Friday, March 21, 2014

"Why Can't I Write Like Tolkien?" A Rebuttal, of sorts

I was reading an article the other day that complained of why current Christian writers can't rise to the level of the Tolkiens and Lewises of last century; why Christian fiction now is so dull and drab in comparison. I didn't finish the article so I can't offer a comprehensive answer as to whether I agreed with the writer's logic or not. I think my tablet crashed of there was a baby to rock to sleep or something along those lines. Or kittens. I think it might have been kittens.
So this question ("Why don't we have a new Tolkien yet?") stayed in the back of my mind and collided this morning with idle musings over the fact that Tolkien's translation of Beowulf is going to be published this spring. (incidentally, I've never read Beowulf but I think I need to now.) At first I thought, "Oh, of course. Translation of Beowulf. Tolkien. Right. Okay, what next?" and then my brain wheeled around like a dog that has just galloped past a cat and squeals to a stop on his rump.

Well that, my darlings, is the answer to your question.

J.R.R. Tolkien was fluent in or at least had a working knowledge of 35 languages, including those he invented. (But a ruddy lot of the languages he knew were real, not concocted.) Lewis was equally intelligent. Both were professors at Oxford and Lewis took a spell at Cambridge too. These were brilliant, disciplined, crazy-academic minds, not your average aspiring novelist.

When people complain about today's Christian fiction, I don't think they are entirely complaining about its preachiness. You see, an unskilled writer is always going to disappoint in putting forth their subjects. You might notice the glaring lack of tact in portraying the Gospel ("I've got to have God in here somewhere. Might as well bang 'em over the head with it."), but if you care to look deeper, you will also find a lack of tact in portraying almost anything. The general question is, "Why can't authors today portray Christianity in their writing like Lewis and Tolkien did?" but I think the underlying question is: "Why can't authors write today like Lewis and Tolkien did?" and there is an answer to that question:

We don't bother enough with our education and intellect.

You cannot seriously expect to write like some of the most brilliant minds of our century if you don't take care with your own brilliant mind and cultivate it. Deciding you've finished high-school and therefore have no compulsion to read anything but historical romance the rest of your life is not going to stand you in good stead. Because writing is an out-pouring, we must counter that egress with an influx of something hearty. Read good books, read strong books. Talk to and meet people and travel when you can and always keep a mind active and open to learning new things. Just because you are out of your formal education years can't mean you stop learning. It's madness. The strength of your writing is going to be directly proportionate to the strength of your mind. I realize the opposite end of ignoring the furthering of you education would mean becoming one of those annoying academics who do nothing but read, discuss philosophy, and debate ethics with you when all you asked was whether the bananas were ripe or whether they wanted a few days more.

I don't intend to urge you into that boorish style of living. I only propose that, did J.R.R. Tolkien stop pouring into his education at eighteen, he might never have written The Lord of the Rings or translated Beowulf or taught at Oxford or learned all his languages. I also propose that if you, dear Christian Writer, make an effort to continuously broaden the horizons of your mind, there is no limit to the things of which you might be capable. Build your mind, nurture your intellect, and write to the depths of your being. That is the secret of Tolkien, the genius of Lewis. Stop asking why we aren't them. Start paying heed to the methods and path they forged before us.


Jenny Freitag said...

Point number one, I often hear people ask writers the question, "Who do you want to be like?" NO ONE. The answer is NO ONE. Certainly we have mentors, and great writers who teach us the craft, but we will never be them, we will always be ourselves, the sooner we realize this fact and accept it, the sooner we will stop feeling worthless because we "aren't the next J.R.R. Tolkien."

Numero deux, you should read Beowulf.

Three, genius is nothing without guidance, commitment, persistence. Many a capable mind was ruined through simple lack of perseverance. If you want to be on a level with these greats, first of all stop worrying about getting to that level, and second, word hard.

Four, stop griping about the "good old days." Tolkien and Lewis were amazing writers, but they are relatively near to us in time. We can still remember them. There were fantastic writers before their time, and there were be wonderful writers after ours. These things shake out by providence: the most we can do is wisely use the time and talents given to us now.

A wonderful post, Toulouse. "M'raow, pht-pht-pht-pht-pht...!"

Anonymous said...

Mon deu, you MUST read Beowulf. Jenny doesn't love Seamus Heaney like I do, but *whispers* It's my favorite translation thus far. Of course, I've only read two-and-a-half. And as for the article - you've inspired me. Bravo, Rachel. This is exactly what I needed.

Joy said...

Like... HEAR, HEAR, HEAR! Thanks, Rachel. I agree. SO much.

I did not know there was gonna be a new translation of Beowulf published by Tolkien - I must look it up, especially since I want to read Beowulf too.

Maria said...

YES. I agree that the lack of greatness in our modern Christian writers is the fault of lack of education and intellect. But I don't think it's only lack of learning after finishing formal schooling, it's the degeneration of education itself. In our craft of writing we have to learn from those before us. We should go back to Tolkien and Lewis, back to Chesterton, Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Pascal, Milton, Descartes, Shakespeare, Spense, Machiavelli, Chaucer, Dante, Boethuis, Aquinas, Augustine, Plutarch, Virgil, ARistotle, Plato, Homer and all the rest of them. That's the sort of education Tolkien and Lewis had and good heavens, no, it didn't ruin their genius or spoil their individuality! For the past few thousand years every great writer has studied and learned from the greats before him. Every great book has built on the great books before it and who are we to say we can do without them?

The other problem is related to this. We do not like to think. We would rather not pit ourselves against and learn from the logic and philosophy of all the ages before us. We'd rather not have logic and philosophy at all. This is responsible for the intellectual wasteland in today's literature.

Also, we do not like to live. We would rather sit tight in our introverted selves with our books and our fandoms and never doing anything worth doing or saying anything worth hearing. Tolkien didn't begin sketching out Middle Earth in a cosy little living room, he did it in the trenches in World War I. And when Tolkien and Lewis had settled down as comfortable academics, they didn't do it on their own or whine about how they could never talk about important things to their friends, they found some like-minded people and discussed things worth discussing.

Maria said...

On reading that through, it sounds rather like a rant. Sorry about that. I've been realizing over the past few months that I'm exactly the kind of writer and person I was ranting about. It was an easy pit for me to fall into and it seems all too common in fellow Christian writers. And don't take it personally. Not to flatter or make you puffed up or anything ;) but I don't think you're in danger of that. You have a brain and a life that make me think that, if you go on with this, you've a potential of greatness.

Rachel Heffington said...

Jenny: Bravo your points! I thought you'd agree.
Mirriam: I shall keep in mind your fondness for Seamus. Isn't that cool name? Seamus. Hmmmm.
Joy: I was NOT pointing this at you, just so you can rest you dear little brain easy.
Maria: I enjoyed your rant! It was exactly how I feel. I like how you pointed out that the greats lived. Heavens, did they live. And thank you for your sweet support of me and mine. ^.^

Anonymous said...

You should definitely read Beowulf - it's wonderful! I like the Michael Alexander translation and am super excited about Tolkien's own translation being published. Speaking of which! You should also read his essay on Beowulf - the Monster and the Critics. Excellent stuff.

I haven't seen the film with Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie but I'm not sure I want to particularly. They appear to have messed with the text.