Welcome to The Inklings' Quill, a blog set aside for the study of one of the greatest authors of all time and father of the genre we now call "fantasy", J.R.R. Tolkien. This blog was originally created as a school project for a class on British literature, but I hope to expand this blog to something a bit greater. Thanks for dropping by! :D
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Dying art of Narrative Voice

"In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit."

And indeed there did. And this hobbit went on to change, not only his own metaphysical world of Middle Earth, but our world as well. Tolkien was an absolute genius in how his writings affected the entire literary world, even if he didn't exactly mean for them to.

Yet have you ever heard someone say, "Oh, Tolkien's works would never have made it in the modern world of publishing." Well, even if you have never heard that, I have. And I've heard it spoken more than once. In fact, it's quite well known around the writing world (even if it's known subconsciously) that Tolkien's trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" would probably have never made it to bookstore shelves if presented to the public via today's much stricter publishing market.

Now people will argue this: I expect it. And, to be quite truthful, there is a part of me that doubts Tolkien's failure in the modern industry as well. After all, he is considered the Father of all Fantasy, the master of the Writing Art. So who are we to say that "The Lord of the Rings" would never have been published?

But the fact is that times change. They change. They are always changing. So yes, Tolkien was a master, and yes, he brought the fantasy genre beyond fairy tales and folklore and made it into a much more noticeable literary art form. But Tolkien also did something else; something that has been frowned upon as writing has advanced from an artistic hobby to a professional career choice:

Tolkien wrote LOTR as a narrative.

It's true. He even admits to it. In an old interview clip I recently watched where Professor Tolkien discussed his writings with the media, he starts talking about how he first came about writing "The Hobbit" – he told about grading his students' papers and finding one with a blank page and how thrilled he was with blank pages because they always offer possibilities (which is very true) – but then he goes on to say that he was suddenly inspired to write a narrative… a rather long narrative that would hold the casual reader from the very beginning to the very end. He goes on to say that since quests and such, where a person must take a thing far away and has adventures on his journey and possibly becomes doomed in the end, are what he'd found to hold the readers' attentions longest, he thought he might try one of his own.

Now granted, these aren't his exact words: I have to go back and find the video before I could give you those… which I will do when I can find more time. But that was the gist of what he said. And yes, he used the word "narrative".

What does that mean exactly?

Well, I'm sure we've all heard of the narrative voice, right? It's used in some of the most acclaimed literary fantasy classics of all times: "Peter Pan", for instance, or Lewis Carol's "Alice in Wonderland". And yes, it was used in "The Lord of the Rings" as well. But what does it really mean when I say that LOTR was written as a narrative?

It means quite simply that Tolkien wrote "The Lord of the Rings" as if he were telling the story to someone else – as if he were a narrator. We all know what a narrator is – basically, a commentator or a person who gives an account to someone and refers to themselves occasionally using the word "I" and so on.

Ah! But there's that dratted, nasty word that so many modern writers have learned to dread: telling!

Yes, it's very true. Narration is all about telling. And that's exactly what Tolkien did: he wrote LOTR as if he were telling a story. Not as if he were living the story of the character as the events were happening, nor even as if he were watching the events unfold from a distance. Rather, it's more like he's giving an account to someone else of the events that happened in the past. He's telling the story orally, but not living it. He's recounting past deeds as if they were a history.

However, what makes his work really stand out is that Tolkien worked at his art until he became a master of storytelling. Just like all writers, Tolkien kept writing and revising and changing things. His stories, histories, and languages evolved over time and became greater and greater with each year. The result was that he wrote LOTR and "The Hobbit" so that even though he used an all omniscient narrative voice, a reader can also see the pictures clearly in his or her mind. And it's interesting because, if you've ever tried to read LOTR aloud and really listened to what you were reading as you were reading it, you might come to discover that it actually does sound almost as if you're telling the story out of your head.

"To deep!" you say, "I doubt I could come up with something that complicated straight off the top of my head!"

That may be true. But that's the beauty of it. That's why Tolkien wrote it all down. That's why all writers write their stories down: because it's hard to remember all the details in order. As a writer, I often go back over my manuscripts and am surprised by lines or scenes that I'd forgotten I'd written: then it's almost like I'm reading those scenes for the first time, even though I was the one who wrote them. It must have been the same for Tolkien. I'm sure it's the same for many other writers as well.

However, the truth is that except for the occasional scary story around the campfire or a mom telling her young children the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Goldie Locks and the Three Bears, the art of narration is all but dead into today's literary world. Very rarely does one find a fiction book written in narrative form unless it's the classics, and even if you can find such a book, it's even rarer if it's actually a well written book. In today's world, the art of actually telling a story is frowned upon and quickly discouraged, while the art of showing a story to a reader – writing in such a way that it's as if you are somehow living the story yourself in one way or another rather than listening to the story be recounted – is highly encouraged. And "showing" is by no means a bad form of writing, but have you ever wondered why it seems to be such a hard concept to grasp? I mean, it wasn't until recently that I really understood what my writing mentors have been trying to tell me all along… that "showing" in writing is quite literally akin to painting a picture.

