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.

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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…

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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! 

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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+

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A Private Letter to George R.R. Martin

Dear Mr. Martin,

Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan. I have just finished Book 4 and, if that isn’t proof enough, I am preparing to read Book 5. I have sung your praises on my humble elfwriter blog and keep your photo under my pillow (I don’t – but I wanted to make sure I still had your attention).

It’s like this, sir. One day I want to be a bestselling epic fantasy author like you. My third book comes out in the fall and I have probably sold as many books as you’ve killed noble characters (actually I might be being a bit optimistic there).

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I spend a lot of time hanging out with other writers: online and (I know this is rare) actually in person. Everyone tells me to “observe the rules,” “don’t break the conventions,” and, my favorite, “Tolkien was one-of-a-kind. You wouldn’t get away with that.”

But you, sir, have broken the rules. You have tippexed (anyone?) over the conventions. One friend suggested that you only get away with it because you are already famous, already have a huge following, and probably don’t care anymore what anyone outside of the Seven Kingdoms thinks.

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So here is my list of 10 things you have done wrong:

1. Your books are too long. I keep getting told that 90K is way beyond the commitment that most readers are willing to invest today. But then why do I enjoy them (and Christopher Paolini, and J.K Rowling, and some unknown ancient language, Oxford professor) and feel a sense of loss when they are finished? 

2. Your books are too slow. People want action, action, action. Instant gratification …debate in 140 characters or less. Have a car chase or blow up a bridge – well, you get my point.

3. Your books are too detailed. You mean I need to think? Concentrate? Invest? I hear you keep flow charts in your office – can we peek? How about a deal with Cliff Notes or an app that you can enter a character, your book and page number and get an update. Dude – I totally expect a commission on the app idea.

4. Your characters are too flawed (especially the good ones). If I’m not seeing Ryan Gosling or Kristen Stewart then it simply won’t do. If I want real people, I would put my book down and hit the pub.

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5. Your characters are too dead. I actually wrote a blog post about this (I Need A Hero), keeping the book and you anonymous so as not to spoil it. Guess what? Everyone knew who I was talking about.

6. You drop some characters for hundreds of pages – are you tempting me to skip pages, sir? Just so as not to spoil this for any readers on Books 1-4, you know what I mean when I connect this to Book 4//5.

7. You miss out key scenes – battles in particular – and subtly let us know they have happened. I know it is incredibly difficult to write battles and only the best can pull it off, but well sir, you are one of the best.

8. You have too many minor characters. I hope you are keeping track of them because, to be honest, I am developing a habit of scratching my head whenever someone resurfaces 1-2,000 pages later.

9. You care more for the old gods and the new than the critics.

10. Your books are too addictive. I can’t stop…

You broke all the rules, sir. Congratulations! Now where is my copy of Book Five?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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