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Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part I

The Fellowship of EWKASWLFLOTR: Nine Rules for the Kings of Men
written by Ian McHugh, on behalf of the CSFG Hivemind

Earlier in 2014, we had a discussion at CSFG about the storytelling lessons we collectively learned from The Lord of the Rings (both the books and the movies). Parts II and III will follow in due course, but here’s Part I:

I: The One Ring to Rule Them All Rule

Let’s get this one out of the way right up front: for a supervillain to put all of their power into one small and easily misplaced object is really, really, really fucking stupid. What the actual fuck was Sauron thinking? The dude’s effectively the evil Superman and he goes and turns himself into evil Green Lantern instead. It’s such an utterly transparent plot device it’s laughable.

So why does it work?

Partly it’s the delivery. The whole scenario is presented with such aplomb, in both the book and the movie – all that backstory about Isildur’s Bane, that badass little mofo of a poem, Gandalf’s abject terror of being offered the Ring by Frodo. It’s like the Oscar Wilde Rule of Supervillain Stupidity: “In matters of transparent stupidity, style, not substance, is the vital thing”. And it works. But it’s more than that.

A large part of why it works is the One Ring itself. The Ring is temptation. It’s the serpent in the Garden of Eden, if the devil had incarnated himself as bling instead of a legless reptile. The One Ring is the incarnation of the maxim “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. As stupid as it was for Sauron to make it, it’s the nature of the Ring that makes sense of its existence. On a level, Sauron is as much the Ring’s patsy as any other poor corrupted soul it seduces.

If you want to sell a stupid plot decision, you have to do it with style. But to really close the deal, you need to find a way to turn that stupidity on its head, to change it from “what the actual fuck?” to “because of course“.

II: The Tom Fucking Bombadil Rule #1

Just don’t, alright?

III: The Tom Fucking Bombadil Rule #2

Well, okay, if you must. Just don’t take a hundred and somethingty bloody pages to do it. The purpose that Tom Fucking Bombadil is meant to serve – aside from Tolkien’s blatant self-indulgence – is to place the struggle over the Ring into context. The first way TFB does this is through his immunity to the Ring’s power. TFB shows you what you’ve otherwise only been told: there are older and greater powers in the world of Middle Earth even than Sauron. Sauron is, after all, merely the servant of the Enemy. TFB is a remnant of the greater age, which elsewhere you’re shown only in ruins and insufferably melancholic elves.

The second way TFB puts the struggle in its place is by refusing to intervene. He could march into Mordor and kick Sauron’s arse if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. “You pack of dickheads,” his message is, “are fighting over deck chairs on the Titanic, and I mean to enjoy this spectacular view of the ice while I can.”

It follows that TFB should be a sublime, mystical moment that enhances the story around it, not a hundred-odd pages of inanity. When this kind of moment is done well, it makes the story soar. An example is in Wes Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr Fox. Through the movie, Mr Fox’s phobia of wolves has been mentioned repeatedly. After the climax of the story and the defeat of the villains, the foxes encounter a wolf. Mr Fox tries to communicate with it but it doesn’t reply. In the end, he offers it a Black Power salute and it responds in kind. And that’s it, and it’s magic.

That’s what Tom Fucking Bombadil should have been.

IV: The Aragorn is the Baddest Badass Rule

Much of the first part of the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring  – and the book once the story, y’know, actually starts and then, sigh, gets past Tom Fucking Bombadil – is dedicated to showing the audience or reader how deadly and terrifying the Nazgul are. And they are. When Aragorn tells Frodo that he’s not frightened enough, oh you know it’s true.

So, when Aragorn takes on five of the damn things single-handed and wins, well he’s not just some hobo buddy of Gandalf’s anymore any more. Now you know he’s a hero – in the classical Greek somewhat-superhuman sense of the word. Suddenly when people start blathering about Isildur’s Heir and reforging the sword of etcetera, you’re excited because you’ve seen that (excepting the fact that he’s still a dirty smelly hobo) Aragorn is everything we were told that a divinely anointed King was supposed to be.

And most of the setup for that isn’t done directly through Aragorn’s character, the real heavy lifting is done by setting up the villains that he defeats. Because you’ve seen how helpless regular folks are against the Nazgul, defeating them immediately sets Aragorn on a level above ordinary mortals. It’s like if Olympic events were always preceded by some average schlub trying to perform the same feat, to illustrate how exceptional the athletes really are.

