What is it that truly makes a good story? Is it the one that has the greatest word choice? The one with the most vibrant setting? Or maybe the one that makes the most profound point about gender equality in the modern world?
In reality, it’s much more simple than that. The good story only requires one aspect: it must entertain. We tell stories for all sorts of reasons, but the most pure, sacred purpose of a story is to convey our ideas and imaginings to others, causing them to feel emotion. We may read Tolkien because we want to learn more about his web of mythology and language, but we always read it because we are entertained and moved by the stories he tells.
If the best story is one that entertains, what is the most entertaining part of the story? Tolkien may have loved dearly the languages in his books, and his claims about the importance of the connection between language and mythology when creating fantasy are certainly valid. However, it is not the languages in Tolkien’s works that make them as wonderful and entertaining as they are. Certainly, language adds depth to his world, and becomes perfectly intertwined with the mythology of Middle-earth, but I fear that we as a class have become too monstrous of critics in our obsession over this aspect of Tolkien’s work. If Tolkien had simply published a book of Elvish languages, it is doubtless that it would be impressive. But would it have enraptured us and found its way into our hearts and minds?
The most entertaining and captivating part of any story is its plot, the journey that we take along with the characters. It is not possible to love a dictionary in the same way that we love a tale, no matter how deep the language goes. But what makes a good plot?
When a hero encounters a monster, our mind is instantly engaged. Though our attention may have lapsed a bit while reading the first part of “Of Túrin Turambar,” what with the seemingly endless list of who’s-related-to-who, this all changes when we with Túrin meet the fearsome dragon Glaurung. When Gollum leads Frodo and Sam into Shelob’s cave and we see the sticky webs lining the walls, our excitement peaks, and we’re filled with apprehension and fear. I still remember clear as day the moment when I entered Smaug’s keep with Bilbo when I first read through the Hobbit. I remember being held in rapture at Tolkien’s description of the giant scarlet worm resting on piles and piles of jewels. I remember the feeling of complete surprise and terror when Smaug awakens, and tells the hobbit that he can smell him. I remember being excited, afraid, and hooked all at the same time, my reading speed practically doubling as I desperately wanted to know what happened to poor Bilbo.
Of course, not every good work of literature has a dragon or giant spider for a hero to vanquish. Most genres outside of sci-fi and fantasy do not have a place for monsters within their worlds, and obviously, Pride and Prejudice is not a bad piece of literature because Mr. Darcy didn’t go off and fight Orcs. Yet though not every good work has physical monsters, there is not a single good work without figurative ones. In the Finnish epic poem Kalevala, it is easy to see how Tolkien may have been inspired to write “Of Túrin Turambar.” Túrin and Kullervo, the main protagonist of the Kalevala, both lie with their sisters unintentionally. They both are quick to anger and set out for battle, and they both ask their swords to take their lives for them. Yet there is no Glaurung in the Kalevala, nor are there fiends of any kind. We discussed in class how Beowulf’s monsters are possibly made less scary if we think of them as only metaphors, and not real monsters. This makes sense, as I know that I personally would be less frightened of the concept of greed than of an actual greedy dragon. In Kullervo’s story however, the opposite takes place: the fact that there are no monsters, but events and circumstances that become monstrous, is what makes the story captivating. Kullervo is wrestling with the orcs of stupidity and is tormented by the sirens of lust the entire story, however the author of the Kalevala does not hide these concepts, but shows how monstrous they can be on their own. This is how to create a good plot and story: if you can’t have real monsters to scare your readers, create emotions and concepts that are just as monstrous and real. Hiding these emotions behind the veil of a metaphorical monster, as the critics wrongly suggest the author of Beowulf was doing, effectively neuters both the monster and the emotions and concepts that it is supposed to represent.
Returning to our question of what makes a story good, some may argue that it is not just the plot and monsters, but all the elements combined that make a story good. This is true, at least partially. Even if they retained the exact same plot, “The Cat in the Hat” would not be as memorable and fantastic as it is if not for the language Dr. Seuss uses in it, and the plot of The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe taking place anywhere but Narnia would just feel wrong. However, if you take away the plot and monsters, the story becomes far more warped and malformed than if any other part of it had been replaced. The elements of a story, language, setting, characters, and all the others, are like the lesser rings, with plot being the One Ring to bind them all together. Though this is a sinister metaphor for such a wonderful concept, it fits well.
For a story to be good, it must entertain. For a story to entertain, it must have a good plot. And for a story to have a good plot, it must have monsters. These monsters must actual monsters for the hero to fight, or other concepts and emotions that act in the stead of monsters, but never the boring amalgamation metaphorical monster that represent emotions. Perhaps why Tolkien’s work grabs us with such a powerful emotional grip, entertaining and enchanting us, is because it features both forms of monster. Fëanor grapples with the conflict inside of him when deciding what to do with the Silmarils, and Gandalf grapples with the Balrog at Khazad-dûm. Tolkien’s monsters are real, and our minds and hearts are forever in their icy grip.