Shutting Down Tolkien

@brandon_rhodes
PyGotham
2014

December 1929




December 1929

Oxford professor
J.R.R. Tolkien
has a secret

A habit that he practices secretly, alone, known only to his family

He writes things

He writes things
about Elves
Languages


Languages
Linguistic history

Languages
Linguistic history
High heroic legends
Tolkien needed
an Audience

I can guess your question:

Why would a
compulsive Elf-chronicler
need encouragement?

Remember: this is a man—

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Father Christmas. Comic sidekick North Polar Bear. Snowman. 1929 he first thinks to mention the snow-elves. If there are elves, there must be—

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1932

goblins.jpg
battle.jpg

Your question is probably not “How could we encourage Tolkien” but rather, “How can this man be stopped?”

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tolkiens-github.png

He needed an audience not only so we would hear of him. But because it transformed the writing.

Writers

You are a writer. Of texts. Tweets. Email. Maybe even of programs. We should study writers and their motivations.

The Company They Keep
Diana Pavlac Glyer

1929

Tolkien loans
Lay of Leithian
to Jack Lewis

Tolkien took the risk of showing his work to a friend.

Jack Lewis wrote
back the next day
“it is ages since I have had
an evening of such delight”

Tolkien, years later:

“He was for long
my only audience.
“Only from him
did I ever get the idea
that my ‘stuff’ could be
more than a private hobby.”

But having an audience also changed the work itself

There is something
else a writer needs


— Julie Steele

“Good stories are
not about the teller.”

— Julie Steele

“If a story is not
about the hearer he
will not listen”

— Steinbeck

Tolkien needed
a Critic

The second thing you need to produce reader-directed prose is feedback letting you step outside of yourself and see how your writing looks to others

Lay of Leithian
Jack Lewis handed back
14 pages of criticism

But how could he express it so as not to discourage Tolkien

Lay of Leithian
Dialog between 4 scholars
about this “ancient manuscript”

This allowed Jack to recast criticisms of the work as speculations about its redactors and scribes

“The latest redactors were
always needlessly amplifying,
as if the imagination of
their readers could do
nothing for itself”
“the assonance …
must originally have occurred
often, and have been suppressed
elsewhere by the scribes.”
Had the scholars quote
from “another copy”
of the manuscript!

it worked

Jack was good at
sensitive criticism

Tolkien was fortunate in his choice of a first critic

A children’s book illustrator
was not drawing children well
“I know you made the
children rather plain — in
the interests of realism —



“I know you made the
children rather plain — in
the interests of realism —
but do you think you could
possibly pretty them up
a little now?”
Jack and “Tollers”
were soon meeting
with more writers

In a context where criticism could be more bruising

Inklings

Met in Jack Lewis’s rooms
at Magdalen College

Jack at the center — “big man with a large red face and shabby clothes … addressing his audience in a loud, booming voice”

“This was the
ethos of the whole thing.
That criticism was free”

— Dr. Havard

“Praise for good work
was unstinted, but censure
for bad work — or even
not-so-good work — was
often brutally frank.”

— Warren Lewis

“… had an outsider
eavesdropped he would
have thought it a meeting of fell
enemies hurling deadly insults
before drawing their guns.”

(Written of one particularly memorable evening with the Inklings)

“To read to the Inklings
was a formidable ordeal”
The Inklings always read
drafts to one another

Anne Ruggles Gere

researches both
writers and writing

Most groups read drafts

In some writer’s groups,
she has noticed something
going very wrong
“when participants
in writing groups read
‘finished’ writing, the language
of the group often became
acerbic or vacuous

— Anne Ruggles Gere

“—because members felt
(perhaps unconsciously)
that they had no purpose”

— Anne Ruggles Gere

Suggests: criticism of an early draft is not only easier for the writer, but less likely to trigger anger in the critic

 Clever  or  Clear
It was also an environment
that made writers think about
clever versus clear writing
“All the Inklings had learned
by experience that passages
valued most by the writer
appealed least to
the reader.”

— Dr. Havard

 Clever  or  Clear

Tolkien needed one last thing

Tolkien needed
a Deadline

The result was that he experienced his first commercial success

1930–1932

Drafted The Hobbit

Came about while grading papers

“In a hole
in the ground
there lived a Hobbit…”

Tolkien had little incentive to finish the draft once his children were too old.

Jack Lewis
Elaine Griffiths
Susan Dagnall
Stanley Unwin

Over the years the mss. was seen by Lewis, a student, her friend, her employer, and his son — and Tolkien now had a publisher and a deadline!

1936–1937

The Hobbit finished
and published

Published on September 21, 1937. Christopher Tolkien wrote to Father Christmas telling him to give it to children as gifts.

