My heroes do not wear chain mail.

They are not, in most cases, even that physically fit. They are not always beautiful, socially well-adjusted, or friendly.

They are writers, authors, and poets, and while most of them have since shuffled off this mortal coil, there are a handful of living writers that I admire. Writers, to me, are like movie stars to some people. For me, I value imagination above all things, and there’s nothing more that I admire than having my eyes opened to a new world.

I’m not picky by nature, nor am I a critic. And that’s where this post gets difficult. Where, for quite a large contingent of individuals, the internet is a sounding board for their scathing reviews and puerile commentaries on everything from cheese straws to Cheney, I don’t view it as such. I don’t post reviews, I keep them to myself, save them for later, make mental notes. At least, that’s usually the routine.

Except, lately, I’ve had a problem.

I’ve been disappointed.

It started with Greg Keyes, a writer who I’ve often bubbled endlessly about, and cite as a major influence in my latest novel endeavor (both as a steampunk writer, and as an adherent to the multi-POV narrative). I was so excited to be able to finish his most recent series with The Born Queen, and literally couldn’t wait to get my eyes all over it (that’s… a better description, I think). And I blasted through it, absorbing, absorbing, reading, reading, waiting… waiting… I finished, and felt as if I’d missed something. It just didn’t resonate right. The characters had changed drastically since the first book, so much so that in some cases (like Stephen, my favorite) the semblance was nearly unrecognizable. It was as if the magic had just faded.

This feeling of disappointment also happened with Diana Gabaldon, whose books I blasted through until The Fiery Cross, which, cool name aside (and the fact that it takes place in my home state, albeit in the 18th century) I just couldn’t get through. She’d made some choices with her characters and plot that brought the narrative down to absolutely… boring.

That’s not even to mention Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finale. That deserves its own post altogether.

The worst, for me, is the most recent. I gave Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys to my husband two years ago and had been waiting, hoarding it since then. I knew, if all else failed, I’d have it. And… at first, it was fine. It was comfortable. I kept saying to myself, as I read, “It’s just so good to read Neil Gaiman’s book. I love Neil Gaiman. I love the simple style, love the ease of language, the playfulness.” But then my inner monologue started to switch. I said, “The two main female love interests are Rosie and Daisy? Really? That’s their names?” and then, “Gosh, Fat Charlie reminds me so much of Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere. Normal guy with normal job and normal apartment has Something Strange and Wonderful Happens… and Rosie’s an awful lot like Jessica, just not quite as selfish,” and then, “Well, surely something Exciting and Unpredictable is going to happen. Oh… no, I guess not. No, he ends up with her after all and… yeah, I guess…”

I don’t believe that every writer is perfect, nor capable of always hitting it out of the ballpark with no exceptions. Some of the greatest writers only had one or two good books, or one series, and that was it, that was all they ever did. As Tolkien famously said, “It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.”

I don’t like the feeling of disappointment, and I’m not sure what it says about me as a writer or as a reader. Heck, I get the same feeling reading my own chapters (you could have done that better, really!). And I don’t fault the authors. They’re writing their stories as best they can in the moment that they’re in. They’re human beings wielding a great power, the power of storytelling.

And sometimes, it doesn’t work right. Sometimes, the story your telling isn’t right to tell, or right for the person you’re sharing it with, or right at all.

I suppose the greatest of heroes are the imperfect ones because they’re so much closer to who we are.

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tolkien\'s sigThough I was writing novel-length creations (these lopsided, clunky, laborious writings are the literary equivalent of badly-wrought golems, I’d say) in my tween years, and had certainly admired writers like Lewis and L’Engle before, reading Tolkien just did something to me. For good or ill, I don’t know what it was. Some mysterious magic, no doubt, but one that, more than a decade later, I still can’t shake.

What happened exactly? Well, I recall being about thirteen or so, completely ostracized from the group of friends I’d once had, and was a painfully blossoming nerd. The glasses, the sweaters–I was a postergirl for early 90s fashion nightmares, and was growing a rather sulky personality to go with it. I had just finished a stint reading Stephen King, mostly The Stand twice through, and though I knew I liked fantasy as a genre, had no idea where to go.

