Saturday, December 06, 2014

Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling

A Facebook discussion that mentioned Tolkien, Pullman, and Rowling led me to write the following comment, which I thought I'd save here for posterity.

I read Tolkien passionately at 14 or so. When I reread LOTR when I was about 22, I had just read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" for the second time. The juxtaposition of Garcia Marquez and Tolkien did not make T look good; if anything, it made him look terrible. — And when my son and I read LOTR out loud a few years ago, we eventually stopped, because it was ... boring. For a while, we entertained ourselves by making fun of it (everybody getting stoned in Lothlorien, for example), but that got boring after a while. — The world T imagines (or "bank-robs", to pick up your phrase) is incredibly impressive, though, as is Pullman's.

I first read Pullman because I read an article that called him "Rowling for adults", so I thought I'd check him out. He has much more ambition than Rowling, and for the most part, he pulls off a lot more. Further, his Mrs. Coulter exposes Rowling's characterization of ridiculous characters (Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousins) as well as of evil characters (above all, Voldemort) as two-dimensional at best.

In "The Amber Spyglass," though, Pullman exposes a flaw in his plotting. In the middle of a battle, one character has to explain something to another for a page or so — and it's clear that the explanation is less for the character than for the reader. This flaw made me notice something about Rowling's plotting: she *never* has to explain anything during exciting passages, because she *always* sets things up earlier. As a result, the exciting passages never get interrupted by explanations, but can just be exciting. — Beyond that, though, when she sets things up earlier, it never reads as "foreshadowing": whatever it is that is being explained is clearly part of the plot at the moment when it is explained, and it never comes across as explaining *for the reader*.

In short, for the creation of a fantasy world, Tolkien. For characterization, Pullman. But for effective plotting, Rowling.

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

Excellent points, though I found Rowling's 'muggle' characters so 2D they put me off reading beyond the first Harry Potter (though I enjoyed the films).

I read LOTR about three times in my late teens/early 20s (or possibly later, can't really recall). I enjoyed it immensely, mainly because of what you mention, that sense of an intact, coherent world. I also loved the road-is-a-river motif/theme, that carries us from the cosy Shire to the heart of Mordor.

I thought Pullman's trilogy was remarkable, a startling blend of mythology and sci-fi, with characters fully alive and kicking. Very poetic use of metaphor that didn't detract from the narrative, in his idea of everyone having to nurture their own small death, for example, or God as a kind of senile nonentity floating past on his cloud. I didn't notice that fault you mention, possibly because there was so much going on. It reminded me greatly of CS Lewis's trilogy 'Out of the Silent Planet' (a more grown up piece of Christian propaganda than the Narnia books, which, religion aside, are quite Harry Potterish). Interesting to read that Christopher Hitchens thought Pullman a fresh alternative to Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling.