much deeper level: it’s believable. Kings speak with grace and elegance. Samwise Gamgee, a gardener, talks with colloquial simplicity. Tolkien’s books are populated by an enormous range of characters, from ageless sages to degenerate monsters, and their dialogue is no less diverse.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Tolkien’s books is their moral strength. Tolkien never preaches. He doesn’t need to. Loyalty, courage, honesty and self-sacrifice shine throughout his stories. Without ever saying it, Tolkien makes one thing crystal clear: good is better than evil, and good wins.
For someone new to Tolkien, I recommend starting with The Hobbit. It’s a fine introduction to Tolkien’s world and literary style. The Hobbit is a simple story of adventure, like a fairy tale. The Lord of the Rings is more like a myth, featuring a more mature style and a much deeper story.
The Silmarillion, a history of Middle-earth published after Tolkien’s death, isn’t a particularly compelling book. I recommend it only to the most devoted of Tolkien’s readers. The Silmarillion reads like a history textbook: occasionally interesting, but seldom engaging.
For readers who are interested in Tolkien’s other works, Roverandom is a delightful book for children. Farmer Giles of Ham is a funny story about a farmer who tames a dragon, and Leaf by Niggle is a beautiful allegory of a struggling artist.
In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, J.R.R. Tolkien is awesome.