Review — The Two Towers

I finished the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy recently, and I have to admit, I wasn’t impressed. I don’t really know what our cultural consensus of the books is these days, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me as I read that Tolkien was not a writer–at least not one that would make it in today’s market. Don’t get me wrong, he was a genius in a lot of ways, and is a great storyteller, but his books are so different than the ones coming out in this generation, and at times I had quite a bit of difficulty getting through it. Plus, you can hardly blame him for all this, since he was, in a lot of ways, the ‘Father of Fantasy’. So, while there will be lots of spoilers ahead, I doubt many people would care because everyone (except me) has already at least seen the movies.

Before I get to my grievances with this particular book, however, let’s talk about the cool bits. For the most part, I loved Aragorn & Co.’s narrative. Following along as they pursued the captive hobbits, find Gandalf the White, and eventually fight Saruman’s Uruk hai was great. I particularly enjoyed the Ents’ involvement. And when the company got to the Orthanc and sought an audience with Saruman, Gandalf’s conversation with him was pretty cool. His argument was very persuasive, and I wanted him so badly to turn a new leaf and join Gandalf’s fight, but having known a bit of the story I knew it wasn’t meant to be.

I loved the first half of the book, and I think a huge reason for that is because when people talk about Lord of the Rings, most of the time they talk about Frodo and what happened with him. They don’t talk as much about Aragorn and that side of the story, so pretty much everything that happened was new to me.

But then the first ‘book’ ends and we transition to the second half of Frodo and Sam. I was really annoyed with that part because there really wasn’t a whole lot happening. Most of their trials were based on geographical and logistical problems, and as such it focused more on their character and reactions to the world around them (like what they think of Gollum and how they should deal with him). I hated it because I didn’t like either of them. As of writing this post I’ve actually realized that I really don’t like any of the hobbits, for various reasons. Simply put, though, they’re all incompetent, and it becomes frustrating because they are often the driving force of what’s going on around them.

The only thing Sam cares about is Frodo. He’s suspicious of everyone else, and he makes stupid decisions based on his loyalty and stubbornness. He’s apparently everyone’s favorite, but he doesn’t catch my sympathy. Frodo is nihilistic and stubborn. The only thing he cares about is getting the job overwith, and he doesn’t even care if he succeeds. I’m genuinely amazed that such a one-dimensional character managed to become so recognizable in pop culture. Of the three of them, Gollum is by far the most interesting!

The entire second half the book is consumed by gloom and dreariness, and it gets tiresome. My favorite scene in that part is when Frodo and Sam are talking about being the main characters in a story of their own, and not only is it ironic, but both of them manage to laugh because of how crazy it seems. It also specifically says (paraphrasing here) that that laughter is “the first time such a sound was heard in Mordor for [an indescribably long amount of time]”. And I think that characterizes exactly why this part of the book isn’t good. It should be a pair of fun-loving and merry people being juxtaposed against the black and smoky atmosphere. They can have dark moments, sure, but don’t make the entire subject of the second half of the book despair, because that will drain all the life from your reader, which isn’t what you want. This difference would have made the book a lot more like The Hobbit, which I think would have been an improvement.

As a last note, I’m sure this is in the movies, but Frodo kind of dies at the end of The Two Towers. Shelob poisons him, and Sam makes the choice to become the ring-bearer and carry on with the mission. If I had no prior knowledge of the story, it would have been a touching scene with lots of character growth, because it genuinely looks like Frodo is dead. It was an interesting scene, because I had absolutely no clue what Sam would do, but I was disappointed when he went back after the orcs came. Obviously it has to be that way because of how the story unfolds (Frodo will certainly die if Sam doesn’t help), but I think it was a great opportunity for a change of pace, which their line of narrative desperately needed. (To be fair, I don’t have a fix for how the story might unfold if Sam did continue on his own, because I don’t know how the story actually goes, but I think it certainly could have been done).

Now that I’m done with this book, what’s next? Well, not Return of the King. At least, not immediately, but I will get to it eventually. Here is the extent of my knowledge of what happens in the last book, based purely on my limited knowledge of the movies:

  • Minas Tirith is important, and I think Aragorn & Co. go there. There are probably at least two major battles, one where they fight oliphaunts (lazy name, by the way, Tolkien.)
  • Aragorn becomes king, because it’s like his book, right? No idea.
  • The Nazgul King is in one of the battles, and in the movies Eowyn kills him. I think that was specifically a movie choice, though, because Tolkien was notorious for only making male characters important.
  • Gollum comes back, though I don’t know when. All I know is that Frodo decides to keep the Ring when they get to Mt. Doom and Gollum fights him for it. Gollum and Ring end up being lava’d. Then they take the eagles back home where they eventually set off across the sea to the West.

Everything else in the book will be a surprise, so hopefully the narrative picks up the pace!

Learning! — What a Story Doesn’t Need

One of the things I’ve struggled with a lot in the past, especially in the context of my own  universe, is knowing what is and is not important for the reader to know. Specifically, I’m referring to the ‘scenes’ the author shows. Pretty much zero books will encapsulate every moment in a character’s life, even if the chapters are continuous. For example, how often does any character in any fiction book you’ve ever read eat? How often do they use the restroom? How well do they sleep at night?

These are examples of something a reader doesn’t need. Unless your story is about a person trying to survive, taking an extra effort to establish that your characters are eating regularly is unnecessary. “Hold on,” you may ask. “Does this mean putting food in a story is pointless?”

Certainly not. Food is still important for your characters. It is simply going to be in the background the whole time. If your characters are having a feast, that ‘scene’ is not going to be about the food they’re eating, but the character interactions therein, or the information somebody receives. It is a nice detail to add what food they are eating, but it is never the focal point of the story.

Consider Lord of the Rings here. Very few times during their journey does Tolkien describe to us a meal that they have. We can assume that they are eating, so in order to establish to the reader what is going on, we can simply say “Before they departed from the land of Lothlorien, the elves give the fellowship waybread.” After describing what this bread does and how much of it the party has, we can rest assured that food is not going to be relevant to the reader unless the author decides otherwise. We only need to know what a character is eating if it is a concern for the character, too.

The general rule here is that everything is assumed to be fine unless the author tells the reader it isn’t. We always assume a character is well until the author tells us he is sick (though conveniently making the protagonist catch a cold just to make the next scenes harder for them could annoy some readers, even if it is a possibility in the real world). So basic physiological necessities are never a concern for a reader. They’re focused on the story, after all. They don’t need to read about your characters taking potty breaks.

But the more prevalent question here is worldbuilding. This applies more to sci-fi and fantasy writers than anyone else. New writers are notorious for the dreaded “info dump”: pages and pages of explanations of a nation or character’s background with no actual scene happening. Tolkien is a great example of this here, too. An editor in today’s market would have thrown out Fellowship of the Ring because the forty page prologue has no setting: it’s all set-up.

Funny enough, as much of a problem as it seems to be, it’s an easy fix: just take it out. If you have to explain something to the reader, just don’t. If I already know everything about a character’s history and past experience, I won’t care to see how they interact with others in the story. But if the first impression I’m making of this character is through dialogue, I’m going to have to guess what this character’s history and past experience is. And here’s the thing.

It’s okay for the reader to guess wrong.

The best authors in today’s world force readers to guess and predict. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle is a trilogy describing the life of Kvothe, a man with many names spoken of in legend and whispers. The third book isn’t out yet, and we the readers still have no idea why he has the title ‘Kingkiller’. There is implication there, obviously, but in the end, we just don’t know. This is why books like this do so well. They force the reader to ask huge questions that we don’t get answers to until much later on.

So if you’re building your own sci-fi or fantasy world, complete with nations and politics, and you don’t know the answer to the question “How much do I tell the reader?” The answer is probably going to be ‘very little’. The Archive of Nacre Then is over seventy pages long. I’d say over eighty percent of it has never been mentioned or even hinted in any of the fiction I’ve ever written in the universe. The reader doesn’t care about a desert bird that pecks rocks to find turtles, so if it’s never important to a story, it should never be mentioned. Does that mean those birds shouldn’t exist? Of course not! It helps me as the author develop a complete and dynamic world. Elements like this that the reader will never see are still crucial because these birds will at least indirectly influence the culture of people around them, and the more pieces that I have, the larger this world will be.

Think of a fictional universe like an iceberg. Ninety percent of an iceberg is submerged. Somebody looking at this iceberg will never see that ninety percent. But the larger the iceberg gets, the larger that ten percent is, and the more detailed this universe seems to the observer.