The Martian and Tolkien

The Martian got me thinking about Tolkien (and not just because of the Council of Elrond reference, although I loved that bit). On a basic level, The Martian is about the same thing that The Lord of the Rings is about. No, Mark Watney doesn’t have to destroy a magic ring and Frodo and Sam weren’t planting potatoes in Mordor, but the question that both works keep coming back to is the same: how do you make good decisions when you don’t have the information you need?


I was thinking about The Lord of the Rings recently after listening in on a conversation between a couple of fantasy geeks about why they don’t like Tolkien. Their complaints were that Tolkien’s writing moves slowly, people talk about things instead of doing them, and most of the action doesn’t even happen on the page. These are all perfectly valid points, and if you prefer action to talking, they are good reasons to read something else. We all like the things we like and there’s no right or wrong about it. What struck me, though, was that the things they didn’t like about Tolkien are precisely the things I love.

There is a rich vein of fantasy literature all about heroes who charge boldly into the thick of battle and remake the world by sheer force of their will. Tolkien’s heroes are not of this kind. For him, what makes a hero is slowing down, thinking carefully, and making the best decision you can, even when you can’t be sure your choice is the right one.

My favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is the Council of Elrond. I know that I am in a minority in this and that even many people who love Tolkien find the whole chapter tedious. I understand the objections, but I can’t help loving the fact that dealing with the ring is something the heroes have to puzzle over and work out. Some fantasy writers would just slip in a helpful ancient prophecy or have Elrond drop a little exposition on the party and get the Fellowship on the road as soon as possible. (Peter Jackson, working within the constraints of film, understandably comes pretty close to this.) But Tolkien lets them take their time, piecing together scraps of information that are all fragmentary and biased. What they end up with is not a perfect answer but the best they can do with what they have. The courage of Tolkien’s heroes is less about facing the danger of Sauron and more about facing the fact that the best decision they can make might still be wrong.

And that’s what I love about The Martian. Mark Watney is a Tolkienian hero. He has to make the best decisions he can even when he can’t be certain what NASA is doing a planet away, or if anyone even knows he’s still alive. He survives not by strength or force of will but by slowing down, thinking things through, and facing the inescapable uncertainties of his predicament. He does the best he can with what he has. Or, as he puts it: sciencing the shit out of things.

I could use a few more heroes like this. We have enough heroes who swing swords, shoot guns, drive cars, and punch things. Let’s have more heroes who plant potatoes. Sam Gamgee would approve.


Images: The Martian via Sam Gamgee via

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.