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Why Lord of the Rings Is Not Even One Novel, Much Less Three

Romance novels are not novels. Mystery novels are not novels. Dime novels (mostly, probably, a mixture of the previous two kinds) are probably mostly not novels either. And no, dear readers, Lord of the Rings is not a novel. It’s certainly not three novels, as I am very tired of reading in the popular press or even in book reviews that should know better. It’s not three anything–it is one book, one long story.

Because that’s what Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, Harlequin Romances, and Indiana Jones all are–stories. "But Anwyn, what in the world is the difference? Most fiction stories are called novels." Well, maybe so. But it’s likely most fiction stories, in that case, are sadly misnamed. You know how a square and a rectangle are both rectangles, but a rectangle is not a square? Yes, novels and stories are both stories, in a certain sense, but a story is not a novel. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to explain what I (and I do not believe I am alone) see as the difference between them.

Novels are stories of human nature. Real, as it is. They are, usually, stories of the reactions of one human or set of humans to a particular set of fictional circumstances. What ties them all in common is that the heroes and villains have the same emotional triggers, the same failings, the same ability to be killed and stay dead, the same distance between them and God or the gods, the same spiteful behaviors, the same remorseful moments, and the same frustrations at dealing with other humans as we have ourselves. Jane Austen wrote wonderful novels, I have learned to my delight during the last year. So, I’m told, did Charles Dickens. (Yes, I know. A writer who hasn’t read Dickens. Crucify me later, I have a column to write.) Larry McMurtry wrote novels, although perhaps very story-ish novels due to our preconceptions about the "wild west" many of them are set in. The people remain the same–low-minded, foul-behaved, duty-minded, hard-working; as many different types as in your very own neighborhood–and just as complex. These people are not always evil, they are not always good, they are certainly not always perfect. They deal with their nature as it is, they way all of us do every day. That horrible book I alluded to last month, as an Oprah-blessed scrap of modern literature, stomach-turning as it is, is a novel–it is about real people dealing with real situations, however ugly.

A pure story is something very different. A story is told for the sake of putting events and characters in a certain light. A story is told for the sake of making up fabulous places, wonderful happenings, and beautiful and horrifying creatures that could never exist in our world. A story is told for the sake of explaining metaphysics, or sometimes even physics, that we cannot understand. A story is told for the excitement of unfolding a mystery the author has fathomed and hopes is original, to the wondering reader. And a story is at the whimsical command of the author, to absorb and utilize whatever fantastic invention the author writes about next. The characters are not human in the sense that we are. They are cast in a certain mold, and for the most part they stay that way. They do not deal with real situations, and they mostly react to all situations in quite the same way.

Let me put it to you this way. Would you call The Odyssey a novel? How about Sagas of the Icelanders? Here’s a doozy–King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Whoa. Talk about your saga, mystery, and romance all in one, there–but it’s not a novel.

"Aw, Anwyn, what does it matter if people call it a novel? It’s just a word that means ‘fiction book.’ It doesn’t really mean anything, certainly not to the depth you’re taking it." No? Why do you think the self-important literary critics of the century have gone so far out of their way to bash our Professor? They were living in the blossom age of the novel–these things go in cycles, don’t you know. From Jane Austen, a hundred years or so till Dickens, then crowding fast and thick, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Mitchell, Tom Wolfe. A return of the mere story was anathema to the way these people thought–sagas belong in the past, to mythology. No place in the twentieth century, and God forbid that some small-minded little people should think of Tolkien in the same way as Hemingway!! So bash it, it’s horrible, it’s not literature… ah, but as I observed last month, merely being a novel does not make a book into literature. I repeat myself now–The Odyssey, not literature? Puh-leeze. One of our latest geek-bashers condemned Lord of the Rings as having no psychologically complex characters. If you want psychological depth, don’t look to the mythology of Greece and Rome, but isn’t every schoolchild and college freshman taught about them as some of the oldest surviving examples of literature? Good heavens, in a story told for the emotional effect of it, who would want that kind of depth? I want to love Frodo and hate Sauron. I want to pity Gollum and cheer for Gandalf. I want to fear Galadriel just a little and watch Éowyn turn from sounding like a spoiled brat to her revelation as one of the greatest heroes in the bunch. I don’t want Sam to struggle with whether or not to keep on with Frodo, to toy with the idea of betraying him–that, I suppose, is psychological depth. No thanks. Give me pure, sweet, unadulterated Sam Gamgee, "like Thingummy’s soap–pure soap to the last bubble!" (That’s my other idol Lewis again, for the uninitiated.) Zeus always reacts with a thunderbolt and Odysseus is so single-minded because that’s the mold in which they were cast. They were not meant to be representative–they were meant for a particular purpose. So also with the "mythology of England," as Tolkien intended it to be–story, explanatory, narrative, amusing, wonderful, moving–but not psychologically complex. Give me that kind of literature any day.

