J.R.R. Tolkien was a notoriously difficult writer to get to print. That The Hobbit found its way to store shelves was something of a publishing miracle, and it took Tolkien 15 years to write part two, “the new Hobbit,” which we know of as The Lord of the Rings.
With shelves full of Middle Earth material and a global appetite for more, why was it so hard for Tolkien to hand completed manuscripts to publishers?
For one, the universe Tolkien was subcreating was expansive; really, the “world Bible” behind the Middle Earth legendarium was never complete. We have 15 or so books that supplement The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, representing two lifetimes of work–that of the Oxford Elf himself as well as that of his son, Christopher Tolkien. It will probably take a third lifetime before it all goes to the public, and by then it will be a lifetime of reading for the committed fan.
Creating a sufficiently sophisticated and well calibrated universe is a big task, granted. But it was far more than that for Tolkien. As one of my readers has pointed out, Tolkien was a fanatical perfectionist, looking for a kind of lyrical quality and worldview precision that few have been able to emulate. While C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams could dash off tight little books, you can sense that Tolkien was never satisfied with his work. An admirable quality, but frustrating for fans and publishers waiting for the next story.
Beyond complexity and perfectionism, Tolkien at times felt besieged by other factors. In “12 Reasons not to Write Lord of the Rings” I used a Tolkien letter to capture the various ways he tried to explain why his “new Hobbit” wasn’t even close to being complete. Based on the letters Tolkien writes at the outbreak of WWII, we see that: the timing of his mood was wrong; The Hobbit did not set up a sequel very well; most of what he wanted to say about hobbits was in the first Hobbit; his taste for hobbits and readers’ tastes didn’t seem to match; he, his wife, and one of his sons had been very ill for various periods; he was broke; his stories were becoming darker and more adult; and he was short on time because of work and family commitments.
It is a list that any writer will recognize as a crisis of heart for which each legitimate excuse represents an obstacle in a most necessary pathway. The excuses are all real, and yet Tolkien should have been moving forward anyway.
We know this because it is true of us too.
We have the books now, so what pushed Tolkien out of his LOTR entrenchment?
Let’s turn to another piligrm in Narnia for the answer. One of the blessings of Diana Pavlac Glyer’s work is that she calls the bluff on those who see Tolkien as this independent, solitary genius drawing together this huge world all by himself. Lewis himself had this idea:
“No-one ever influenced Tolkien–you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch” (letter to Charles Moorman, May 15, 1959).
In The Company They Keep, Glyer very carefully shows the intricate connections between Tolkien, Lewis, Williams and the other Inklings. They were collaborators, encouragers, critics, and editors in their mythopoeic work. It was at this critical juncture that Lewis offered support to Tolkien, helping the “new Hobbit” to transform into the The Lord of the Rings (see The Company They Keep, 103-107).*
In the cheekily titled Bandersnatch, Glyer presses in even further on the fellowship of the Inklings, linking it back to our own work as writers and world-builders. She is right, I think, about the power of Lewis and Tolkien’s support for and criticism of one another. As WWII would continue, so would all of Tolkien’s obstacles–including the fear of his sons at war in Europe. A review of the early chapters of the “new Hobbit” in 1938 wouldn’t be the last time that Lewis was an imaginative catalyst for Tolkien as he struggled to produce The Lord of the Rings.
This support was absolutely essential. But I want to suggest that a surprising, heretofore unknown factor contributed to Tolkien’s tipping point–and a factor not just shocking to us these decades later, lost as we are in the whir of our worlds’ engines. This factor would have been just as shocking to any of Tolkien’s hardworking colleagues in his own day.
On Jul 24, 1938 he was listing off excuses in an apologetic letter, stuck without hope on the 3rd chapter. By Aug 31, 1938–just 5 weeks later–Tolkien is well into chapter 7. 6 weeks later, on Oct 13, 1938, Tolkien has reached chapter 11 and is “thoroughly engrossed in it.” This despite the threat of exam grading, the necessities of home and teaching, illness upon illness, and the death of a friend.
Tolkien finally found his (famously furry) feet.
Not only is Tolkien working steadily in the summer and autumn of 1938, but he is enjoying it:
“I must say I think it is a good deal better in places and some ways than the predecessor….”
Beyond the friendship of Lewis, what was this factor that set Tolkien a wandering in epic lands again? The uncomfortable, subversive, counter-intuitive factor was this:
Tolkien took a few days off.
This is what Tolkien wrote as August 1938 came to a close:
In the last two or three days, after the benefit of idleness and open air, and the sanctioned neglect of duty, I have begun again on the sequel to the ‘Hobbit’ – The Lord of the Ring. It is now flowing along, and getting quite out of hand. It has reached about Chapter VII and progresses towards quite unforeseen goals. I must say I think it is a good deal better in places and some ways than the predecessor; but that does not say that I think it either more suitable or more adapted for its audience. For one thing it is, like my own children (who have the immediate serial rights), rather ‘older’. I can only say that Mr Lewis (my stout backer of the Times and T.L.S.) professes himself more than pleased. If the weather is wet in the next fortnight we may have got still further on.
That’s right. The secret ingredient to Tolkien’s turning point is rest. How often are our lives filled with noise, activity, movement, deadlines, illnesses, drives here and there, screens flashing in front of our eyes as phones buzz on the desks before us–lives so filled that there are no blank spaces, no lost moments? Long before phones and email and after school activities, Tolkien was pressed to the wall and brought to the point of exhaustion. Actually, he says,
I am not so much pressed, as oppressed (or depressed). Further troubles which I need not detail have occurred, and I collapsed (or bent) under them.
No wonder Tolkien couldn’t get his hobbits past Hobbiton. He couldn’t move his story from fairy tale to epic because all of his imaginative energy was dedicated to carrying his frame around from place to place, doing all the things a teacher-writer-academic-father-husband-church layman is supposed to do.
I hope you will forgive the clickbaitish title, but I think this point is far more shocking than most of the clickbait that tempts on our social media boundaries. We need rest in order for creativity to grow. We are an exhausted generation, and those of us who try to squeeze a few minutes a day aside to make beautiful things are not protected from the web of the world’s expectations.
I do not speak as one who has attained this silence and space and sabbath of the spirit. I have filled my life up too, and yearn for empty space, quiet hours, time with books and friends and family and a blank page in front of me. Yet the testimony of Tolkien shows us that he moved past his fear and indecision when he took a few minutes to breathe.
*Thanks to reader “Hannah” for the reminder of the reference to this lovely little section in Glyer’s work. My own copy of the book is marked up here. If you have Bandersnatch, see pp. 76-80 for something of this discussion.
And check out this lovely quote-photo with a pic by Lancia Smith and quote from the book. To see Smith’s work in photography and writer, check out her blog.