Tolkien's Genius with Fiction
Fiction can be classified into one of four possible categories, depending on plot development. A Milieu story is written to explore a setting or world, whether created by the author, which usually is the case in fantasy or sci-fi fiction, or the real world we all inhabit. One milieu story is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane. The plot carries the reader throughout Hambly’s created world. An argument could be made that a milieu story could also include the contours of the psyche, such as that of a deranged or psychotic person.
A Character story is written to show change in one or several characters, usually due to some event or circumstance in life. Although I dislike using such an insipid example, Jane Austen’s Emma is such a story. Emma’s heart changes due to a series of events in her life, until she realizes that she does indeed love her older gentleman neighbor.
An Event story focuses on just that, an event or series of
events. The Indiana Jones movies are great examples of this type of story. We
thrill at the intrigue, explosions and romance, because those events are the point of the story.
An Idea story generally focuses on a question to be
answered. A good example here is any mystery, such as Agatha Christie’s
‘Whodunnit’ type of stories. The reader is led, clue by clue, to the answer.
Because of its extensively developed backstory and deep lore, I am a devoted fan of Lord of the Rings. What really makes LotR so successful is Tolkien’s genius. He was able to successfully incorporate all four types of stories into one. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are, without doubt, milieu stories. The reader is carried across vast distances, visiting numerous fantastic locations throughout Middle Earth.
Also present is the character story. Aragorn, Bilbo and Frodo are the primary candidates here, although numerous other characters will fit this mold. These three are changed to such an extent that one moves from self-exile to king, and other two have to leave their native land because of the long-term effects of the ring.
Events are also clearly present in LotR, the primary
being the destruction of the One Ring. The series of events and encounters
leading to that ultimate deed are why Peter Jackson
was able to direct a successful movie. We Westerners need events in our movies,
or we often feel cheated out of our ticket price.
Of the ideas present in LotR, some are obvious while others are more subtle. Clearly, we have Good versus Evil. More subtle is the idea of social change due to the influence of evil. When Frodo left the Shire, life there was romantic, pastoral and relatively carefree. By the time he returned, Saruman and Wormtongue had defiled the Shire by cutting down massive amounts of trees and turning the place into an industrial outpost. Frodo and company are forced to deal with the situation, returning the Shire, as best they can, back into the idyllic setting is once was.
Tolkien successfully combined all four story types into one masterful tale. His literary genius will continue to inspire wonder for generations to come.