Sunday, February 21, 2010

Would you just finish it already, JRRT?

When I was a strapping young man I heard a sexologist say on the radio that a man thinks about sex three times an hour. I thought, that’s fairly accurate for me, if she means for twenty minutes each time. I wonder how many times I think of other things – literature, philosophy, physical pain, money, family, old friends? Who knows? Someday they will be able to attach a fMRI to our heads and see on a tv screen what we are thinking about, and even tabulate it. Now that will be scary and the end of the fantasy of privacy. Or, worse, at some point the chip recording our thoughts will be implanted in kids' heads when they are born and it will just be recorded on a government server like the keystrokes I’m typing now probably are being recorded on the NSA super-computer in Fort Meade, Md.

But, that’s the future. Right now, I can tell you myself I am thinking about The Lord of the Rings, and how many times a day it crosses my mind. It might not help that I just counted my Tolkien or Tolkien related books in the house at over 20, and I look at them all the time, but I would estimate that I think about his work five to ten times a day. That may be a little obsessive considering that I first read the LOTR 25 to 30 years ago. Yes, I like it that much. That's more than I think about Miracle on 34th Street, Seinfeld episodes, and whatever books I AM currently reading all put together.

I’ve written on Tolkien before here, about once a year. There was a piece concerning who or what was Tom Bombadil (7/17/07) and another concerning the movies (4/10/08). There was one last year about how, IMHO, The Lord of the Rings was the greatest book of the 20th century (5/14/09). I guess I have more to say.

I consider here his progress of writing LOTR, solely taken from his own letters (of which, thanks to Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s authorized biographer, I have now read twice and taken notes the second time around - I swear I enjoyed every second of it). I'm hoping it is more interesting than it might sound to you. But, just in case, I decided to narrate the journey myself as if I were the Master's muse. As always with Tolkien posts, if you aren’t into his work, go elsewhere.

We start, dear reader (Tolkien addressed his audience all the time, he just didn't write "Dear reader") in December, 1937, when the not yet too old philology professor, surprisingly successful with his children's tale published only a few months earlier, The Hobbit, is considering at his publisher's instigation, a sequel.

I think it is plain that quite apart from it, a sequel or successor to The Hobbit is called for. I promise to give this thought and attention. But I am sure you will sympathize when I say that the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology (and two languages) rather occupies the mind, and the Silmarils are in my heart. So that goodness knows what will happen. Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental. But the real fun about orcs and dragons (to my mind) was before their time. Perhaps a new (if similar) line? Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Beerkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of a story? Or is he, as I suspect, fully enshrined in the enclosed verses? Still, I could enlarge the portrait.

Yes, dear reader, Tom Bombadil was among his first considerations for a hero. Imagine, no Frodo and Sam, or perhaps just a small role for them? Now that would have been a very different tale, indeed. Before LOTR made Tom the phenomenally powerful spirit/being he was, he was merely a character Tolkien had created for his children – a doll actually, and he had written some verses about him which were eventually quietly published to no notoriety. But, to get to my task, at least he is going to start LOTR, anyway - as of December 16, 1937, the date of that letter. How long could it take? After all, Tolkien's proved that he was an engaging and powerful writer. The Hobbit had taken roughly a year or two (it's unclear) to write, though much longer to publish and now he has done it once all ready, so it should be easier. But, to be fair, let's give him two years or so to finish because LOTR is more intense than The Hobbit.

I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – ‘A long expected party’. (February, 1938)

You just finished the first chapter? Clearly, LOTR will take longer than I thought and a muse's job is never done. But, it's only been a little more than a month, so perhaps I am being a little pesky.

At the same time I find it only too easy to write opening chapters – and for the moment the story is not unfolding. (February, 1938)


The sequel to The Hobbit has now progressed as far as the end of the third chapter. But stories tend to get out of hand, and this has taken an unpremeditated turn. (March, 1938)

But, then . . .

The sequel to The Hobbit has remained where it stopped. It has lost my favour, and I have no idea what to do with it. For one thing the original Hobbit was never intended to have a sequel – ‘Bilbo remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long’ . . . (July, 1938)

That does not sound promising. Maybe I could be C. S. Lewis's muse.

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 . . . If the weather is wet in the next fortnight we may have got still further on. But it is no bed-time story . . . . (August, 1938)

Yes, so flash ahead a half year when it is probably almost done. Got to be.

