This post, by Roger Colby, originally appeared on his writingishardwork site on 4/29/12.
I have long been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. Every year, when school dismisses for summer break, I read The Lord of the Rings. This year I will read it to my children and do all the voices for them. Tolkien was a brilliant writer, but what if we could sit down with him and ask him any question we wanted? What if he could give writers advice about their own writing from his years of experience as an incredible storyteller?
This is possible if we read his letters. I have a musty old book entitled The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter. I once spent the better part of a month reading it cover to cover and underlining every instance where the master of Middle Earth wrote about his process. What follows are the best of those notes:
1. Vanity Is Useless – Tolkien writes in a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin on 31 July 1947 “…I certainly hope to leave behind me the whole thing [LOTR] revised and in final form, for the world to throw into the waste-paper basket. All books come there in the end, in this world, anyway” (121). The Lord of the Rings has a worldwide following, has inspired films, video games, animated features, songs, poetry, fan fiction and countless other things, yet its author felt that in reality it may not be that important to the world. There are several other instances where he writes to people about how humble he feels about the things he writes and that they are not really life changing at all, but simply imaginings “from my head”. In Tolkien’s opinion, The Hobbit was published out of sheer “accident”, as he had passed it around to a few close friends, one of them being C.S. Lewis. Finally (and lucky for us) an Oxford graduate, Susan Dagnall, who worked for the London publishing house of Allen & Unwin, encouraged him to submit it for publication. He did, and there are pages of letters where he struggles with the process of publication. He was not, in any way, a vain man, especially about his writing.
2. Keep a Stiff Upper Lip – In another letter to Sir Stanley Unwin dated July 21, 1946, Tolkien lists a mound of personal struggles he was facing: being ill, being overworked and missing his son Christopher who was away in the Royal Navy. He put many of his struggles aside, though, and went to writing. He had to balance his day job with his desire to write epic stories set in Middle Earth. He found time. He made time. It took him 7 years to write The Hobbit. (117) The thing that he writes about most in this period is his struggle to get the work finished on his novels and to balance teaching and his many duties at Oxford College. Apparently he found a way.
3. Listen to Critics – Tolkien writes to his editor about the comments C.S. Lewis made about The Lord of the Rings: “When he would say, ‘You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!’ I would try. I’d sit down and write the section over and over. That happened with the scene I think is the best in the book, the confrontation between Gandalf and his rival wizard, Saruman, in the ravaged city of Isengard.” He writes that he “cut out some passages of light-hearted hobbit conversation which he [Lewis] found tiresome, thinking that if he did most other readers (if any) would feel the same…to tell the truth he never really like hobbits very much, least of all Merry and Pippin. But a great number of readers do, and would like more than they have got” (376). I notice the words in parenthesis “if any”, because there are many passages in the letters where Tolkien seems to be self-deprecating. He listened carefully to critics and understood that they would hone his writing down to something that would be well received by many. We must learn to use the advice of critics to help us become better writers.
Probably the most telling letter of the entire collection would be his letter to Christopher Bretherton dated July 16th, 1964. The following are the highlights of that text: