Click here for the previous post in this series: The Function of Fiction.
Patterns of Plot, Patterns of Life
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.
The old that is strong does not wither;
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
One way in which fiction influences our subconscious thinking is in its very structure, its plot. Different authors and different works have different plot styles and devices, sometimes woven carefully and consciously (The Quincunx), other times written on the fly with almost no forethought (Louis L’Amour). These patterns of plot can influence the way we, as readers, try to organize our own experiences — the way we make sense of our own stories. We come to expect our lives to unfold in the same way that our favorite fiction does.
There is no question that Tolkien has had an amazing effect on my life, perhaps more than any other single person, including my parents. I am a linguist today because of The Hobbit. The runes absolutely fascinated me. And then — The Lord of the Rings! Can you imagine the thrill that shot through me when I read the inscription on the One Ring:
Ash nazg durbatuluk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatuluk, agh burzum ishi krimpatul.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness, bind them.
…and I realized that ash must mean “one”, and nazg must mean “ring” — and suddenly the name Nazgul — “ring ghoul” — Ringwraith — made perfect sense! There was no turning back after that.
And then of course there’s this whole druidism thing. Of course, there are no druids per se in Tolkien’s mythology, but the atmosphere, the moral values (e.g. the reverence for trees), and the character of magic throughout the works are unmistakable. I didn’t realize I was a druid until twenty-odd years after I read the books, but they set me on the path.
I think it’s pretty common for works of fiction to have profound effects on peoples’ lives. Think of all the libertarians spawned by Ayn Rand, for example. But if you take a step back and think about it, it’s a strange thing. After all, fiction is just a pack of lies, right? And not just lies — lies that everyone knows are false. Tolkien wasn’t fooling anybody, or trying to. Objectively speaking, how could known falsehoods have any kind of influence on someone’s life?