The Invisible Economy of Middle Earth, and Why Readers Don’t Care

When I finish a novel and I’m casting around for the next to read, I’ll often spend  a few evenings dipping back into an old favourite, one of those evergreens I like to re-read a few pages or chapters or beloved passages of. Lately I’ve been re-reading portions of Lord of the Rings, which I first encountered some fifty years ago.

Well, it got me to thinking.

Looked at critically, Tolkien’s masterwork breaks a great many of the rules that present-day writers, agents, and editors obsess over.

But readers, the people who actually matter (because they, not the writer’s critique partners or agent or publisher, are the ones shelling out the money for the book) don’t care one bit.

First, LotR is written in third-person omniscient, or “God’s eye view,” in which the author dips into each character’s thoughts at need. This  viewpoint technique is deprecated by writing mavens today as being distancing, and frequently dissed as “head-hopping.” Compounding his sins, Tolkien often employs the passive voice and uses adverbs liberally, with several on almost every page of the book. A writer trying this today would get mauled by their critique group, and I guarantee their manuscript would bounce off an agent’s slushpile faster than hail off a tin roof.

But that’s only the beginning.

As Frodo and his companions traverse Middle Earth, we discover a vast, empty land curiously devoid of any significant trade, agriculture, homesteads, or even travelers. Oh, the dwarves mine and craft metal, and we get the token farmer like Maggot in the Shire, and mentions of agriculture and crafts in Minas Tirith, but seriously, is any of this truly credible without a visible functioning economy?

I think it is. Certainly we never encounter trading caravans traveling between regions, but I suspect that – in fact, Tolkien implies it in a few places – the realms of Gondor, Rohan, and so on, actually do have agriculture and artisans, smiths and woodworkers, hide tanners and potters, glassblowers and stonemasons, thatchers and ploughmen: but other than one or two mentions Tolkien simply doesn’t bring them onstage or discuss them. Why? Because they’re not generally relevant to his story and thus he had no interest in describing them. There are occasional hints and implications of regional economies, and, before Middle Earth fell into a darker age, of a greater, interlinked economy, but no more.

One thing I stress repeatedly in my craft book and when I edit books for indie authors is that the only person whose opinion matters is the reader. An author shouldn’t be writing for their critique group, and certainly shouldn’t take all the nitpicky advice they’re given to heart. Yet sadly, I’ve seen more than one perfectly fine tale diluted and fractured by authors trying to address their fellow writers’ concerns over where the ore for the iron is mined, who grows the food, and so on ad nauseam. Some concerns may be valid, of course; but in the example I’m using here, I maintain they’re not.

For a story, a novel, a world to be credible, all that stuff doesn’t need to be told or shown on the page, it simply needs to be known to the author. The obsession for detailing and showing everything is a modern one, an industry fashion, and really doesn’t matter a whit to the reader. As generations of adoring Tolkien fans have proved, if the story flows and involves them and the author does nothing to break the spell, they will keep turning the pages.

Writing a great book isn’t so much about doing a ton of things right (and certainly not by the fashion of the day) as it is about telling a great story and simply not doing anything wrong.

Tolkien knew his world worked, and the reader senses it. I very much doubt that the vast majority of LotR readers give a thought to the details of Middle-Earth’s economy. What concerns them is the pressing matter of the ring and the imminent destruction of all that is beautiful and fair in Middle Earth, not to mention Frodo’s own dire plight.

To date, the LotR books have sold more than 150 million copies. Game, set, and match to the author.

2 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers, Writing

2 responses to “The Invisible Economy of Middle Earth, and Why Readers Don’t Care

  1. I agree with your post’s approach, Dario. As a Tolkien afficionado, I read the world of Middle Earth as having an economy without needing it shown or told in detail – a given, implied etc. Inns seemed to exist – as did mushrooms. Pipeweed got to Isengard. Rare swords and armour implies smiths. And so on. Subtle suggestions were enough.

    • Hi Roland, and excuse my late reply — I somehow missed this.

      Yes, I think it’s implicit enough; also, MIddle Earth in that age is a land land pretty much in ruins and stagnant, a period like our own Dark Ages (I know, that’s not the PC name anymore, but we’ll have to live with that. LOL). Good point on the pipeweed in Isengard, I’d forgotten about that. So some trade is going on, and there are mentions I think of the corsairs raiding sea-trade. I don’t think that LotR in its current form could be published today, editors would insist on more detail and description of economy and trade. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded an appendix on it just out of sheer interest and my love for Tolkien’s world. But he didn’t think it worth going into, and that’s good enough for me.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Roland, always nice to see you here!

      — Dario

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