I think The Lord of the Rings is in itself a good deal better than The Hobbit, but it may not prove a very good sequel. It is more grown up – but the audience for which The Hobbit was written has done that also. The readers young and old who clamoured for ‘more about the Necromancer’ are to blame, for the N is not child’s play . . . The writing of The Lord of the Rings is laborious, because I have been doing it as well as I know how, and considering every word. The story, too, has (I fondly imagine) some significance. (February, 1939)

Some significance, you silly little genius; Now, please, WWII is about to start, so you've got to finish soon. So, fly with me to the very end of the same year.

I have never quite ceased work on the sequel. It has reached Chapter XVI. I fear it has grown too large. (December, 1939)

Don’t worry. I'm sure it will all work out. Ummm, except 1940 and 1941 are passing. Alas, maybe it will never be finished. I am apparently no more successful at musing than anything else.

I have for some time intended to write and enquire whether in the present situation it was of any use, other than private and family amusement, to endeavour to complete the sequel to The Hobbit. I have worked on it at intervals since 1938, all such intervals in fact as trebled official work, quadrupled domestic work, and ‘Civil Defense’ have left. It is now approaching completion. I hope to get a little free time this vacation, and might hope to finish it off early next year My heart rather misgives me, all the same. I ought to warm you that it is very long, in places more alarming than ‘The Hobbit’, and in fact nor really a ‘juvenile’ a all. It has reached Chapter XXXI and will require at least six more to finish (these are already sketched). (December, 1942)

Fantastic – the end of 1942. For God sakes, even Pearl Harbor was a year ago. I have faith thought that it will be published soon enough. So, let’s take a big jump – say, over a year from then . . .

I saw the two Lewis bros. yesterday, & lunched with C.S.L.: quite an outing for me. The indefatigable man read me part of a new story! But he is putting the screw on me to finish mine. I needed some pressure, & shall probably respond; but the ‘vac.’ is already half over & the exam. Wood only just cleared. (March, 1944)

Are you kidding me? Are you sure you want to write this? I bet Raymond Chandler could have written 12 novels by now. How is it you have time for lunch?

Yesterday morning I managed to get an hour or two writing, & have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. (April, 1944)

Frodo? Mordor? Why that’s the very end, isn’t it? Yeah. Of course, it would help if you wrote more than a couple of hours at a time.

We shall soon be in the shadows of Mordor at last. (May, 1944)

Did I miss something? Weren’t you at the gates of Mordor just a month ago? Did they go back?

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir – and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by a lot of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices – where already some fascinating material on the hobbit Tobacco industry and the Languages of the West have gone. There has been a battle – with a monstrous Oliphaunt (the Mamuk of Harad) included – and after a short while in a cave behind a waterfall, I think I shall get Sam and Frodo at last into Kirith Ungol and the webs of the Spiders. Then the Great Offensive will burst out. And so with the death of Theoden (by a Nazgul) and the arrival of the hosts of the White Rider before the Gates of Mordor we shall reach the denouement and the swift unraveling. (May, 1944)

That’s more like it. I don’t mind pausing for Faramir. I like him too. So, at worst another couple of months. Phew!

Spent the morning writing and we are now in sight of Minas Morghul. (May, 1944)

The whole morning? Well, yeah for you. For crying out loud, it was easier to plan D-Day.

I am afraid I have not written for some time. . . . I have taken advantage of a bitter cold grey week (in which the lawns have not grown in spite of a little rain) to write: but struck a sticky patch. All that I had sketched or written before proved of little use, as times, motives, etc., have all changed. . . .I worked very hard at my chapter – it is most exhausting work; especially as the climax approaches and one has to keep the pitch up: no easy level will do; and there are all sorts of minor problems of plot and mechanism. I wrote and tore up and rewrote most of it a good many times; but I was rewarded this morning . . . and the latest chapters the best so far. Gollum continues to develop into a most intriguing character. (May, 1944)

What do you mean you haven't written for some time? Are you, depressed? Get some exercise. Chase your wife around and GET BACK TO WORK! I knew I'd never be a good muse. Now, the Tooth Fairy - I would have just killed that.

