For Love or Profit
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
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….