Kenneth G. Bennett is the author of the new sci-fi thriller, EXODUS 2022 (Booktrope Publishing, 419pp.) as well as the young adult novels, THE GAIA WARS and BATTLE FOR CASCADIA. Kirkus Reviews recently said of EXODUS 2022: “Bennett, after a neat Dean Koontz-style curtain-raiser, keeps raising the stakes. Deft storytelling and a riptide of action.” A wilderness enthusiast who loves backpacking, skiing and kayaking, Ken enjoys science fiction, fantasy, action adventure stories, and novels that explore the relationship between humans and the wild. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and son and two hyperactive Australian Shepherds. Follow him on Twitter as @kennethgbennett.
I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on my family’s fishing boat in Alaska, at age 14 (surrounded by mountains that reminded me of the Misty Mountains) and have read the books many times since. I admired Tolkien’s writing then and I admire it now, as an adult.
Over the years I’ve come to believe that the esteemed professor possessed another storytelling talent as vital as his facility with language. A gift that informed all of his work. A subtle skill few writers master and one that makes LOTR the epic fantasy ‘to rule them all.’
I’m talking about the gift for knowing when to remain silent. When to hold back. When to let the story breathe and allow the reader to fill in the empty spaces.
Think about it. One of the reasons The Lord of the Rings has such a huge and devoted fan base is because Middle Earth feels so real. So familiar. Tolkien’s rich descriptions are partly responsible for this, but I’m convinced that the incompleteness of the tale is another reason.
There are ancient roads leading out of Bree. Who built them? We get hints. We hear rumors. But the stories (even with the appendices) are incomplete. We want to know more.
Who is Tom Bombadil and where did he come from? How old is he? Is he human, or something else?
And what are those things inhabiting the barrow downs? It’s says in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings that Frodo was trapped in the cairn of the last prince of Cardolan. But who was that? When did he live? What was Cardolan like? What happened to it?
Tolkien lays out these tantalizing threads, these stories within the larger epic, and the reader is sucked in, wanting to linger and look around. To ponder and try to understand. Middle Earth feels so real precisely because (as with the real Earth) its history is so murky and untidy and unknowable.
At first blush it might seem like it would be easy for a storyteller to pull this off. All you have to do is dream up a fantasy world, populate it, and leave a bunch of stuff out. Done. Easy as that, right?
Wrong. The Lord of the Rings has such weight, depth and power (I think) because Tolkien fully inhabited Middle Earth and wanted to understand it as earnestly and eagerly as his readers. My guess is that when it was time for him to write (after teaching all day at Oxford, grading papers and spending time with his wife and kids) he essentially stepped through a door in his study, left our world behind and entered Middle Earth. He was there. He saw it. He touched the rocks and drank the water and breathed the air, and he did his dead-level best to record what he saw and report back. He did a fantastic job but, in the end, Middle Earth was just too big and he was just one man. He couldn’t capture it all. There’s so much he (like his readers) wanted to know but never could.
The gift I talked about earlier-Tolkien’s talent for knowing when to remain silent and when to hold back-was born of humility. Of awe. Of the realization, when he finally set down his pen, that he’d created something larger than himself. Something with a life of its own.
I believe the same thing happened with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which remained on the Billboard charts for 741 weeks, (that’s 14 years) after its release in 1973 and sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.
In a documentary about the legendary album, band members and sound engineer Alan Parsons talk about how immersed they all became in the process of creating the work and how they didn’t really grasp what they’d done until they’d completely finished. I sensed in watching the interviews the same sort of humility and wonderment on the part of the band members that I get from articles about Professor Tolkien. Dark Side of the Moon was a labor of love. A vast and sprawling work that David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright approached with humility and that took on a life of its own and became larger than all of them-something greater than anything the band had intended or imagined and therefore infused with a mystery, depth, and darkness of its own. Call it genius, or magic, or whatever you like but the honesty, humility and pure, raw love underlying works like LOTR and Dark Side of the Moon are, in my view, what set them apart from the merely great. It’s a sincerity that fans feel and clamor to-precisely because it is so rare.