At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, he reported, would write long lists of words on the blackboard, obscuring them with his body as he droned on, then would absent-mindedly erase them without turning around. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Philip Larkin, another Tolkien student, complained about the old man’s lectures on “Beowulf.” “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.”
It is still one of the finest jests of the modern muses that this fogged-in English don was going home nights to work on perhaps the most popular adventure story ever written, thereby inventing one of the most successful commercial formulas that publishing possesses, and establishing the foundation of the modern fantasy industry. Beginning with Terry Brooks’s mid-seventies “The Sword of Shannara”—which is almost a straight retelling, with the objects altered—fantasy fiction, of the sword-and-sorcery kind, has been an annex of Tolkien’s imagination. A vaguely medieval world populated by dwarfs, elves, trolls; an evil lord out to enslave the good creatures; and, almost always, a weird magic thing that will let him do it, if the hero doesn’t find or destroy it first—that is the Tolkien formula. Each element certainly has an earlier template and a source, but they enter the bookstore, and the best-seller list, through Tolkien’s peculiar treatment of them. Of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
What did Tolkien do to this stale stuff to make it so potent? Another British don, Christopher Ricks, once dismissed Tolkien as “our Ossian,” referring to a third-century Irish bard, supposed to be the author of “Fingal” and other Gaelic epics, and wildly popular in the eighteenth century, whose works were actually written by his supposed “translator,” James Macpherson. Dr. Johnson knew it was a fraud, and when asked if any modern man could possibly have written such poetry replied, “Many men, many women, and many children.” Ricks meant the comparison to Ossian as a putdown—that there is something fraudulent and faddish about Tolkien’s ginned-up medievalism.
But the remark helps bring out Tolkien’s real achievement. When you actually read the Ossian epics, you find that they are shaped entirely to neoclassical tastes. The work is heavily Homeric, remote and noble, full of gloomy gray seas and doomy gray mountains, and ribboned with bardlike epithets. “The Lord of the Rings,” by contrast, begins in lovable local detail, birthday parties and fireworks and family squabbles. Tolkien’s early works—“The Silmarillion” and “The Children of Húrin,” published only after his death—are devoid of Hobbits and humors and pipe-smoking wizards; they really are like Ossian, and as dull as dishwater in consequence. Even if, as Johnson thought, a child could have written Ossian, children were never meant to read it. There’s no bright foreground to the story.
This is surely the most significant of the elements that Tolkien brought to fantasy. It’s true that his fantasies are uniquely “thought through”: every creature has its own origin story, script, or grammar; nothing is gratuitous. But even more compelling was his arranged marriage between the Elder Edda and “The Wind in the Willows”—big Icelandic romance and small-scale, cozy English children’s book. The story told by “The Lord of the Rings” is essentially what would happen if Mole and Ratty got drafted into the Nibelungenlied. (J. K. Rowling intuitively followed this part of the formula by mixing a very old-fashioned kind of English public-school story in with Tolkien’s sword-and-sorcery realm.)
Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad, and though occasionally a character may be tossed between good and evil, like Gollum, it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes him tip back and forth. Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not. Gandalf and Aragorn never say, as even the most patriotic real-world general might, “I don’t know which side I should be on, or, indeed, if any side is worth taking.” Nor does any Mordor general stop to reflect, as even many German officers did, on the tension between duty and morality: there are no Hectors, bad guys we come to admire, or Agamemnons, good guys we come to deplore. (Comic-book moralities, despite their reputation, are craftier; the “X-Men” series is powerful partly because it’s clear that, if you and I were mutants, we would quite possibly side with the evil Magneto.)
What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and his followers, and keeps the stories from seeming barrenly external, is what preceded psychology in epic literature: an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss. The constant evocation of lost or fading glory—Númenor has fallen, the elves are leaving Middle-earth—does the emotional work that mixed-up minds do in realist fiction. We know that Westernesse is lost even before we know what the hell Westernesse was, and our feeling for its loss lends dimension to those who have lost it. (There is also, in Tolkien, the complete elimination of lust as a normal motive in daily life. The wicked Wormtongue lusts for Éowyn at the court of Rohan, but this is thought to be very creepy.)
To see the road not taken, one need only think of that parallel fantasy masterpiece, written in exactly the same decades, and on a similar scale, by a similarly eccentric Englishman: T. H. White’s four-volume retelling of the story of King Arthur and his court, “The Once and Future King.” White, too, modernizes and sweetens his epic story, but he more overtly moralizes it, and he makes it emotionally ambiguous as well: What is right? Who gets to decide? Does duty come before passion? White worries about ambiguity and halftones: the impotence of the idealist King; the beauty and doom of the adulterous lovers; the capacity of good law to make bad judgments—it is Arthur, not Mordred, who has to sentence Guenevere to death. Where White’s literary task was to study the fate of epic ideals in a recognizably real world, Tolkien’s was to find a way to create the illusion of the real world in an idealized epic one. But though “The Once and Future King” inspired the musical “Camelot,” our new Arthurian romances are likely to be given a Tolkienesque treatment, focussing on clashes between armies, not within souls.
