Tolkien was a terrible writer, but his talent and dedication to world-building made up for it.
50 years after J.R.R. Tolkien died, his books are still some of the most well-known and well-loved works of fiction ever created. Even if you hate fantasy, you’ve still at least heard of The Lord of the Rings, you’ve probably seen a meme or two online from the Peter Jackson movies, and you’ve likely scrolled past The Rings of Power while browsing Amazon Prime. But, if we’re being honest, Tolkien really wasn’t that great of a writer—so how did his books become so famous that almost every person on the planet is at least somewhat familiar with them?
The Lord of the Rings is the second most popular fantasy book series of all time (in terms of book sales), following behind JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. And while faults can be found in both authors’ writing, many critics find Tolkien’s books to be long-winded with unbearably long descriptions, filled with unimportant side quests that take away from the main storyline, and to be more about the world he’s building than the characters the reader is following. All of this makes for the books to be extremely hard to read and stay focused on, which is why many consider him to be a terrible writer.
So, how did someone whose books are so hard to read that even some of the most devoted Lord of the Rings movie fans will pass them up become one of the world’s most famous writers? It’s because it isn’t about what Tolkien sucks at but what he can do better than anyone else. The Lord of the Rings books might be rambly and hard to read, but the world of Middle Earth is so captivating that most readers don’t care.
Tolkien broke pretty much every rule needed for a well-structured book. Many scenes and chapters can be cut out without any change to the story (like how Jackson cut the entire sequence with Tom Bombadil in Fellowship). But Tolkien made up for his side quests and disorganized plot points with a world so well developed that readers could almost be convinced that Middle Earth was actually part of our ancient history.
Tolkien spent hundreds of hours building out the world of Middle Earth before ever putting pen to paper to write The Hobbit or The Fellowship of the Ring. He drew the maps of the land, created the lore of the people, and developed all the languages spoken by the creatures in his books before sitting down to think up what kind of story he was going to tell. To Tolkien, the writing wasn’t as important as having a strong foundational world to explore.
It’s because of Tolkien’s devotion to the world-building of his books that they became so famous, despite the fact that the writing itself really isn’t that good, at least when compared with popular fiction. But, despite being a terrible writer, Tolkien was a master storyteller, and it’s the story of not only Bilbo and Frodo but of all the characters in Middle Earth that have managed to captivate readers and moviegoers alike for generations.