Great characters are created in their relationships with the characters around them.

V: The Token Warrior Princess Rule

So, one good thing that Peter Jackson started to do in the movies was to turn Arwen into a headkicking Independent Woman. When she stands up to the Nazgul at the ford outside Rivendell, you get the impression that if they get across the water, she really is going to take a few of them out. As much as trolling as Liv Tyler copped for the role, she carries that “If you want him, come and claim him” moment.

And then, like, Jackson just forgot… or something? Thereafter, when you see Arwen, she’s changed her practical riding leathers (with nary a peek of exposed midriff or chainmail bikini top) for some gauzy froofy muumuu thing and she’s limper than celery that’s been out of the fridge for a day. Even when you see her riding a horse again, she doesn’t get back into the leathers, and apparently it was her Dad’s sword she was carrying when she rescued Frodo and he’s taken it back. Even when she does stand up to her Dad, she’s all brimming eyes and trembling lip. All she really does for the rest of the movies is mope about and moon over Aragorn.

Seriously? This is the hardcase who was ready to go toe-to-toe with the Nazgul like she outnumbered them by one to nine? Like – what? – did Jackson watch the Matrix trilogy and think that taking Trinity from being the hero’s protector to a subservient love interest was a really good arc for a strong female character?

No. If you’re going to portray a character a certain way – especially if you’re going to portray a female character as strong and independent – you have to follow that through.

VI: The Bridge of Khazad-Dum Rule

The confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog is one of the best dramatic moments in storytelling in any form. First, the slightly bumbling wizard faces off against the humungous devil beastie, apparently suicidally overmatched. Then – holyshit! – he not only wins but does so emphatically . And then the soul-crusher: “Fly, you fools!” He’s dragged down into the pit and you’re right there screaming “No!” with Frodo.

Tolkien nailed it. Jackson and Ian McKellen nailed it even harder. No arguments or further correspondence on this point will be entered into.

You’re convinced the old geezer really is dead. You’re even more convinced after Boromir really is killed (doubly so when Boromir is played by Sean Bean). Important characters die in this story. When Gandalf returns, it works, emotionally and narratively. The deft sleight of hand over the identity of “the White Wizard” both wrong-foots you and helps to sell the revelation – at least in the books. Jackson gives it away a little bit earlier, although the net result is the same and, besides, it gets him the metallest opening sequence of any movie ever (seriously, what could possibly be more metal than a wizard stabbing a giant flaming demon to death with a magic sword while falling through the heart of a mountain?)

But you can only cheat your readers/audience the same way once. Later on in the books, when Sam thinks Frodo has been killed by She-Lob, you don’t really believe it. Tolkien knows that, and doesn’t try it on for long, but he uses the character’s mistake effectively to make the situation seem even worse than it already was. That moment works the same way in the movies.

But Jackson also throws in the bit where the runaway warg drags Aragorn off a cliff and you immediately know it’s bullshit, you know all the woe that follows is completely confected. And for what? So Aragorn can see the uruk-hai army coming. Any halfwit Rohirrim peasant could have reported that, and it’s not like there weren’t plenty of them running around that we were apparently supposed to care about for some reason.

It’s a cheat, and it feels like one, and for no good purpose, either. You can cheat people once and get away with it, if you play it right, but don’t push your luck.

VII: The Where Do Elves Poop, Anyway Rule

Ok, so obviously this rule is named purely to get your attention because God forbid that anyone would ever seriously suggest that Cate Blanchett squats to defecate like some ordinary mortal.

But that being so, one of the shortcomings of LOTR that has, regrettably, become a feature of much of the genre that it spawned, is that so little of its world seems to have any viable existence outside of its function in the plot. Seriously, Tolkien evidently had so little idea of how to integrate a dragon into the ecology of his world that once Smaug drove the dwarves from Erebor, Tolkien had him take a nanna nap for seventy years until the story needed him again.

And that’s not all: What do dwarves eat in their underground kingdoms of stone? Rocks? What do orcs and goblins eat when they can’t get dwarf or elf? Each other? If so, how come there are so many of them when apparently none of them are girls? Is a lack of females the real reason why there aren’t many dwarves? How come elves are so damn clean and well-groomed when they live in the woods and don’t have proper houses? Why don’t they all have sticks and bugs in their hair?

And what about all these settlements that are slapped down in the middle of the wilds?

The only part of Middle Earth that seems to have any kind of a functioning economic base is the Shire. Everywhere else just seems to exist because the characters need somewhere to take a breather and recap the story so far over a couple of pints. Aside from the fact that there’s little evidence of the agricultural base to feed settlements like Bree or Rivendell or Lake Town or Lorien or Edoras, where do they get the fabrics for all their clothes and the metal for their tools when there’s no evidence of a functioning trade network in this world?

For all the effort that Tolkien put into the languages and mythology of his world, anthropologically and economically speaking, Middle Earth doesn’t make any damn sense. Tolkien kinda gets away with it because the Shire, at least, seems real and that makes it easier for the reader to take a leap of faith about the rest.

Don’t assume that you can get away with it if your world is nonsense. You don’t have to work everything out, but at least put in enough effort that the reader can suspend disbelief.

VIII: The Flaming Eye on a Giant Phallic Symbol Rule

A giant flaming eye atop an unfeasibly tall phallic symbol is not the most compelling of villains. Not exactly a fully rounded character, except in the strictly literal sense. Not a lot of potential for character development. And not, in the end, really all that scary in and of itself. Sure, it has minions, but it’s not exactly going to run after you itself, is it? (We’re talking the movies here, more so than the books, which make clearer that the half-living shade of Sauron is lurking somewhere in the depths of Barad-Dur and the eye is more a device, or even just a mental projection, rather than Sauron being an actual flaming eye himself.) But even in the books “half-living shade lurking in the depths of a tower” ain’t so very scary either when it’s too feeble to come outdoors.

In the movies at least, the One Ring makes a far more frightening villain than Sauron / flaming-eye-on-a-stick. The Nazgul are pretty scary too – at least until they have to carry their arses home in their hats after being handed them by a freaking river. After that? Meh, no wonder they hide their faces.

Sauron’s like the evil corporate CEO who’s actually pretty helpless once Arnie or Robocop have taken down his goons. Once Saruman and the First of the Nazgul are out of the picture, there’s really no more end of level Bosses in LOTR who seem like they can stop the heroes. Sauron has a lot of orcs left, sure but, on the other hand, all Sauron has left is a lot of orcs.

Husband your resources. Know what your story’s best assets are and make sure you don’t use them up too soon.

IX: The Even the Smallest of People Can Blah Blah Blah Rule

Harking back to Rule I, the other thing that makes such a stupid plot device as the One Ring work is the nature of the quest it generates. The heroes in LOTR aren’t out to harness this great weapon in their battle against Evil. In fact, standing up to the Forces of Evil in LOTR is really just a sideshow – the tension it adds to the plot is not whether the good guys will win but, rather, whether any of the supporting characters and unnamed masses of Good And Innocent Folk will still be alive by the time Frodo chucks the Ring into Mount Doom.

Because the quest is to destroy the Ring, rather than use it, it means the person carrying it out doesn’t have to be the heir to anything, they don’t have to be Destined or a superhero. They can be anyone and, in fact, given the nature of the Ring, the more ordinary and less powerful they are, the better.

One of the greatest things about LOTR is that it says any old body be a hero. You don’t have to be special, you just have to be brave. And willing to walk a really, really long way.

6 Thoughts on “Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part I

  1. Pingback: ..Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part I | Ian McHugh

  2. Pingback: Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part II | CSFG

  3. Pingback: Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part II | Ian McHugh

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  5. See, now I just have “The Nazgul Song” by Martin Pearson in my head.

    Felicity Banks

    PS Excellent article, by the way. Compelling writing and not afraid to poke holes in a beloved classic.

  6. It seems to me, that a strong structural purpose of the Tom Bombadil ‘interlude’ is to provide a reason why the Nine Riders don’t get hold of the Hobbits very quickly. The 9 were closing in fast, the Hobbits really don’t have the capacity to avoid the 9, and so they have to ‘disappear’, have to become impossible to track, so that the Hobbits can then emerge so close to the Prancing Pony Inn that they can get there before the 9 can catch them.

    After knowing that you need to ‘hide’ the Hobbits (because you made the 9 close in too fast because you wanted to increase the tension), the rest of the Bombadil and Barrow material is just trying to make something happen while the Hobbits are hidden; something that adds a bit to what the Hobbits need (proper weapons; small bit of info) and to add thematic bits to the overall storyline AND perhaps, as an afterthought, to give the reader a sense of hope– in that the Ring, while very very very powerful, is NOT the end-all, be-all.

    Just my two cents.

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