For Love or Profit

by Varda

Samuel Johnson said ‘only a blockhead writes, except for money’

Well I think it could safely be said that Tolkien did not write for money. He wrote, primarily, for himself, and later for his circle of literary friends. His writing was the literary form of his private worlds which he was creating from as young an age as 15.

This private fantasy world was intense, even obsessive, but it was not a secret world. The early sending of a version of The Lay of Beleriand to a professional critic shows that Tolkien always had an audience in mind, but maybe not to the extent of making money out of Middle Earth.

But Tolkien was a critic himself and knew that all writing needs readers, even if only the children of friends. All the better if they are paying readers, but Tolkien was not a professional writer. He was a professional teacher and career academic. Only very late in life did he make any significant money from a book, The Lord of The Rings.

Even before he created imaginary worlds, Tolkien was creating imaginary languages, the different forms of Elvish first. His inspiration for these languages were the Finnish and Welsh languages, among others, whose music had fascinated him as a young man. In this he was not so different from any writer, for every writer has his or her own voice and style which is an individual language. The Saxons referred to a poet’s ’word-hoard’, and the American poetess Emily Dickinson called it ‘easing my famine at my lexicon’

The fact is however that when it comes to marketing Middle Earth, it is the story in The Lord of The Rings that is the big money-maker. Tolkien himself might have seen the Silmarillon as a great work, but the paying public saw the story of Frodo and Aragorn as the meat. Many readers stay to fall in love with the world revealed in the footnotes or the lays or the appendices, but as Tolkien admitted, these are not necessary to the story . Most book-buyers just read The Lord of The Rings, and that was the commercial success, the one with the gold-mine in the film rights.

A local library here in Dublin is running a series of talks for aspiring writers. They are given by published, professional writers, people who make their living from writing. Last week I went to one by the historical novelist Rose Doyle, whose books sell in Ireland and internationally.

It was very interesting, and Rose was a courteous and very encouraging speaker. She was gentle with the ambitions and enthusiasm of her listeners without trying to disguise the hard work and research involved in writing historical fiction. I went because I have always wanted to write historical fiction, but her lecture was more about writing fiction of the Victorian age, whereas I wanted to go back further, to the Saxon period in England or that age in Ireland when the Gaels, Normans and Vikings went head to head. So a lot of what she said did not apply to me as the Irish Times archives don't record what the Viking war chief Sitric looked like.

However, in a strange way some of what she said did apply to Tolkien. Rose said ‘do a lot of research, but then put it away and write your story and keep the background in the background. What matters is the story, and the people, above all’

Tolkien wrote historical fiction; the history of Middle Earth. His history books are the Silmarillon and the Lays and unfinished tales. When he came to write his novel, The Lord of The Rings, he simply set it in his own history, the one he had described in his other writings. In The Lord of The Rings, however, it is all kept in the background. As Tolkien said, no doubt with tongue firmly in cheek, you don’t have to read the footnotes to enjoy the book. And as Rose said, you don’t have to know everything about Victorian Ireland to understand or enjoy her book on the Wrens, a community of women of all classes cast out of Victorian society who lived on the Curragh of Kildare in the 1860s.

Rose said, ‘concentrate on the story; don’t let the background material overwhelm it. Above all, make your characters real, living people..’

From the age of 15 Tolkien had been creating imaginary worlds. But convincing characters, he had only had one shot at that, in The Hobbit. In The Lord of The Rings, he has to draw a whole cast of people and make them believable. It is not the same as the characters in the Silmarillon, who never quite break free from their background. They are like the late statues by Michaelangelo, only half hewn from the stone, struggling to emerge from their matrix. The characters in The Lord of The Rings are on the contrary, free and standing right before us. They are individuals, yet achieve a kind of universality. We feel we might someday, if we are lucky and keep our eyes open, meet a Frodo or a Faramir. They belong anywhere, as Turin and Beleg don’t.

In The Lord of The Rings too, real world rules apply. There are no divine interventions or immortal, indestructible beings. Even the Elves and wizards can die from a knife or sword thrust. Frodo receives wounds that never heal and Boromir, Théoden and Denethor end up really, really dead. Despite wizards and Elves, we recognise a world like ours, subject to cause and effect. The world of the Silmarillon is far more strange and magical. Hence it re-appears in The Lord of The Rings in glimpses only, in poems and songs and legends and in the lasting, supernatural evil of The Ring, which is symbolically destroyed at the end, leaving a world that is indeed our world.

Rose said; ‘what matters is not the background; you are not writing history, but historical fiction. What matters is the people, and they are the same, basically, in every age. Get character right, and concentrate on telling their story….’

And that is what Tolkien did. We don’t explain anything Frodo or Boromir did by referring only to the history or geography of Middle Earth, for that is just to enrich their world, not explain who they are or what they do. When WE here, on this board, argue over Boromir or Frodo, we speak in terms of human beings and their ideals, hopes, fears and failings, the same for all time. Aragorn, Boromir, Faramir and Denethor are all Numenoreans by descent, but as people they are all totally different and to say they are Numenoreans would not satisfactorily explain what they do or explain it entirely.

‘Don’t let the research take over’ said Rose, and I think Tolkien is writer enough to realise that and keep the background in the back and let the story predominate in The Lord of The Rings, as it can’t in the Silmarillon. We fall in love with his characters because he gives them to us, hobbit or man or Elf, clear and individual, with free will as well as a history. Certainly I believe he fell in love with them too, which was why he could not bring himself to kill off Frodo, or Pippin, and why he met Faramir one day, ‘walking through Ithilien…’

Thanks for listening….