Back to that guidance for topic selection that I find so helpful. I’ve decided that patterns are best used as supporting evidence, not topics.  Now, let’s look at what we can do with problems.  The Writing Center says you’ve got a problem if,

A character might act in some way that’s unaccountable, a narrator may leave out what we think is important information (or may focus on something that seems trivial), or a narrator or character may offer an explanation that doesn’t seem to make sense to us.

Problems are potentially much more fruitful for scientists. Noticing a problem and solving it is our default modus operandi.  As the old saying goes, “Engineers like to solve problems.  If no problems are available, they will create some to solve.” This is our comfort zone.

Good problems come from looking “along the story”, not looking “at the story”. I’m not interested in questions like, “where are Elrond’s farms?”  JRRT didn’t need them in the story, so they’re not in it.  Here are some problems I can see in LotR:

  1. Gandalf gives a very persuasive speech against the death penalty to Frodo, but then encourages everyone to go to a war that will bring death to thousands. What’s the difference? I think of choices in terms of costs and benefits. What is JRRT encouraging me to put on the two sides of the ledger?
  2. Technology seems to go the wrong way. The Shire seems to be mid 18th-century; Rohan early medieval; Gondor high medieval. The more populous the cities, the fewer signs of invention. That’s exactly backwards from the whole history of the real world. (Irrelevant tangent:  Did Merry make his fortune after the war selling horse-collars to the Rohirrim?) Is this the standard failure of Romanticism, of the kind that makes me prefer the Baroque? Or did JRRT have some larger purpose in mind?
  3. Gandalf is usually really smart, but he tells Saruman that breaking light with a prism is somehow destructive. Worse, JRRT has him imply that writing words on white paper means you’ve “left the path of wisdom.” Which is, to say the least, an odd opinion for a writer to promulgate. What’s wrong with Gandalf here? Isn’t he supposed to be the wisest of the Maiar?

I think I really like that last one.