Resource: Organizing a Long Project

I am posting this here for anyone who would like to see how I go about writing long nonfiction. This is an outline I wrote back in November to organize my Tolkien series at Part Time Monster. If you are interested in the series itself, this post will catch you up. If you look at the pieces I’ve written so far for it, you can find the starting points for them in the outline.

The series is basically a long bibliographic essay with lots of sections, translated into the blog format and written to appeal to fans of Tolkien’s books. I don’t know how long it will take me to finish it, but I expect it to be about the length of a master’s thesis when it’s done. Most of it will be sourced to page numbers in the primary texts. You can think of each individual post in the series as a subheading.

I’ve cleaned it up just a little for the blog. I’ve left it mostly in rough form, though. It’s more valuable to look at the working draft than a polished version. The whole point of a document like this is to do as little work on it as possible, and move to actually writing the piece as soon as you have plan laid out.

The original draft included two more end notes which were so long I turned them into posts. Those are up at Part Time Monster and Sourcerer today. It probably took me a couple of hours to write this and get all the pieces into the correct order, but I’d been thinking about this project off and on for a couple of years before I sat down to write it. When I finally made the decision, I spent 4 or 5 hours revisiting various sources, then did the outline. I find it interesting that I am talking about this stuff as “papers” even though I know I’m planning a very long series of blog posts. Training, I suppose. I did not notice it at the time.

Tolkien Essay

Three parts: 1. Critical discussion of “Power” essay from 1975. 2. Use their idea to analyze the text of LOTR. 3. Discussion of adaptation to film, focus on changes in characters’ values and relationships.

Basic Analytical Method

  1. The Ring of Power is a character.
  2. Encounters with the Ring tell us things about the characters and about the “natural” morality of the universe.
  3. “Natural” to Middle Earth means enforced by supernatural agents. In my opinion there is also a more subltle element at work. The endings of many of the characters in the LOTR go well beyond poetic justice; the natural order itself rewards and punishes based on choices characters make. I could probably write an entirely different paper on “Notions of choice among supernatual agents in LOTR,” or some such.

Break the characters into categories

Ancient, ambivalent to the fate of the ring. Mostly unaffected by its powers, and not subject to temptation because they do not see its value. Includes Bombadil, Ungoliant, could include Ents by analyzing their general attitude toward other “speaking races” and the war itself.

Virtual Immortals

Includes Galadriel, Elrond, The Wizards (ample evidence to read these as Maiar in physical bodies; see – The words of Gandalf himself, and the general reverence shown to him by the Elves. The Numenor episode of Sauron’s career and the marriage of Thingol and Melian at least prove the possibility. Gandalf’s manipulation of divine magic and his progressively archangel-ish behavior as the story progresses also support this reading). Can discuss Saruman here because his desire for the ring informs his behavior enough to read his bid for power and the end of his career as a long, slow-developing encounter with the ring).

The Ring as a Character

The ring is more than a macguffin or a clever piece of applied phlebotinum.

It is not merely an object, nor is it a simple appendage of Sauron. It has an independent ego, a will of its own, and the ability to communicate empathically. It is adept at coercion and seduction. It wants to get back to its creator, and it attempts to manipulate everyone it encounters to that end. It delights in betrayal (Isildur, Gollum) and in inciting conflict (Smeagol/Deagol, Frodo/Sam, Bilbo/Gandalf, Boromir/Frodo). The implication of the story is that no one aside from Sauron is psychologically or metaphysically strong enough to avoid being utterly corrupted by it.

Sam, Boromir, Faramir, (can also read Denethor’s life from the moment he sends Boromir to Rivendell as an extended encounter with the ring). Can discuss Aragorn, Merry and Pippin here, but they are really peripheral compared to the first 4.

Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo. I don’t put Sam here because he didn’t carry it long, and he lived a very long but otherwise natural mortal life when it was all over; it makes more sense to read him as a mortal who made the “right” choices.

Analyze:  What is their first reaction to the ring? How does it shape their decisions, behavior, and relationships from that point on? How are they “rewarded” by the structure of the narrative (i.e.: happy ending with a long life? Allowed to return to the West? Die, fittingly or unfittingly? What are they doing/thinking in the scenes where they die?

Most of the analytical discussion will focus on the mortals; the others are included as bases of comparison and would require papers of their own to really analyze.


Fellowship (FR); The Two Towers (T); Return of the King (R); Silmarillion (S).

End Note

1. “Natural/unnatural,” “right/wrong, etc.”
Middle Earth exists in a universe with a very well-defined natural/supernatural order. When I use this sort of normative language, I am talking about what this order defines as “natural” and “right.” I typically only use the quotes on the first reference, because they really clutter up a manuscript.

– eventually, I will add just enough links that people who aren’t familiar with Tolkien or composition terms can understand it. It will go on my resources page one day.