Friday, 9 March 2012

Thoughts on Literary Style: Tolkien and Jordan

I recently had a very interesting conversation via text with my brother. We were talking about our favorite fantasy authors when I pointed out I really loved Lord of the Rings, he shot back that he thought Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time was better. I pointed out that Robert Jordan had taken much inspiration on his quests and ideas from Tolkien's style. He retorted that while Tolkien may have set the template his works felt dead and sort of like a lost history rather than something alive and vibrant like Jordan's Wheel of Time or Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. I informed him that this was exactly the effect that Tolkien had been going for when writing his series to begin with. He had loved the original Ango-Saxon and Norse literary classics so tried to capture the same scale of epic story telling while giving us grand and admirable heroes. Tolkien's works were meant to be a lost history of our world and thus give us a haunting, poetic echo of a lost time. In this manner he largely succeeded as he created one of the most studied and well thought out beautiful worlds to ever be read in a literary circle.

That being said my brother does have some points. He is correct in pointing out that in contrast, Martin or Jordan's characters are relatable and we understand their deeper thoughts fears and motivations, where as Tolkien's characters are the sort of remote ancient heroes one reads about in Shakespear or Beowulf. But each approach has its strenghts and weaknesses. The strenghts of Tolkien's approach is that he establishes very well cut and presentable characters who the reader can be in awe of and relate to easily, but also in some way project themselves upon the characters to imagine their own adventures in Middle Earth.

On the other hand you have Jordan's characters who are interwoven parts of the story opening up the world and having us see it through their eyes. They have clear dreams, fears, desires, motivations, and internal conflicts. They tend to make for exciting contrasts to one another in casual reading and are much more exciting than Tolkien's great battle between good and evil in some cases. But at the same time they give us a distinctly more human and down to earth feel which makes them feel less epic, and in some cases more mundane. Not that their being easily relatable is anything to balk at for it makes them more accessible and pleasing to the reader, as well as establishing some clear chains of conflict among characters.

Tolkien's approach fits well into his designed purpose but does not let us get as deep a look into Middle Earth as we might like. The Westlands in the Wheel of Time are much more open to us as a myriad of different characters from all cultural walks of life are paraded before us opening up the world and allowing us to get a glimpse of the life of the most powerful queens down to the most impoverished commnoner and anything in between. This is something that one finds rather annoyingly absent from the Lord of the Rings but because of the epic scale one can forgive.

But in the argument at hand it comes down to the respective styles and goals writers are trying to accomplish by carrying them out in such a way. As previously noted Tolkien's creation of a poetic echo of the world is one that enthralls young minds and ensnares lovers of the English language for its masterful prose and the dedication of its author in all his works. While Robert Jordan's world is one which pulls readers in and direclty puts them on the front lines of the final battle for the world with all the gore, emotion and greatness that this attends to. Each author has indeed set a standard of sorts for their writing in the world and how they wish to portay that world.

In my humble opinion each author's world is fabulous and the ways they portray it are amazingly well done for their respective styles. I suppose that this all comes down to ones personal preference, but I don't think anyone can complain when presented with either case as a purely relaxing activity. I love the poetic and haunting style explored by Tolkien as it conjures images of a lost age. Jordan's world too is one that I am literally pulled into every time I open the books. His characters are thrilling to learn about and his world still holds secrets and wonders we have yet to understand. In my eyes there is no clear 'winner' in any contrast between the two, rather it comes down to preference. I personally like the more direct style of Jordan but when it comes to reading a classic, short, and beautiful work done by someone who was truly a master of my language I will choose Tolkien every time.

So there.

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