The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings

lord of the rings tolkien folioJ.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.

The Hobbit Shire Map TolkienBeyond 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).

Diana Pavlac Glyer-The_Company_They_KeepIn 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.

Carpenter Tolkien LettersOn 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.

Bandersnatch Lewis Tolkien Diana Pavlac GlyerThat’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.


“The Inklings Gathering,” frontpiece to ch. 8 of Bandersnatch; all of the illustrations in this book were by James A. Owen

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.

*GD1v1-Collaborate-to-Thrivev2-1Thanks 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.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in Fictional Worlds, On Writing, Original Research, Thoughtful Essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings

  1. godsbooklover says:

    Oh how this resonates with me today! You are fully forgiven for your click-baiting title!


  2. Charles Huttar says:

    Could you please identify the last picture in your text proper (i.e., the one a few lines above the “lovely quote-photo”? Thanks.


    • Thanks Charles, and sorry this is late. I have added the title–there isn’t a page number, but I hope this helps. One of the creative things about “Bandersnatch” is that there is an illustrator who has helped shaped the visual experience of the book.


  3. Charles Huttar says:

    Readers of Diana Glyer’s “The Company They Keep” could easily form the impression that Lewis was simply mistaken in telling Moorman in 1959 that Tolkien was uninfluenceable, or else that Lewis was deliberately distorting the truth. I suppose a more palatable explanation would be that he was indulging in hyperbole. I’m curious to know what others think.


    • ChrisC says:

      I’m willing to believe there were/are moments in Lewis’s writing where he is withholding information.

      For instance, in “Planet Narnia”, Michael Ward essentially outs Lewis as a closet Berkeleyan Idealist (see Ward, pg. 35, hardcover ed.). Of course, this is something no one realizes when they read “Mere Christianity” or “Miracles”. However, in this case it is fairly easy to see why Lewis would keep his philosophic underpinnings to himself. Can you imagine how many varieties of crackpot he might have been labeled if he’d been upfront about his the entirety of his beliefs?

      Instead, by presenting his Idealism in a straightforward scholastic form without ever once using either Berkeley’s name, or that of his philosophy, he is able to demolish “Nature” as a self-existent fact.

      In the case of the Moorman letter, I think Lewis is again covering his tracks. Though perhaps this time he feels justified by the fact that it was Tolkien who did all the heavy lifting. He was just the one who offered necessary support and encouragement (and maybe a little staunch upbraiding for those moments when Tolkien’s nerve seemed about to fail). ,

      Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      That interesting reminiscence by Eric Stanley, “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as I knew them (never well)”, in Journal of Inklings Studies 4,1 (April 2014) pops into my mind – about Lewis’s chariness about source-criticism, and so on. Perhaps he was, in part, both trying to be candidly helpful to Charles Moorman in various particular ways, but also, more discreetly and obliquely, by steering him away from too avidly (and easily?) making connections. It is interesting to compare Warnie’s response – for what it is worth – to the finished book, in his published diary extracts for 5 January 1967, which he summarizes at the start by saying, “It is not a stupid book, nor a dull one, but I think a silly one.”

      Again, as ChrisC suggests, a big part of it might be trying to be succinctly merely accurate, to his experience with Tolkien, in Inklings session context and otherwise. That is, Lewis acknowledges various of his debts to MacDonald (and Barfield and Tolkien) quite openly, and probably would have acknowledged debts to Williams as candidly. Tolkien tells Anne Barrett (Letter 259), “I was in fact a sort of assistant mid-wife at the birth of [Williams’s] All Hallows’ Eve, read aloud to us as it was composed, but the very great changes made in it were I think mainly due to C.S.L.” And one can see great changes in following the composition history of that novel from other sources, and this is probably merely an accurate account on Tolkien’s part. But perhaps there was not (n the eyes of Lewis) any analogous level and sort of interaction with Tolkien, on anyone’s part.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ChrisC says:

        The question of tracing sources among the Inklings is one I’m less open and shut.

        It is true that Tolkien tries dissuade readers from tacking down sources in stories. However, not long after making that statement in “Fairy Stories” he cites the work of historian Christopher Dawson in as a proof of his arguments.

        Maybe I’m reading things wrong, but it looks as if sometimes not just Tolkien, but also Lewis will claim to be skeptics with sources, and then they will contradict their own statements by turning to scholarly works that provide source tracking. To give another example of this, witness Lewis’s quoting and citation of Arthur O. Lovejoy and E.H. Gombrich in “The Discarded Image”.

        Let me give another illustration of what I mean by taking stock of the rare moments when the Inklings collaborated with other members of the group. The case I’ll take is Roger Lancelyn Green.

        Green was an author and scholar of both children’s books and their writers. What makes Green worth looking into is that (a.) his works bear the influence of the Inklings thought regarding Mythopoeia and (b) there are occasions when Green acknowledges the help one of the two main members has helped him both compile sources and shape his general argument.