It was my high school librarian who suggested LoTR. They didn’t have the first installment, but figuring it was like the Narnia series, I just picked up the Two Towers and ran.

First impressions:

  • I had no idea what an Aragorn was. With no context, he was all slinky and secretive. I figured, if he was hanging out with an elf and a dwarf, he must be something as equally impressive. I imagined him like a nicer version of Gollum, a being with large eyes and green skin who could see long distances and had a remarkable way with people. Boy was I surprised when I figured out he was… well, just a guy.
  • Merry and Pippin are the whole show! I didn’t get to the Frodo and Sam stuff for a while, but I was really intrigued by the terrible twosome. They were funny, friendly, and boy could they eat and drink. To this day, I simply adore Pippin, moreso than is really warranted. But, you know what they say about first impressions.
  • Kickin’ the Rankin-Bass. Unfortunately, prior to reading the series, I’d seen both Rankin Bass films–the adapted Hobbit and its Return of the King follow up (cringe). It had been about eight years though, so as far as plot and theme were concerned, there were no big spoilers. What took me forever to get rid of however, were the huge, sparkly, luminous eyes and terrible songs. For all the care that Tolkien put into the poetry of the series, I imagine hearing that warbling bard was enough to send him to his grave again.

It became an obsession for me very quickly, this hobbit series. It was all-encompassing. I had never read a book so voraciously before, nor had I ever loved characters as much. I remember reading RoTK, and one of the chapters describes Pippin being smooshed by a troll then “his eyes saw no more.” I of course, thought he was dead. I burst into tears. (Thankfully, being a fan of George R. R. Martin, I am now a little more hardened to this stuff).

Over the next few years, I absorbed everything Tolkien I could. I read all the books in the series, multiple times. I researched the genealogies. I joined a MUSH. Yes, I ultimately “met” the man I married five years later there, too (but that’s another post, I imagine). It makes sense. Michael was as in love with the hobbits and the Shire and Tolkien as I was. It’s really that. It’s love. It’s the highest sense of love you can have in the world… except it’s with a piece of art (I feel a Pygmalion reference coming).

There had never been anything–and there may never be–that impacted me on the level Tolkien did. This crotchety old man from England who really only wanted to frolic with trees and write a novel to put his own languages in, somehow changed my life entirely.

Years of internalization, and it eventually became apparent in my own writing. It’s not that I want to re-create Tolkien’s world; truly, in the years since I’ve learned to both love and critique his work and realize it’s not all perfect (there was a time that anyone who uttered such a word in my presence would have been called a blasphemer, but hey, we all grow up). What I want is simple: to tell a good story. I want my stories to move people even a modicum of the amount Tolkien moved me. I want to continue in the storytelling tradition and help people understand themselves better, even if it’s just through a fictional character.

How did Tolkien do it? I suspect is has something to do with the intimacy of writing, especially fantasy writing. Unlike fiction that takes place in this world, fantasy requires a huge amount of trust on the part of the reader. You are turning your imagination over to the writer and letting them describe things to you that you have never seen; they speak in languages un-uttered, of creatures uncreated. And, fickle as we are, we tend to cling still to the things we understand most: the people. In the end, Frodo’s decision to claim the ring for his own is the greatest heroic disappointment of all time, because, I think, it’s the same one we’d all make. He’s not better than we are, like so many gilded heroes. He’s as flawed as the rest.

All peripheral philosophy/religion/criticism aside, a great writer takes their readers on a journey; they show them danger, heartbreak, despair, joy–but always, always, they create a window into someone’s soul. That’s the deciding factor. That’s why people continue to pick up LoTR, or Shakespeare, or Updike, or any writer that maintains the ability to be relevant as times change. We often know characters in novels better than we ever will people in our real lives.

That’s quite astonishing, I think.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” – Gimli