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Tolkien Tuesday: FotR, Ch. 2
zuko, dietotaku

It’s Tolkien Tuesday again! Today, I’m blogging about chapter two of Fellowship, “The Shadow of the Past.”

I’m going to tread lightly here, because this is probably the most famous chapter of the trilogy. And it is a good chapter. It introduces Sam (briefly mentioned in the first chapter) as a sympathetic figure and contains some of the neatest telescoping of time I’ve ever read. Also, Classic Tolkien Infodumps ahoy. I think I’m just going to call these kinds of infodumps—dressed up in fancy language—Tolkiens from now on.

Anyway, I’d like to talk about the scene where Gandalf relates his fictional history of Smeagol. First, I want to talk about why it’s well done, and then I’d like to talk about some considerations for a modern fantasy writer.

It’s well done for a lot of reasons. A) Tolkien did it first, before it was a cliché. A lot of later infodumps are bad because they try to crib from Tolkien, and they can’t, because of B.

B) Tolkien studied myths and legends, so he knew this kind of voice. There’s a difference between drawing from fantasy novels and drawing from the source material behind those fantasy novels. It’s sort of like learning history. If you only draw from the secondary sources that summarize and collect primary sources (like textbooks), you’ll miss a lot, because every summary has a slant. In Tolkien’s case, he was updating the Ring Cycle. (I don’t know how much Tolkien’s books do or don’t resemble his source material, btw. That’s not something I’ve ever been very interested in.)

C) If you want to get into nitty-gritty things, Gandalf’s story gets very deep into the heads of its imagined characters. There is dialogue (in a realistic voice for a story), and Smeagol is well fleshed-out and considered. There are lots of details, and other minor characters in the story are speculated about and explained. It’s a story, in other words. Whenever you write these kind of things, treat the characters with as much dignity as you would your ordinary characters. Otherwise, it’s just not going to be interesting.

Now. For modern writers. This kind of thing had been done to death. And it’s not bad if you want to do it again, because everything in fiction has technically been done to death. If you have something fresh to bring to it, or if this is the kind of writing you prefer and excel at, then have at you.

However, there’s an interesting thing to note here about what’s going on in the larger story. Gandalf is a source of wisdom throughout the books. He relates the history, he understands magic, and he has the powerful connections. All of his words are presented as trustworthy—or, in this case, as the complete truth.

And the simplest way to bring a twist to this is to make sure it isn’t the complete truth. Every character brings an angle to the story. In this case, it makes sense for Gandalf not to lie or withhold any information, because Frodo needs to know what he’s getting into by accepting Bilbo’s ring.

But think of a recent Gandalf update: Dumbledore. In the first few books, Dumbledore is the go-to infodump character (besides Hermione), and his words are always presented as the complete truth, because, after all, he’s Dumbledore! He’s a harmless old man who loves Harry very much. And then we get to the fifth and sixth books, and everything changes. By the time Snape’s story is revealed, we see just how much Dumbledore has held back and how it changes everything that came before. It was a great reveal, because not only did it completely change the plot of the stories—by revealing that Harry had to die—but it also changed our perceptions of one of the cornerstone characters.

That is the kind of thing you should be aiming for, my friends. Even if your primary infodump character doesn’t have a slant, consider adding some characters who do. Obviously, your villain should try to feed false information whenever possible (consider the competing broadcasts in the last book of the Hunger Games trilogy). But consider adding a well-meaning character who lies as well. Well-meaning lies are the worst kind, and if it’s a punch in the gut to your character, it’s probably going to be one for your readers, as well. 


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