Over the years, among other things, I have jotted down some notes about interesting writing techniques that Tolkien uses – techniques that, imho, make him a Great Writer worth learning from. I thought it would be fun to share an example of one of these with you here.
One of these of these techniques is the way he approaches his descriptions. He specifically avoids similes and metaphors. Instead, he tries to put us inside the mind (or see from the outside in a similar way) the thing described, as if it were a living, feeling, thinking being like ourselves. Then he suits the language to that – no “clinical” modern words, and the colors are primary ones.
Recently, I ran across an example of another author trying to write the same sort of idea in a fantasy novel (David Weber, War Maid’s Choice – and he’s a pretty good author as authors go): “It was as if her nerves were connected directly to the trunks of the apple trees, as if she could feel them yearning towards fruit, tossing their branches like widespread fingers to the caress of the wind.”
Let’s break down where that goes wrong according to my idea of Tolkien. “It was as if her nerves were connected to the trunks” – no. For such a person, it would be “Her nerves felt the life of the apple tree.” Now we can see things from the point of view of that tree.
“[As] if she could feel them yearning toward fruit.” Excuse me? Yearning means horny. A fruit is the tree’s baby. Does anyone really feel that the physical process of bearing a baby makes a woman more horny? You may feel horny towards someone, apparently unrelated to having a baby, and underlying that is the desire to start the process of having a baby; but the physical process? No way, Jose. Make it about having a baby, and don’t say “as if”. “It swelled towards birth of tiny fruits with pain and love.” If you want to really be the tree, make it “It swelled towards birth of tiny fruits with loving, careful inward regard.” Now add the Tolkien touch: “It grew towards opening to the world small, deep green buds of golden morning fruit.” Morning in this case is standing for the fresh eyes of a newborn or young child. Golden is in the golden sunlight.
“tossing their branches like widespread fingers to the caress of the wind.” Tossing one’s hair is the way a person outside perceives it. Shaking one’s hair is the way the person doing it sees it. These aren’t branches or fingers to the tree, they’re hair; say so. Suddenly we switch our viewpoint to another, entirely different alive personification: the wind. Why? Stick with the tree. “Caress” – that’s the view of an outsider. What does the tree feel (or the wind)? A hug. Except that that isn’t the best description; it’s more like being fanned by someone inattentive. OK, this translates to “It felt the wind disarranging its branches with a cool breeze, a playfully fanning servant.” Tolkien touch: “It felt the keen wind ruffling its gray-green crown of branches, combing them to playful disarray.”
Now feel it. I am a tree. I lie at ease on my bed, and look at the tiny life growing in me, and imagine it bursting forth into the world, and being young and innocent and beautiful. And beside me, my silly husband is fanning me so that I feel cool in the warmth of early summer, and the breeze is making my hair become a nice casual mess. And it feels profoundly wonderful, as if I should save this moment in memory forever.
“It was as if her nerves were connected directly to the trunks of the apple trees, as if she could feel them yearning towards fruit, tossing their branches like widespread fingers to the caress of the wind."
"She felt the life of the apple tree. It grew towards opening to the world small, bright green buds of golden morning fruit; and it felt the keen wind ruffling its gray-green crown of branches, combing them to playful disarray, as it lay at ease in its bower of deep blue lilacs."
Up to you. Me, I prefer the Tolkien.