This is part 2 of a list of lessons Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” holds for authors. You can read part one here.
- FOIL CHARACTERS CAN FEEL FORCED IN CERTAIN GENRES BUT WORK WELL IN OTHERS, LIKE FANTASY (AND SCI-FI)
You might remember the term “foil” from your high school studies of Shakespeare. A foil is a character who is an antagonist to another by displaying the traits or qualities that most directly oppose those of another character. For example, in “Hamlet,” the philosophical, inactive Hamlet is foiled by the impulsive, hot-headed Laertes.
I would say there are two great sets of foils in the Lord of the Rings: the wizards Saruman / Gandalf are one, and Frodo / Gollum are the other. The Frodo / Gollum pair is especially striking. Frodo is guileless, relatively selfless, willing to sacrifice himself to save Middle Earth. Gollum is crafty, corrupted, and sets goals by considering only himself and how he can get the Ring back.
The coolest thing about the foils in the Lord of the Rings is that the dark foil in each set (Saruman, Gollum) represents what the good foil (Gandalf, Frodo) could become if he took another path or chose to be that way.
Each light foil is tempted by the Ring’s power; that is part of their character development. The dark foils show the striking and unavoidable result of what would happen to them if they should fall. It adds wonderfully dramatic tension.
In more realistic genres, or in works with a different tone and theme, the idea of incorporating blatant foils would feel gimmicky. But it suits the world of Middle Earth to a tee. It fits right into the mythological feel and the philosophical tone.
- THE SYMBOLISM IN LOTR CAN TEACH ANY WRITER A LOT.
For me, the most important symbol in LotR is the One Ring, and the corresponding lesser rings it historically controlled. What’s so fascinating is the way it fits right into the trilogy’s theme of evil as a perversion of good; evil isn’t something that exists in its own right, but a perversion or parasite of good.
Thus, the Nazgul are fallen/perverted men. If I remember rightly, the orcs are fallen/perverted elves. And the One Ring itself (symbolically) is a perversion or alteration of the unity which a ring usually implies. Think of a wedding ring and the unity between the couple it signifies. Sauron’s lesser rings were meant to symbolize a union, a good trust, between Sauron and those who wore them. Of course, that faith is a shame, broken in the course of time. The true meaning of the union and the rings is distorted, and Sauron uses them to control and manipulate.
- CERTAIN KINDS OF BAD GUYS NEED A CERTAIN KIND OF MINION.
No, I’m not talking about Gru here. I’m talking about the “bogey man” style villain (I discuss him in another post), of which Sauron is a classic example. This villain is a megalomaniac, often a psychopath, and has no human qualities. He can be powerful; he usually HAS to be extremely powerful, in fact, to make up for the fact that intellectually he’s incredibly boring. This kind of villain is often given helpers, or there are lesser villains, who do display human qualities and give the “evil” side more philosophical and emotional impact. Thus, Sauron has Saruman. (In Harry Potter, Voldemort has the Malfoy family and Peter Pettigrew.)
- POETRY AND SONG CAN HAVE THEIR PLACE IN PROSE
It’s not always a good idea, depending on the story and genre, and to use poems or song lyrics you didn’t write yourself can cost a lot of money, but we can make good use of poetry and song in short stories or novels. Tolkien’s epic is full of bar songs, legendary plooetry…. You name it, it’s there. It all adds to the depth of the cultures he immerses us in, the spirit of Middle Earth. My favorite of the poems is probably the most famous of them:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
1o. HOW CHARACTERS RESPOND TO SETBACKS, CHALLENGES, AND OPPOSITION IS WHAT MATTERS MOST AND WHAT MOST FASCINATES READERS.
We all know this, but it never hurts to remind ourselves overtly about it. Every genre defines “opposition” differently; maybe it’s more accurate to say different genres tend to focus on different kinds of challenges or struggles. But we read to explore the human spirit, and we’ve all proven by experience that growth, learning, and triumph can only come with work, challenge, toil, and possibly conflict. That’s what we read for, and those things should (excepting rare cases) be our focus. If you’re ever not sure where to start with your story, or how to approach it, consider starting here: with challenge and conflict.