If Tolkien was, as Ricks insists, in any sense our Ossian, then perhaps Christopher Paolini is our Chatterton—the early Romantics’ “marvellous boy,” who, inspired by Ossian, made up his own set of pseudo-medieval poems, attributing them to a poet named Rowley, and claiming that his father found them in a chest. One difference is that Chatterton paid for his poetry with his life, while Paolini gets paid for life. Paolini was only eighteen when the first volume of his Eragon series, the tale of the dragon rider Eragon, was privately published, in 2001. The book and its sequels were quickly taken up by a mainstream publisher, and the series is now a genuine sensation. The final installment, out just a few weeks, has had a first printing of more than two million copies.
It is no insult to young Paolini to say that his books are effectively co-written with Tolkien, any more than it is an insult to Chatterton-Rowley to say that his had a co-author in Macpherson-Ossian—or, for that matter, that virtually all medieval-minded historical novels in the nineteenth century, including some very good ones, were produced jointly with Sir Walter Scott. Big writers become a kind of shared climate. Still, it is a little startling to see how almost entirely the mythology and the machinery of the Eragon series derive from “The Lord of the Rings.” Paolini’s elves, long-boned, graceful, and living in trees, as poetic as they are dangerous, are Tolkien’s elves; his dwarfs, short and bearded and brave, though slightly comic, are Tolkien’s dwarfs; his dark lord, Galbatorix, “cruel ruler of the Empire,” is a variant of Sauron (overlaid with bits of the galactic emperor from “Star Wars”); and his mortal hero is, of course, just one vowel (and a consonant) away from Tolkien’s mortal hero, Aragorn. Indeed, all Tolkien’s phonetics are absorbed into Paolini’s work: vowels are good, especially “E” and “A”; harsh starting consonants are suspicious, especially “K”; and though Paolini substitutes “X”s and “Z”s for Tolkien’s evil sibilant “S”s, they both practice guilt by phoneme.
Paolini did have one strong, simple idea with which to launch his series: an ordinary boy (a bit Luke Skywalker-ish in description; “Star Wars” and “Ring” wars tend to infiltrate each other in the imagination) finds a stone that turns out to be a dragon’s egg, and the friendly dragon who hatches from it, Saphira, inducts Eragon into the order of dragon riders, who try to keep the peace among dragons and elves and, latterly, mortals. In a way, it’s a typical instance of the Tolkien-derived idea of the children’s-book conceit turned into an epic one—Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” is behind the peace-loving Saphira—but it’s also the most appealing thing in the books, since hero and advising dragon have constant italicized, mind-melding discussions about the politics of the Elven and Dwarvish kingdoms, rather like those one imagines taking place between Barack Obama and David Axelrod: “Saphira brushed the top of his head with her jaw: Agree to be at this ceremony with Nasuada; that much I think we must do. As for swearing fealty, see if you can avoid acquiescing. Perhaps something will occur between now and then that will change our position . . . Arya may have a solution.”
That the books are this dependent on the Master is no surprise; what will surprise the adult reader is that they are so tediously told. “Eldest,” the second in the series, might better be called “Dullest”; even someone susceptible to almost every kind of fantasy may find it bewilderingly boring. Paolini’s basic narrative method is to enumerate—stones, swords, spells—while struggling to keep the bardic mask on straight:
The queen paused, and then nodded and extended her arm. “Blagden.” With a flutter of wings, the raven flew from his perch and landed on her left shoulder. The entire assembly bowed as Islandzadí proceeded to the end of the hall and threw open the door to the hundreds of elves outside, whereupon she made a brief declaration in the ancient language that Eragon did not understand. The elves burst into cheers and began to rush about.
Eragon is as polite as a well-brought-up Midwestern kid. Introduced to a werecat, he listens attentively as she explains her many names:
“However . . . among the elves, I am known as The Watcher and as Quickpaw and as The Dream Dancer, but you may know me as Maud.” She tossed her mane of stiff white bangs. “You’d better catch up with the queen, younglings; she does not take lightly to fools or laggards.”
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Maud,” said Eragon.
In one moment in the latest volume, “Inheritance,” Eragon strikes a similar lovely high-schoolish note:
While they speculated, as they had so many times before, about the types of magical traps Galbatorix might have set for them and how best to avoid them, Eragon thought of Saphira’s question about Glaedr, and he said, “Arya?”
“Yes?” She drew the word out, her voice rising and falling with a faint lilt.
“What do you want to do once this is all over?” If we’re still alive, that is.