Christmas 1937

“we had to rush the
reprint through …
“the crisis was
so acute that we fetched
part of the reprint from our
printers … in a private car”
“a large public will
be clamoring next year
to hear more from you
about Hobbits”
an Audience  
  a Critic
a Deadline

Let's watch as these elements now work together to generate the sequel

“Not ever intending
any sequel, I fear I
squandered all my
favorite ‘motifs’
and characters on
the original ‘Hobbit’.”
Chapter 1
“A Long-Expected Party”



Chapter 1
“A Long-Expected Party”
Hobbits talking


Chapter 1
“A Long-Expected Party”
Hobbits talking
Hobbits eating meals

Chapter 1
“A Long-Expected Party”
Hobbits talking
Hobbits eating meals
Hobbits playing pranks
“‘hobbit talk’
amuses me … more
than adventures”
“can contemplate them
eating and making their
rather fatuous jokes
indefinitely

Inklings


Inklings

not amused

Tolkien did not know what to do

24 July 1938

“Mr Lewis says …


24 July 1938

“Mr Lewis says hobbits
are only amusing when in
unhobbitlike situations.”
pivot

THIS was the—

spark

Five weeks later

“It is now flowing along,
and getting quite out of hand.
“It has reached about
Chapter VII and progresses
towards quite unforeseen goals”

fairy tale

Epic

The first book had sent a Hobbit into a fairy tale.

 fairy tale 

Epic

The New Hobbit would be an epic, set in the last days of the Elven legends he had been developing for decades. This at last would surface them!

The Wager

Two years before in 1936 — not enough books they enjoyed — Lewis space travel, Tolkien time travel, Númenor entered mythology as well.

The New Hobbit

The Lord of the Ring

 The New Hobbit 
The Lord of the Ring

1943

Air raid warden
Two sons in the war


1943

Air raid warden
Two sons in the war
Tolkien wrote nothing
“dead stuck”

March 1944

Lunch with Jack Lewis,
who read from a new
book he was writing!
Jack urged Tolkien
to resume the work

So Tolkien started up again

“I have seriously
embarked … & have been
sitting up rather late …

— to Christopher Tolkien

“I have gone back to
Sam and Frodo … at the
moment they are just meeting
Gollum on a precipice.”
The Inklings began again
to be subjected to regular
readings from Tolkien

subjected?

Well, not all of them appreciated being part of such a long project

“When Tolkien came through
the door at a meeting of the
Inklings with a bulging jacket
pocket, I winced …”

— Dr. John Wain

“—because I knew we
were in for a slab of
Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins
and the rest of it.”

— Dr. John Wain

“I just can’t get into that
Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I cannot finish it.

— Dr. Owen Barfield

Hugo Dyson

A big personality who taught English at Oxford. He would grab his cocktail, fling himself on the couch, and interrupt with legendary Oxford wit

Oh fuck.
Not another elf!

— Hugo Dyson

Dyson interrupted Tolkien regularly. CT says:

pain

shyness

“I remember this very vividly, my father’s pain, his shyness, which couldn’t take Hugo’s extremely rumbustious approach.” — CT

Tolkien never had to answer the insult himself

Jack

“Shut up Hugo.
Come on Tollers.”

Tolkien was defended every time he was attacked. But in the end,

It did not matter

1947

Tolkien would no longer
read from the “new Hobbit”
with Dyson present
Thursday 24 April.
“just as we were starting
… we had to stop”

— Warren Lewis’s diary

How to shut Tolkien down
 critique 


How to shut Tolkien down
 critique 
 criticism 

How to shut Tolkien down
 critique 
 criticism 
opposition

Become his opponent. It does not matter, in the end, whether everyone jumps to Tolkien’s defense.

Eventually, Tolkien will tire

Eventually, Tolkien will tire
of needing to be defended
The Inklings meetings
began to falter

other issues

Jack Lewis also
tried writing fantasy


Jack Lewis also
tried writing fantasy
Tolkien found it
“about as bad as can be”

Jack’s story

Children





Jack’s story

Children
Greek faun




Jack’s story

Children
 Greek faun 




Jack’s story

Children
 Greek faun 
Nice tea-sipping faun



Jack’s story

Children
 Greek faun 
Nice tea-sipping faun
Wicked Snow Queen


Jack’s story

Children
 Greek faun 
Nice tea-sipping faun
Wicked Snow Queen
Father Christmas

Jack’s story

Children
 Greek faun 
Nice tea-sipping faun
Wicked Snow Queen
Father Christmas
Lion

Jack Lewis

crossover
fanfic

Jack’s story

Children
 Greek faun 
Nice tea-sipping faun
Wicked Snow Queen
Father Christmas
Lion
Writers are not interchangeable.
And even Lewis got hurt.

1949

Thursday 20 October.
“No one turned up after dinner”

1949

Thursday 27 October.
“No Inklings tonight”

What effect would this have on the Lord of the Rings? Look at the year. We have done it. We have reached 1949.

1949

Tolkien was finished
and submitted the draft

Tolkien delivered a complete manuscript of the Lord of the Rings. All he needed now was another 5 years to rewrite and re-edit

1954–55

The Lord of the Rings
published by
Allen & Unwin

Brought to print by editor Rayner Unwin, the son of Stanley Unwin! Eventually 150 million copies — even more than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!

Tolkien lived almost
twenty more years
He never published
another book

Essays, yes. Short stories, poems, yes. But never another full-length book.

He returned to his endless work with Elven legend, history, and language. This was no longer a secret — and he showed the drafts to his publisher —

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But he was writing for himself.

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The Silmarillion never went through the wrenching process of being critiqued and reworked to face an audience.

I sum up.

Being a
good critic
is an Art

Unless you work alone, you are writer and critic both. Surgeons use the sharpest possible tools. When you criticize, you are doing surgery on the person behind it. Learn to be sharp and specific. To do the least harm.

Thank you very much!

@brandon_rhodes