I believe that this phenomenon is actually because people are hard-wired in the oral traditions. For so long history was either recorded through the oral passing down of lineage and deeds from one generation to the next or else written down in journal entries, that now man-kind automatically falls to the older traditions when it comes to storytelling – even in today's world. In older days, Story Tellers and Bards were revered for their abilities to recount deeds and tales through songs or other means. That's why it's usually so difficult for new writers to understand what they must to be doing wrong when they are told over and over again that they are "telling the story" instead of "showing it" to their readers. In their minds they are supposed to be "telling" a story, so understanding the difference can be difficult (I speak from experience here).

So here's a challenge for all you writers out there: Write a short story using the dying art of narration. That means, write the story as if you were telling it to someone else. (Think Bed-time stories, or your grandpa telling you about his childhood). I don't care what POV you decide to use: first person present, first person past, second person, third person preset, third person past, third omniscient, or all omniscient… Just write it like you are narrating it instead of showing it… write it like you're telling it as a story around the campfire instead of writing it as if you were watching a movie. For some of you, this type of writing might rub you the wrong way. For others it will come almost as natural as breathing. But let's see what we can come up with, in honor of Tolkien and his marvelous and world changing works. When you are finished, post an excerpt in the comments, if you like, and let us see what you've accomplished.

This should be a very interesting project indeed!


The Director said...

I love you. I love this post. This was exactly was I needed.... you mind if I blog about this post and direct my people over here to read this?
I wanted to do another post on showing/telling/going against the grain again, but you just about stole the words out of my mouth :P

Thanks a million... seriously.

Gillian said...

That was such a great post! Tolkien has always been and always will be my favorite authors. And I love that the Lord of the Rings is told in narrative - it wouldn't be the same if it wasn't. I feel like a tale of such epic proportions would actually feel very limited if you tried to write it in any other way...

A few years ago I attempted to write a whole history (lore, legends, the works!) for the novel I was writing at the time - yes, I know, shamelessly copying Tolkien.

This is an excerpt from one of the "legends" I wrote then. The legend of Cirdel the Adventurer and his son Corin the Sailor:

Cirdel the Adventurer buried his wife upon a tall cliff overlooking the sea upon one side and a meadow upon the other. He raised a great stone above her grave upon which her name was engraved thus: Mairwen of the Meadow.

After the death of Mairwen, Cirdel became silent and his gaze grew stern and grim, but his love for his son Corin grew even greater – if that were possible – than it had been before, for the memory of his wife. And Cirdel mourned for her and for his three year old son who would now grow up without a mother. Life ashore had ever been hateful to him ere he met Mairwen and now the sea-longing arose once more in his heart, stronger than ever before.

In the fall of 1238, therefore, he took to the sea again in his ship the Windchaser and his young son Corin sailed with him. He reappeared in Saern after an absence of three years and then disappeared for six more. Deglean the king, his brother, and his mother, the Lady Mayera, doubted not that he was dead and all of Curinort mourned his passing for he had been a hero of the war. But, beyond all their hopes, Cirdel returned at the end of the six years and dwelt on shore with in Saern for nearly three months.
Corin was now twelve and bade fair to grow into a man like his father, for he was tall and strong for his age. Already a fine sailor, he could manage the Windchaser on his own in all but the heaviest seas. He was well acquainted with the use of his weapons and save that he yet lacked his full strength, he was fully as skillful with a sword as any man in the King's guard.

At the end of the three months, Cirdel again grew restless and bade his brother and mother farewell and set sail again with his son. They were seen several times in and around Curinort during the following seven years, but they came only thrice to Saern and stayed but a week each time. Then at last, in the winter of 1253, the Windchaser put again into harbor and Cirdel and Corin traveled up to Saern...

I think I was reading the Silmarillion at the time... or something like! :)

Star-Dreamer said...

Director: Sure. Go ahead. :D I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. :)

Gillian: Nice! I used to do the same thing, and every once in a while I do it again, just for fun. hehe!

Here's a bit of something I wrote ages ago. lol! :D

The unicorns are a proud and mysterious race. They call themselves by many names; to the elves they are known as the Hwenanesh, to the dwarves they are known as the Bûndlûbë. In the Nerovian tongue they are the White-Horned, and to themselves they are H’vidrah. The little known of them in Nerovell comes from what they were willing to disclose, and that grudgingly.

They came from across the Southern Sea, from an Island they call Nanirrell which means no-name in the elven tongue. It’s coordinates were lost with their passing into the north, and even if they could remember where the island was, the H’vidrah have no desire to return. The island was a land of hardships, pain, and blood and it was by this the H’vidrah were driven northward.