“What do you want to do?”
Tolkien would never have written about “types of magical traps”; but then he never would have seen the poignant teen-age force of that “What do you want to do?”
Books win their audiences for a reason. Most popular books wear their artlessness on their sleeve: Stephenie Meyer, the author of the “Twilight” series, is an awkward writer with little feeling for construction, but the intensity of emotion with which she imbues her characters is enviable. You never doubt her commitment to the material, which is half the battle won. So to say that Paolini is an unskilled narrator and a derivative mythmaker is more or less beside the point. What is it, then, that makes the books enter kids’ consciousness?
First, kids experience them as mythologies more than as stories—the narrative sweep is, curiously, the least significant part of their appeal. When kids talk about movies, it’s usually the cool parts that get highlighted. (“So there’s this, like, cool part where the guy—the blue guy?—has to tame, like, a flying dinosaur and they’re all on a cliff and he says, like, ‘How do I know which one is mine?’ And, so, the blue girl is, like, ‘He will try to kill you!’ ”) Readers of the Eragon books don’t relate cool incidents; they relate awesome elements. You hear about the Elders, the dragon riders, the magical fire-sword Brisingr; what drags readers in is not the story but the symbols and their slow unfolding. The sheer invocation of a mythology casts a deeper spell than putting the mythology on its feet and making it dance. If you talk to an Eragon reader, you will see why the introductory seven-page synopsis of the mythology is necessary. The synopsis is the story.
And the truth is that most actual mythologies and epics and sacred books are dull. Nothing is more wearying, for readers whose tastes have been formed by the realist novel, than the Elder Edda. Yet the spell such works cast on their audience wasn’t diminished by what we find tedious. The incantation of names is, on its own, a powerful literary style. The enchantment the Eragon series projects is not that of a story well told but that of an alternative world fully entered. You sense that when you hear a twelve-year-old describe the books. The gratification comes from the kid’s ability to master the symbols and myths of the saga, as with those eighty-level video games, rather than from the simple absorption of narrative.
There’s also a sense in which the books, far from being escapist, offer familiar experience in intensified form. Some popular fiction really is straightforwardly escapist; no one’s life is like James Bond’s. We read it to be it. But we all see our lives from the inside to be those of lost kings, orphaned boys. We read such stories because we think we already are it. You don’t “identify” with Sherlock Holmes; you can’t not identify with Luke Skywalker.
That other great phenomenon of fiction for thirteen-year-olds, Meyer’s “Twilight,” may again help explain its more boy-centered companion series. What’s striking is how little escapism there is in these stories of vampires and werewolves. This is how the Bellas of the world actually experience their lives, torn between the cool, sensitive boy from the strange, affluent family and the dishy athletic boy from across the tracks. It’s “My So-Called Life,” with fangs and fur. The genius of the narrative lies in how neatly the familiar experiences are turned into occult ones; the Cullens, for instance, are very much like the non-vampire family in “Endless Love”; even the terrifying Volturi are the Italian family you go and stay with in Europe. The tedious normalcy of the “Twilight” books is what gives them their shiver; this is not so much the life that a teen-age girl would wish to have but the one that she already has, rearranged with heightened symbols. Your life could be like this; seen properly, from inside, it is like this.
Something similar is going on with the Eragon books. Adolescent boys, of the kind who take up books in the first place these days, already experience their lives as a series of ordeals: tests, in every sense. A narrative whose purpose is not to push the hero or heroine toward a moment of moral crisis, à la “Huckleberry Finn” or “Little Women,” but to put him through a telescoped series of ordeals, which aim only at preparing him for the next series of ordeals: this is the story of their life. Eragon never really grows from boy to man, as he might have in another kind of book; he mostly just learns how to be a dragon rider and contend with mysterious helpers, half hostile and half friendly, as kids do at school. Kids go to fantasy not for escape but for organization, and a little elevation; since life is like this already, they imagine that it might be still like this but more magical. By the time they’re ready for college-admissions letters, they’re already dragon riders, if not yet grownups.
One might mock—one does mock—the mastery of what is, after all, mere mock history. But the fantasy readers’ learned habit of thinking historically is an acquisition as profound in its way as the old novelistic training in thinking about life as a series of moral lessons. Becoming an adult means learning a huge body of lore as much as it means learning to know right from wrong. We mostly learn that lore in the form of conventions: how you hold the knife, where you put it, that John was the witty Beatle, Paul the winning one, that the North once fought the South. Learning in symbolic form that the past can be mastered is as important as learning in dramatic form that your choices resonate; being brought up to speed is as important as being brought up to grade. Fantasy fiction tells you that history is available, that the past counts. As the boring old professor knew, the backstory is the biggest one of all. That’s why he was scribbling old words on the blackboard, if only for his eyes alone. ♦