Beowulf, Tolkien…and the mad scribblings of a half-exhausted writer up at an hour far too late for another cup of tea.

A rather rambling Reading Update

So now that I’ve warned you how this thing is going to go…

You guessed it! I finally dug my little claws into Beowulf, the story that has been described as Master Tolkien’s lodestone, and if my opinion is worth anything, isn’t half bad of an epic, either.

You’ve gotta love alliterative epic poetry. It leaves all the silky, simpering love poems far, far behind. Girls, next Valentine’s Day, find someone who will read you compositions about gracefully stabbing your enemies to death with the Skaldic pulse and fury in the words and ditch the vapid iambic pentameter.

(clears throat) Anyway…

I’ve always had a special place for the story. I knew it, the way people know the story of Cinderella or Oz or King Arthur or Scheherazade or Gawain (less so on those last two, which I find strange…), even if I’d never read it. Beowulf comes and slays the monster, everyone celebrates, and the hall is full of red fire and music again, the way all such stories should end.

Somehow I missed the note about the fire-breathing dragon.

Seriously. In all the adaptations I heard as a kid, they felt the need to cheer on the story of the slaying of the monster Grendel and forgot to mention a fifty-foot long fire-breathing dragon?

Aside from that, it’s at the point the dragon enters the story that I can begin to see where Tolkien’s imagination really took off. There were other stories, of course, where I could see elements of his beautiful epic coming through–the Volsung Saga and Kullervo in The Children of Hurin were like unexpectedly looking at a mirror. So I was expecting the echoes in Beowulf. The lords being called “ring-giver.” The name Eomer popping up. The extremely familiar setting of a thief taking a goblet from a dragon’s hoard that sets the dragon on a furious rampage through the night…especially when it’s so clearly mentioned the thief doesn’t particularly need or want the goblet (did we mention the entire original manuscript is singed from a fire?).

Note the charred edges on this beautiful thing. Image from https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/anglo-saxon/page/32/.

This particular time though, the echoes set me thinking.

Everyone who writes fantasy invariably knows Tolkien. The sheer mass of badly written half-(dark) Elf books with magical swords attest to that. Angie Sage’s Magyk, Prineas’ The Magic Thief, dozens of books make subtle nods to him. You can’t wade twenty feet into fantasy writer blogs without a giggling, guilty admission of the first breathless expedition into writing fantasy after reading The Lord of the Rings. An expedition that inevitably fails but is the first step, the seed of that green, great tree that now is beautiful and strong. There are those of us who look up to him, those of us who revere him as something impossible to replicate. There is only one Lord of the Rings. What could possibly rival his genius? He wrote entire languages, mythic histories, flora, fauna, races, geography, everything you could ask for. Only one Middle-Earth.

And reading Beowulf, it finally hit me.

Every writer I’ve heard mention Middle-Earth who really loves it has this sort of shrug hiding behind the words. The sort of “Well, that was a once-in-a-lifetime story. I’ll never write anything with as deep a background as that.” And they settle for writing perfectly wonderful middle-grade or passable YA or decent fantasy that is greeted by high acclaim or just move on to another career and let books be read but unwritten.

Perhaps they’re right to accept what they are and give up while they’re ahead of the game. To settle, accept the consolation prize.

But I don’t think so. Not anymore.

I think that’s cheating out. I think it’s pure laziness.

I think it’s possible to write a book as richly detailed as The Lord of the Rings, every bit as real, right now, today.

I think someone could rise out of nowhere and rival him.

And as a pack of furious readers riding resurrected Wargs haven’t descended upon me for my boldness, I’ll finish my thought.

We act as if Middle-Earth came into being simply through Tolkien’s imagination. One day it wasn’t, and then one day it was. He came up with all those languages, the people, the plots, entirely on his own. Only he could have written it. And to some extent, that’s true. But it also…isn’t.

Tolkien didn’t write alone. It didn’t all come purely from some magical place only he could imagine. He had help. Lots of help. Inspiration from books, borrowing of plots, a rich history, a lifetime studying philology, myths of ages to draw from, and a last single golden drop of luck.

And this is it. This is exactly where every budding and flailing fantasy author has gone wrong.

We think we can learn how to write fantasy simply because of how much our brains have expanded reading Tolkien.

Wrong. Dead wrong. That’s like trying to write a high school history paper after reading a few WWII thrillers. Not likely.

I still think Tolkien is a genius. He’s my hero. But he’s not an unreachable genius. He did his homework. Budding authors laugh sheepishly about Sindarin as the impossible benchmark “Well, it’s not like I’m going to write my own language,” but why not? What’s stopping you? Laziness? Fear? You’re writing a book, so don’t pretend you’re not intelligent enough.

The truth is, if we writers did even a third of the study Tolkien did, if we read from the ancient myths and histories welling up with rich detail just begging to be written about, there wouldn’t be any gaps in our brilliance, either. We stop at reading Tolkien and other masters and think that’s good enough. It isn’t.

He created Middle-Earth. The impossible has been done. And if it’s happened once, it can happen again.

If you already know what it takes to write a book (and most admirers of Tolkien do), the only thing stopping you from writing a world-renowned fantasy is you.

Nothing is impossible.

Write until you bleed.

A final note…

I feel I should apologize for this one before I let it slip through my fingers. It’s after midnight over here, and I’m currently in the awkward position of trying to appear moderately human again for the sake of not frightening my peers. Beyond staying awake and making sure I’ve brushed all the leaves and tiny spiders out of my hair. It takes a significant amount of effort, that. So if this post is…a mess?

I only thought it was going to be a few tidy paragraphs in the first place.

I should know myself better by now, right?


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