Larry McMurtry, in his quasi-autobiography Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, quotes a German writer I’d never heard of, the aforementioned Benjamin, as saying of the novel: "What distinguishes the novel from all other forms of prose literature is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his more important concerns, is himself uncounselled, and cannot counsel others." What were the Greek myths or the Icelandic sagas but oral tradition? And what was King Arthur but oral tradition? And what is Tolkien but the desire to imitate that style–to bring a sense of oral tradition to the imagined history of another reality?

Dryden defines a novel thus: "A fictitious tale or narrative, professing to be conformed to real life; esp., one intended to exhibit the operation of the passions, and particularly of love." Professing to be conformed to real life. Tolkien never pretended such. He created another life, a simpler life, where concepts and characters were, pardon the expression, more black-and-white. Novels revel in their shades of grey; Tolkien decidedly shied away from them.

"Hmrf, Anwyn, if the main criteria of the novel is dealing with love, then what you said about Harlequins is wrong… they must be novels…" Well, here’s a tip for all those not already in the know. Harlequins aren’t about love. They are about sex, duh. And no, they are definitely not about real people having sex. (That doesn’t bear on the definition of the novel. I just wanted to say it.)

It is not accident or imagination that Tolkien is called the father of the modern fantasy story. Pick up any Dragonlance and it’s all there–the Quest, the Heroes, the Slightly Shady Ambiguous Character, the Evil Henchmen, the Evil Overlords, the Pitiable but Twisted Necessary Adjunct. Naturally not in the quality we get from our Professor, but certainly in scads more quantity. Yes, Tolkien was influenced by an older time, but until him, that older time had all but died out in the twentieth century. (Does it boggle anybody else that when we say "in the twentieth century, we are no longer speaking of our own? It’s the same sense of the past I used to get when my teachers said "the eighteen-hundreds"… but worse, because I was just there…wasn’t I?) The novelists were running full steam–with the boom of the industrial revolution and all it meant for various aspects of our cultures, novel material was everywhere and rampant. Pure story was a dying art form. No wonder that Tolkien, disgusted with said revolution and all it brought about, would turn for help to the stories and sagas that reflected a more pastoral time, the idealized countryism and self-sufficiency of his childhood, and no wonder that his own writing would take that same path. Frustrated with what he saw as his own inadequacy, no wonder he would turn from sordid human nature to nature that was both more and less than human–more of the qualities he admired: adherence to duty, faith in the Good, expending great effort to strive up the mountain, and less of the muddled and muddiness of human behavior.

So take that, all you critics who bash Tolkien because he lacks the human complexity of the novel. He didn’t want it. He didn’t need it. We don’t want or need it. Tolkien wrote sagas. Stories. Myths. He couldn’t have cared too much less about the realities and weakness of human nature–flaws were either the makings of evil or the stuff of high tragedy, never just a daily fault of a tired human. Goodness was either the pinnacle of heroism or the simplicity of a plowed and planted field, never just the everyday luck of having gone a day without sinning. I’ve enjoyed my share of novels (and by the bye, did you know there are novels for children? I don’t mean adolescent muddles like Judy Blume and her set write–I’m talking children. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books are the epitome of what it is to be a real human child) and hope I will come to enjoy more. But in school this semester (oi vey, yes, I’m back in grad school) I’m taking a course on Dante and one called "Viking Sagas In Translation." Give me stories, ones that take the germ of humanity and lift it to something more fun, more exalted, more otherworldly than a novel could ever hope to be. Give me Tolkien.

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