I’m two-thirds of the way through The Two Towers, where the point-of-view swings back to Tolkien’s unlikely hobbit-hero Frodo and his faithful sidekick Sam, several days into some seriously uninviting territory. There’s a lot of rather foreboding and on occasion actively hostile landscape in this book. To date, my favorite is the malignant forest that rearranges its collective roots to make travelers lose their way. The minions of evil, the faceless Black Riders, have put in cameo appearances but more often they’re told. Thus far, the real Big Bads are safely off-stage.
Nobody gives Tolkien the chops he deserves as a suspense writer. I know how it turns out (having been strong-armed into seeing the movies) but that doesn’t matter; the setting and the hints are keeping me on edge. As is well known, the Nameless Horrors in the Back of the Fridge are way scarier than the expired pickles with the fuzz on them but the label on the jar still intact. (H. P. Lovecraft didn’t write about expired foodstuffs, but he could have. And by the way, mycologically speaking, it’s not the shapeless veggies themselves but the grainy black fungus on them that’s worrying … )
Writing evil is a tricky business. The medieval theologians were right on this one; it’s pure sucking void walking around tits out, but that’s a rather difficult thing to draw. We know it when we see it (or hear it), and these days it’s wearing a crisp suit or hipster drag or the electronic carnival-mask of the internets. It loves cliches, and the dialogue is usually more Dilbert than Dante. Most real-life villains conspicuously lack personality. Zoom in on historical Big Bads, like Hitler & co, and you discover a bunch of tedious yahoos in tacky suits boring the hell out of their dinner guests with racist screeds and anecdotes about their dog.
And large-scale evil, the smash-and-grab, fire-and-sword kind, imperial genocide with a side order of cultural obliteration, is organized and energetic laziness. Co-operation takes some brains and effort. Zonk ‘em on the head and take their stuff? That’s easy.
When I think about the Seven Deadly Sins these days, Sloth is the one out front with the screaming electric guitar. The rest of them are backup singers.
So J. R. R. Tolkien is one smart writer, because I have the suspicion that if Sauron got serious screen time, he’d be boring us with Evil Wizard anecdotes.