        The book in which this occurs is in Green’s biography of “Andrew Lang”. This is the only sole biography that I know of regarding this figure who’s always been in the background of Tolkien’s writing. What makes it more remarkable is this passage from the Preface:

        “The nucleus upon which this book is founded was a Dissertation on Lang’s imaginative writings submitted a few years ago for the Degree of Bachelor of Letters at Oxford; and my gratitude to Professor D. Nichol Smith and Professor “J.R.R. Tolkien” for their unfailing guidance and encouragement leaves me with a debt that can never adequately be repaid (Green, x).”

        What we have here seems to be not only Green divulging one of Tolkien’s sources, but also with Tolkien’s help and encouragement. As such, this leaves open the possibility that Green’s “Andrew Lang”: may be a good source for clarifying the Inkling’s thoughts re: Mythopoeia. In particular, Green gives a good overview of Lang’s “Myth, Ritual, and Religion”.

        To give one last example. In his book of the history of Rudyard Kipling’s literary reception among critics and artists, Green states the following regarding the use of sources for criticism:

        “But there is a danger here too. Any serious student or reader must read and study all Kipling’s stories and all his poems and verses to choose the best – and should do so before reading any criticism or listening to anyone else’s views on which these are. Even anthologies…should be used only with read only as introductions – if introduction is deemed necessary (Green, Rudyard Kipling, 8).”

        It seems like they don’t necessarily discount the use of sources, but all three seemed determined that the audience make up its own mind as to the value of the story first.

        I don’t know how others may take this, however I find the existence of books like these to be of immense value, and perhaps should be tracked down by anyone who would try to gain a deeper understanding of the thought of both Lewis and Tolkien.

        As for Moorman’s book, I found it helpful for the very same reasons as those just stated above.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for this intelligent discussion folks. I have been sort of overwhelmed by work and am a bit behind! But I didn’t want to let these slip by.
          In a chapter in the upcoming Higgins, ed., Inklings and King Arthur, I tried to begin the road of a Lewisian theory of intertextuality. Glyer’s work gets us partway, and Lewis’ own conscious thought about it gets us partway from a different angle. What I argue, essentially, is that Lewis treats writing like he is at a medieval round table feast. Granted, he is the one writing things down–he is the knight that has stood to defend the lady on behalf of the king, or, better, to chase the literary white stag–but he does so as part of the table itself. As he writes, he is writing with all the other writers at the table, so that his work is his own and yet not his own.
          He likens it to a number of metaphors: a painting apprentice who continues the layers on the master’s work, an echo, the trailing of an ivy up the arbour, and an architect adding on to a cathedral by using the stones of the previous building and keeping much of the original architecture while creating a contemporary addition.
          I think Lewis viewed himself as intentionally entwined with others in the writing process. That’s why he throws Numenor (spelled wrongly) in That Hideous Strength, and Charles Williams and Barfield are there too. If you read Pilgrim’s Regress, you see it all over–and it follows the narrative timing of Morris’ Well at the World’s End. I don’t know how many authors are mentioned or alluded to in Great Divorce, Screwtape, and TIll We Have Faces, but it is not a few. George MacDonald is part of everything Lewis ever wrote, and his apologetics is a reworking of Chesterton.
          Sorry for the long response–and my answer only gets us partway there too. I have set aside time to write a book on this in 2021-2, but we’ll see.
          And none of this helps Tolkien. I think he is less self-critical of source-use than Lewis, and views himself more as an original author. But I might be overly influenced here by Humphrey Carpenter’s shaping of Tolkien.


          • ChrisC says:

            In terms of Tolkien being less critical in regards to source use, and whether or not he viewed his work as original, I’m not so sure.

            From what I’ve read, he seems to be more in line with what you suggest about Lewis. Tolkien seems to have shown just as much awareness of writing in a tradition as Lewis. This tradition most likely extends back to the work of the Lake Poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, and perhaps closer to home in the Oxford Movement.

            In this regard it helps to return to “On Fairy Stories”. In their joint book “Tolkien on Fairy Stories”, Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson provide a treasure trove of background material that went into the published essay.

            On page 129 (original hardcover ed.), both authors provide the following observations:

            “(Tolkien) began his preparations (for the Andrew Lang lecture, sic) with an intensive program of exploration into the history, sociology, scholarly study and current status of folk and fairy tales. He drew up extensive lists of fairy tale collections to examine (all the Lang “Colour” books) and jotted memos of particular items. For example, the back of a Pembroke College memo scheduling “A Meeting of the Masters and Fellows” on Saturday, 25 February contains the reminder, “You must mention Hans Andersen” (in the end he did not), as well as making some unexpected references, such as the single name “Jung”, and again on the same page “Jung Psych of the Unconscious (Anderson, Flieger, Tolkien, ibid, 129).”