Nanirrell was inhabited by many monsters; things of claws, teeth, and bloodlust. Strange things out of nightmares. The H’vidrah had become a people of battle. Their kind was split into five different clans and each one was governed by a war general; the Blood Stallion of the herd. The custom, then, was that each foal began lessons in fighting and battle soon after his or her birth. This was not just custom but necessary, as the isle was too perilous to have no knowledge of how to protect one’s self at short notice. There was little if any time for peace or peaceful thinking; every minute of every day was spent in training or fighting.

Since the coming to the north, the H’vidrah don’t use their gifts so much for fighting. They came north to escape the life of constant battle and war, and settled in the vale of Arnethrend, the third valley to the east in the mountains of the Claw. There they laid aside their battle prowess and their fighting ways for the more peaceful and calm life of living in the valley. Yet even now their tales and legends… even everything that they are, still revolves around their ancient past in Nanirrell.

The favorite tales among the H’vidrah are those of ancient heroes who proved their worth in battle and gained victory against incredible odds. One of the best known and perhaps one of the greatest Heroes among the H’vidrah is known as Vrëahn of the Redcoat. It is said that his eerie crimson color was brought about when he fought a mighty sea dragon and prevailed, skewering the dragon in the throat when it lunged to kill him. The Dragon’s blood stained him forever, but other tales of his victories claim that it wasn’t just the Dragon’s blood, but also that of many a slain foe that caused his coat to stain beyond return.

Other tales of H’vidrahn heroes tell of the Sharlhan, a H’vidra so silent as to seem only a shadow and who could sneak up on any foe and kill them before they had a chance to know what had happened or cry out. Shard Fang was one who had had his teeth fitted with shards of pointed shale; his bite was devastating to all of his enemies. Brakûl was so large as to break the back of a giant cat with only one stamp of his hooves. These among many others are the heroes that still live in H’vidrahn legend.

(Lol! It's so old, I almost laugh at it now! But it was fun to write then, and it's even more fun to read now. :D)

Galadriel said...

The following comes at the end of an in-story narrative (ie, one character was telling another character a story:)

Here the oldest of the lays end, and the others splinter into different legends. Some say that Acai’s rose was darkened by blood, and is the origin of the King’s Emblem, but the Emblem is older than the Lay. Others claim that the King took Acai to his garden forever, while some say she had a brief visit before she found a new family. A few wild tales say that she still wanders the world, waiting for a time known as the Mem, but those are dismissed by most as inventions of eager storytellers

Star-Dreamer said...

Galadriel: Oo... I would like to read that story. :) Who is Acai and why is she represented by a rose? I am intrigued...

Galadriel said...

Thank you for your interest...it makes me smile.

Gillian said...

One of my future writing projects will be to write an entire novel in narrative, kind of "journal entry" style. I know it's not the preferred way to write now, but the premise of the story will be hilarious... and it just begs to be written in narrative...

Star-Dreamer said...

Well, Journals in a narrative voice really are fun to read. I mean, the Hunger Games would be close to that, I guess... and right now I'm thinking about the Becka Cooper books by Tamora Pierce... (I love those books! :D) So that sounds like a good idea to me. Let me know when you start it; I would love to read some of it.

Jude said...

Ahh that's a tough challenge. For me, first person comes easier. And as a reader, it's easier for me to connect to first person narrators too since I get the character's voice right away.

Star-Dreamer said...

Ah... very true. But the good thing about writing in first person is that a lot of it can be narrative. I mean, if you are writing as if you were your character, then you are narrating your own story. That's the best part, I think, about first person. :D

It's a lot more difficult to try narrative perspective in 3rd... especially when it's 3rd person limmited. (yuck! :P) LOL!

Steve Finnell said...

you are invited to follow my blog

Star-Dreamer said...

Uh... ok. But just to let you know, I usually check in on the blogs of people who follow me. :)


About Me

My Photo
Nichole White is 25, a devout Christian, oldest of six children, and was homeschooled up to her first semester in college in the Spring of O9. But above everything else in her hectic life, Nichole is a writer. Her writing tends to lean towards Fantasy (with a little sci-fi thrown in) more than anything else. Nichole Also enjoys lurking in the sci-fi/fantasy forum at WritersDigest.com. Her current Blog "The Pen and Parchment" is a place she goes to discuss different subjects she finds interesting, first and foremost the art of writing, and then that of reading, and so on. It also might occasionally contain anything that is on her mind at the time. In the near future "The pen and Parchment" will obtain information about her current project, "Song of the Daystar" a christian fantasy novel, now in the final stages of the last rewrite. Please check in to learn more.
View my complete profile
Powered by Blogger.

Some really great books. :D

networked blogs