When writing, you need to keep in mind the purpose of your writing and the culture you’re working in. When offering criticism, you need to do the same thing.
There’s always something compelling about relatively insignificant, singly-layered stories without any layers of intrigue or social networks muddying up their message and events. Basic tales and simple stories are easy to make and tell and their lack of complexity doesn’t necessarily make them stupid. Similarly, adding hundreds of perspectives and social concerns to a story doesn’t necessarily increase the quality.
Take, for example, the journey Frodo and Sam make in Lord of the Rings. Gollum is a source of tension, but one that can naturally last the entire journey, in addition to environmental dangers and spies. Many have expressed dissatisfaction with the hobbit chapters in Two Towers and Return of the King; I enjoyed them immensely in my youth. They were a welcome respite from chapter after chapter of various tribes of men constantly anticipating war and making small tactical movements that all ultimately amounted to ‘the heroes won and a huge number of people died.’ That’s all it meant for the story, so that’s all that needed to be considered.
I’m saying, plot-wise, the war of Middle-Earth was only marginally important compared to the destruction of the ring, which was the story’s main focus. The war had more plot points, but less thematic and emotional significance, while the hobbit chapters were the exact opposite, dealing with most of the series’ principle themes – loyalty, small acts of goodness countering large evils, persistence against impossible odds and so on. Just like Frodo and Sam themselves, the hobbit chapters do most of the legwork here.
A ‘friendly critic’ of Tolkien’s saga, George R. R. Martin criticised the portrayal of power in Middle-Earth in an interview, asking ‘What was Aragorn’s tax policy?’ and whether or not the new king of Middle-Earth enacted an Orc genocide after the defeat of Sauron, along with a bevy of other ‘realistic’ questions.
Mr Martin, allow me to answer your question with a little-known Greek phrase. The phrase is ‘Κάτι τρέχει στα γύφτικα.’
Who gives a shit?
Lord of the Rings is not supposed to accomplish the same thing as A Song of Ice and Fire. It may contain the large, sweeping, grandiose elements that would go on to retrospectively characterise Tolkien’s work, but to ask of Aragorn whether he supports tax cuts for the rich or whether he would shut down Hobbitleaks or build a big beautiful wall to keep the orcs out of Middle-Earth is quite stupid.
Martin is demonstrating a huge misunderstanding of Tolkien’s story, which is an intensely personal journey. Gandalf says it himself – it isn’t the large moments that matter, the huge battles, but the hundreds of small things done by little people that stave off evil. What he didn’t say, but implied, was that the culture of Middle-Earth was more important than the politics: that the fact that Sam returned home and Frodo left Middle-Earth was vastly more important than the fact that Aragorn had to tax his people or perhaps kill a few traitors to the realm offscreen. Those kinds of details simply don’t matter in the context of what Tolkien was actually writing, so he didn’t include them. Because unlike Martin, he understood how to leave information out. Personal stories will perpetually resonate with us more than political allegories, particularly if they’re written with at least an attempt at brevity.
That said, Martin does make a salient point: the Tolkien model did inspire hundreds of dull clones which used the same binary opposition template with none of the originality, impressiveness, or grandeur. But that’s not a problem with Tolkien, that’s just the culture.
Unlike Martin, Tolkien understood that the point of telling a story wasn’t to simulate history. To a certain extent that’s pointless; ultra-realistic fantasy that isn’t entertaining but has a well-fleshed out world is a complete waste of time, because you might as well just read a book about actual history instead. We read fantasy for certain reasons, and historical understanding is rarely one of them. Rather, people are looking for entertainment or poignancy. Personally, I find A Song of Ice and Fire contains neither in any great quantity, and you’re better off reading Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast.
Of course, I’m not disparaging the idea of complex narratives. That would be ridiculous. In many cases, the overarching events in a novel can easily override the micro-plot experienced by one or two principle characters.
Take The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. There’s something altogether rushed about Juliana’s simple chapters, as though Dick just wants to brush aside the titular plotline. Much more interesting are the diplomatic adventures of Mr Baynes and the antiques dealer Robert Childan, and the struggle of machinist-turned-revolutionary-turned-noncommittal Frank Frink.
Perhaps science-fiction is the only genre that’s really good for proper world-building, if only because one of the stated purposes/conventions of the genre is to predict the state of the world in the future. It’s a classic case of form involving essence: the conventions of the art form direct the content in a way that makes them inseparable, and when elements of the content are transposed to other genres or mediums, say, fantasy, they don’t work quite as well because fantasy serves a different function. I’ve written about this numerous times by now, and here’s another example to add to the list.
A problem aspiring writers face is understanding that what they want to create is affected an unbelievable amount by the culture that created it and them; that they’re grappling with a form and process incredibly pervasive in human culture and effectively arbitrary. Look at what’s happened to Tolkien here; he wrote a personal story that emphasised the little actions in life, and now fifty years later Martin is criticising him for his lack of realism and far-reaching political acumen; retroactively applying a framework that couldn’t ever have applied to him, because he accidentally invented it. The culture took what Tolkien made and ran with it; was that his fault? Of course not.