Happy Birthday, Professor Tolkien

Everyone should have a mentor, a leader they look up to, someone who, when they are faced with a dilemma consider: What would XXX do? That person might be a religious leader, a youth leader, a teacher … or a professor.

A month ago, on another blog, I spoke of the loss I feel for Nelson Mandela and describe his influence at various times of my life. But I have another hero, not one who would, I am sure, compare himself to Madiba, but a man I think about all the time when writing. If I am faced with an issue in one of my books, I pause and try and imagine what a certain old Oxford professor would advise me to do.


The old professor is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and others. His books are legendary, his world-building stunning, and his ability to create languages simply mind-boggling.

But often what people forget is that Tolkien seemed, on the outside at least, to be anything but a fantasy writer. He was an academic, a somewhat stiff Englishman, a traditionalist, a Christian, and a war veteran. One fine summer day, he was rather bored marking term end papers when someone had inadvertently inserted a blank page.

Tolkien, without much thought, scribbled on the white paper the famous words: In a hole in the ground there lives a hobbit…


And he went on to change the world of epic fantasy forever. He should have realized what he was doing, for as he warned dear Frodo: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Today, J.R.R. Tolkien is, I believe, in a pub up there in heaven, celebrating with his illustrious friends from The Inklings  and raising a glass to celebrate his 122nd birthday.

In the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo celebrates his eleventy-first birthday, so it is only fitting to wish Tolkien a very happy twelvety-first birthday and to sing him Happy Birthday in elvish, the language he created, one word at a time. Thank you to Petri Tikka for this rendition!

So please, wherever you are, take a moment, pour yourself a glass of whatever does it for you and raise it to the following song:

Happy Birthday Professor – Oronnad meren allen! 


Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, The First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

Ever Been To The World I Invented?

How do you explain to someone how to write about a place that you made up? Or a race that has never existed? How to describe the unexplored or give directions to a destination that you have never been to?

Fantasy (and sci-fi) writers are in a unique position in the writing world. A friend of mine is writing a historical novel from the Vietnam War. It is from a time and place that she never experienced. Yet, thorough diligent research and patient interviews, she has built an authentic account of the jungles, the battles, and the actions of soldiers.

But I have to confess, and let’s just keep this between you and me; I have never met an elf, never yielded high magic or walked and breathed underwater (I tried the latter – it didn’t work). In Wycaan Master, one of my elves performed a particular feat. He will do it several times throughout the three novels and his teacher explains the rudiments to him. Nonetheless one of my dear friends from my writer’s group (not a fantasy writer) proclaimed: “elves can’t do that.” 

Our group boasts a number of very smart people, all of whom I am sure, thought what one asked. “Oh really? How many elves do you know?”

We laughed and decided that these were my elves and I could do what I want with them. It was amusing and yet, who sets the rules?

The obvious answer is that the market does, and the market is the reader. Buy a fantasy writer a couple of beers and s/he will admit that we all live in the shadow of the greats, with Tolkien being the greatest of them all.

In the pantheon upon which the great Ring Writer sits, are others held in great esteem. I am devouring Terry Brooks‘ Shannara series, and so I came across a book he wrote to explain his craft.

 The book is called: Sometimes The Magic Works – Lessons From A Writing Life. Brooks deals with such issues common to all who write fiction such as plot, characters, hook, dialogue etc., but he also spends time on more specialized aspects such as world creating, or even how it is different perhaps to hold the threads of a plot through a number of books or corresponding paths in a single book.

I read through Sometimes The Magic Works – Lessons From A Writing Life once, enjoying his autobiographical content as much as his craft teaching. I am going away soon for a week and plan to take the book and reread.

 I have two questions:

 1) What makes writing fantasy different from other genres in terms of craft and technique?

2) Are there other good books on writing that are specific to the fantasy genre?

Drop me a note on the blog or tweet any suggestions. I appreciate your help.

Good Writing and Reading,



Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first has reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).