Things not seen and places not visited


(What I learned from Tolkien, part 2)

I first read the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven or twelve, and like so many other readers, I didn’t just suspend disbelief, I actively believed. I lived and breathed Tolkien’s imaginary world. When I finished the book I didn’t want to leave it.

In my last post I talked about the importance of names in The Lord of the Rings. Most of the important people, places, and things in the book have more than one name, and this lends a greater sense of authenticity and “three-dimensionality” to the imaginary world.

Another key factor in creating the illusion of truth and depth is the mention of people we never meet, and places that never get visited. One much-discussed example is Saruman’s mention of the “five wizards” in The Two Towers. Up to that point we know only about the wizards Saruman and Gandalf, and now we’re told there are five (only five?). That’s all the detail we get about them in the book, but it’s one of the many moments in which a reader’s sense of this imaginary world expands just a tiny bit. There’s more here to know, it seems. There’s an entire world beyond the unfolding of the story. A world of places, characters, and events that we can only glimpse through these tantalizing hints, and which is thus left to our imagination to fill in and wonder about. We're drawn to explore in directions that the story itself doesn't go. More than just about any author, Tolkien grants our restless imagination the freedom to take these side-trips.

Tolkien employs a similar strategy with his dark lord, Sauron. We never actually see him, so that he remains for the reader a mysterious, shadowy figure of enormous menace. Again, we have to use our imaginations to fill in what isn’t told, and that is far more effective and convincing than being told and shown everything (which is why the appearance of Sauron in the film version of The Lord of the Rings as an armor-clad giant is so disappointing, and why so many horror movies are scary only until the moment the ghost or creature or whatever is shown to us).

In one brief passage, near the end of the book, when Frodo puts on the ring, Tolkien shifts the point of view of the story to Sauron himself. Here again, we don’t actually get to see the dark lord, but instead we get the deliciously ironic pleasure of seeing what he sees, which is that for all his power and cunning, he has been a complete fool:

“… the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.”

It’s a brilliant moment because it gives us a look inside the mind of this shadowy figure, while still allowing him to remain vague and mysterious.

It’s a classic example of the truth that a writer needs to keep some secrets from the reader. I have a “talking stick” that I sometimes bring with me when I visit schools as a writer. It’s actually part of an old walking stick that broke and that I repurposed, adorning it with a number of objects that represent, to me, important truths about storytelling. Whoever’s turn it is to tell a story gets to hold the talking stick. One of these items on the stick is a small black pouch. “What’s inside it?” the kids sometimes ask me, but I don’t tell them. The bag represents all of the things that a storyteller doesn’t show or tell. What’s in the bag is half the secret of a story’s power.

Illustration: detail from "The Blue Wizards Journeying into the East" by Ted Nasmith

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