            Also, a photo of the scrap of paper containing these references is shown on pg. 170, while pg. 307 lists Jung’s “Psychology of the Unconscious” among a complete list of sources Tolkien used for his lecture.

            To further demonstrate the same sly use of sources and acknowledgments, going back to Green’s “Andrew Lang” biography reveals a telling echo of “On Fairy Stories” regarding which type of stories deserve the title Mythopoeic:

            “How Lang came to allow it (Gulliver’s Travels, sic) to be included (in the “Coloured Fairy Books”, sic) is inexplicable, for it is quite alien to anything in any of the fairy books…(Green, “Andrew Lang”, 81).”

            Personally I think Swift has just as much right to the label Mythopoeic as Lewis Carrol or Hans Andersen.

            The point however is that there’s enough textual evidence, I think, to suggest that Tolkien was more self-aware in his handling and guarded referencing of sources. Far from seeing himself in a vacuum, he appears well aware of those who came before, as well as passing it all on to those who came after.

            To give one final example from the Green book, there does seem to be an echo of Jung:

            “(Lang)…came into conflict with James Frazer over the question of Totemism, a subject in which the clear views of Lang’s earlier years seem to have become rather obscured, and the determination of finding the primitive belief in religious purity to have prevented him from realizing the deeper implications of Totemism itself (ibid, 73).”

            One way of reading that last passage could be that both Tolkien and Green perhaps saw Jung and Frazer as inheritors of the old doctrines of Romanticism.

            For whatever it’s worth.


    • A little late, but I agree about hyperbole. Lewis might have been thinking a bit more technically about influence, as in the poets who were in the school of T.S. Eliot. But I suspect he was just having fun and send this phrase aloud at the pub. He actually wrote it in a letter a couple of years earlier too.


    • Diana Glyer says:

      Charles Huttar: Lewis saw Tolkien as “uninfluenceable” because Tolkien’s first reaction to advice was to fight it. Picture a lively conversation at an Inklings: criticism and suggestions are flying thick and fast, and Tolkien is having none of it. But later–days and weeks later–Tolkien would still be mulling over a comment and (eventually) make changes in response to the feedback he received. He’d make substantial changes, but not necessarily simply adopt those suggestions wholesale. And I think Lewis was largely unaware of this process and the long-term impact of the advice he had shared. So, yes. Lewis was mistaken.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Two things that struck me in the one letter quoted were, “the sanctioned neglect of duty,” and that it “progresses towards quite unforeseen goals.” And I think both intertwine with your analysis. And your “doing all the things a teacher-writer-academic-father-husband-church layman is supposed to do”is well said! The sheer fact of it, and Tolkien’s conscientiousness (and concern about (possible) failures to order rightly attention to calls upon him). And, together with perfectionism, the attending to the facts of the ‘subcreative process’ – that having written or thought of something, he see something new – something he had to consider, how he might do things, what he best ought to do about it, and (I suppose) the need for mere time to think about such developments, and sudden, additional, “unforeseen goals”, and the need for enough peace of mind and simple rest to do so, as well.

    Reading drafts Christopher has published – well, that might have been an interesting book, too, if he’d finished it and gotten it out in that form (whichever stage that may be) – and yet, how much better what he actually worked on to doing in the end!


  5. Wayne Stauffer says:

    have you run across articles that compare the Inklings to the Bloomsbury group? i am interested in such a list if you have and wouldn’t mind sharing…or maybe blogging it…

    wayno Sent from my iPad



  6. Robert says:

    Tolkien would have objected to being called an elf, I believe. He said several times that he thought of himself as a hobbitish person. Elves are more remote. “The Hobbit” and its sequel are written from hobbits’ point of view. And when his tales didn’t have hobbits in them, the frame, when there is one, is a man of Middle-earth (note one word, from OE Middangeard, though geard is actually now garth, yard, not earth) relating stories he heard from the elves in Elvenhome.


    • Sorry for a slow response here, but I have thought of your gentle rebuke.
      I don’t in this case mean either Tolkien’s remote elves, or the older Germanic goblins/dwarfs. I meant “elf” in the most loose sense of magical progenitor, like we speak of Santa Clause (knowing he is not genetically an elf). And he did self-reference himself in hobbitish language, so he seemed able to play that way. But I appreciate the comment.


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  8. L. Palmer says:

    It’s so easy sometimes to forget to rest – to forget to take a break and rejuvenate the mind. I’m hoping to have some time for this over the next few weeks while I’m between adventures.


  9. jubilare says:

    This… is wonderful. And timely. And a great encouragement to me. I hope it is a great one to you, too.


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  12. Chris Gaertner says:

    Good thoughts to apply to my own making of music!

    Liked by 1 person

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