So Close, Yet So Far
I will now put forth a premise that I shall seek to support:
You cannot love both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion in the same way.
I don’t mean to say that you cannot enjoy both – it is possible, and indeed I myself do enjoy both. I am saying you cannot love both in the same way and,
arguably (though I am less certain on this score), you likely cannot love them the same amount. The reason for this is narrative distance.
In The Hobbit, you are right there with Bilbo every step of the way. You learn his quirks, his thoughts, his every move. You are tired when he is tired, full when he is full, and so on and so forth. The narrative distance is small. Granted, Tolkien does maintain a certain distance from his character (the narrator often has little asides to the readers about this or that), but for the most part you are deep in there, in the trenches of Bilbo’s adventure. It begins and ends with him, and it is told in that way. Heck, the name of his memoir is There and Back Again. Indeed, one could argue that at least half the uproar against Peter Jackson’s…well, let’s just say indulgent adaptation is that so much of the story eclipsed Bilbo’s journey, his growth, and his triumph.
In The Silmarillion, things are different. This is not the story of an individual (though there are many important individuals to like). It is not the story of a single act or battle (there are numerous to choose from). The Silmarillion is a epochal tale, spanning a full Age of the Middle Earth (or two). The characters, though personified, are not people. You don’t know how Feanor likes to drink his tea. You don’t know what it was like for poor Galadrial to walk across Helcaraxe with the other Noldor when the world was young. Was she cold? Frightened? You have no idea. The story doesn’t tell you and, what’s more, doesn’t treat such details as important. The Silmarillion is a book of history and myth for a fictional world and, therefore, the individual is subsumed beneath the tides of peoples and ages. You are observing the world from an extreme narrative distance granting you unparalleled breadth and scope of narrative, but no intimacy. When Gothmog smites Feanor down, you couldn’t give a shit.
You’ve probably noted that I have a bias, here, but I’m trying not to. There is nothing wrong with a broad, mythic approach to storytelling. Many wonderful stories are told that way – The Iliad, much of the Old Testament, and many modern fantasy and science fiction novels, as well. It’s a totally different flavor, though, than the intimate tale. I contend that you can’t love them the same way, because they are fundamentally different things.
Recently, I read Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem and, following that, read Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. Both of these stories maintain a pretty healthy narrative distance between the reader and the characters. Even though Three-Body Problem runs a fairly close Third-Person Limited point of view, you don’t feel close to the characters. Your connections with them are mostly businesslike, with the exception of one character (one of the first ones you meet). Likewise, The Grace of Kings tells a sweeping saga of rebellions and empires and battles and politics, but only one character really captures your attention and, even then much of what he does is held at a distance from the reader. You do not live in Kuni Garu’s shoes. His struggles are not your struggles. You like the guy, sure, but you are only mildly disappointed at his setbacks and modestly gratified by his victories.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, personally speaking, such styles are not for me. I am in it for the character, ultimately, and the character alone. I can extend my concern to a group of characters, certainly, but there is only so close I can get to so many. One of the reasons why I am drifting away from George R.R. Martin these days is because there are so many POV characters in Westeros that I’m losing interest. Martin, to his great credit, has spent about five books having his cake and eating it too – telling a sweeping narrative of historical proportions while also keeping you emotionally connected to (most) of the protagonists. That, however, is a slippery tightrope, and he’s losing his footing for me. I don’t think I’m alone there.
My closest inspirations for my own fantasy work are the likes of Robert Jordan (who wound up having much the same problem as Martin is struggling with at the end), Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch. For them, character – the individual – is the key to the story. Tell as many generational tales as you like, but I want to be able to feel at home with the protagonist. I want to hear Kvothe sing, I want to trade dirty jokes with Locke and Jean, I want to get in arguments with Nynaeve and watch her tug her braid in frustration. If I can’t have that – if I can’t make a personal, intimate connection with the characters I’m supposed to be caring about – I’m not going to get invested in the story. I might enjoy the story, but I’m not going to love it the same way.
EDIT: Apparently WordPress ate the start of a paragraph. It has been replaced.