I was not frightfully bright at lecture on Tuesday, as a result. Chief reason, however, is absorption in Frodo, which now has a great grip and takes a lot out of me: chapter on Shelob and the disaster in Kirith Ungol has been written several times. Whole thing comes out of the wash quite different to any preliminary sketch! . . . Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: . . . . (May, 1944)

Good for you - orcs are real. So are writing deadlines. You started this 6 years ago. Please stop re-writing everything. Maybe it was better the first time. How would you know?

Here is a little more of ‘The Ring’ for your delectation (I hope), and criticism, but not for return. Two more chapters to complete the ‘Fourth Book’ & and then I hope to finish the ‘Fifth’ and last of the ‘Ring’. (October, 1944)

See, now I’m getting a little pissed off. We were at the end two years ago. It only took two years for the action in the whole damn book to occur.

Book Five and Last opens with . . . the destruction of the Ring, the exact manner of which is not certain . . . Barradur crashes, and the forces of Gandalf sweep into Mordor. Frodo and Sam, fighting with the last Nazgul on an island of rock surrounded by the fire of the erupting Mount Doom, are rescued by Gandalf’s eagle . . . But the final scene will be the passage of Bilbo and Elrond and Gladriel through the woods of the Shire on their way to their way to the Grey Havens. . . It will probably work out very differently from this plan when it really gets written, as the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectl glimpsed in the preliminary sketch . . . (November, 1944)

Yes, it will end up very differently, John. Trust me, I'm from the future. But, it is fun to watch the creative process at work and to see how things could have gone differently. Now, you all heard him. Almost done. Seven years gone by!

I am v. glad that you enjoyed the next three ch. of the Ring. The 3rd consignment shd. Reach you about Dec. 10 and the last on 14 Jan. I shall be eager for more comments when you have time. Cert. Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. The book will prob. end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S. will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns.(December, 1944)

Yes, that’s right. That’s right. You have it all. I give you one more month to put the wraps on it.

Still there is the great ‘Hobbit’ sequel – I use ‘great’, I fear, only in quantitative sense. It is much to ‘great’ for the present situation in that sense. But it cannot be docked or abbreviated. I cannot do better than I have done in this, unless (as is possible enough) I am no judge. But, it is not finished. I made an effort last year to finish it and I failed. Three weeks with nothing else to do – and a little rest and sleep first – would probably be sufficient. (Circa March,1945)

Oh, you son of a . . . Three weeks? Not that I believe you anymore. Well, get some sleep and then to work. It's okay. It's okay. Shhh.

I managed to go into ‘retreat’ in the Summer, and am happy to announce that I succeeded at last in bringing the ‘Lord of the Ring’ to a successful conclusion. . . I think there is a chance of it being published though it will be a massive book far too large to make any money for the publisher (let alone the author); it must run to 1200 pages. (October, 1948)

Wait a second. You said three weeks, WEEKS, not three YEARS. Seriously, what is the matter with you? It’s been an entire decade and you are still not done. Don’t you want to finish it? Okay, a decade is long enough. We’re done, right?

I now suggest as titles of the volumes, under the over-all title The Lord of the Rings: Vol I The Fellowship of the Ring. Vol. II The Two Towers. Vol. III The War of the Ring (or, if you still prefer that: The Return of the King). . . The Two Towers gets as near as possible to finding a title to cover the widely divergent Books 3 and 4; and can be left ambiguous – it might refer to Isengard and Barad-dur, or to Minas Tirith and B; or Isengard and Cirith Ungol. On reflection I prefer for Vol. III The War of the Ring, since it gets in the Ring again; and also is more non-commital, and gives less hint about the turn of the story: the chapter titles have been chosen also to give away as little as possible in advance. But I am not set in my choice. (August, 1953)

So, we were in 1948 and it’s been a decade since you started, and now it’s NINETEEN . . . FIFTY . . . THREE. You are kidding me? What, were you abjucted? However, screwing around with the titles means you are done, right? We're just fluffing the pillows, no?

I am not at all happy about the title ‘the Two Towers’. It must if there is any real reference in it to Vol II refer to Orthanc and the Tower of Cirith Ungol. But since there is so much made of the basic opposition of the Dark Tower and Minas Tirith, that seems very misleading. There is, of course, actually no real connecting link between Books III and IV, when cut off and presented separately as a volume. (January, 1954)

Sigh. That doesn’t sound like you are finished. They could have fought WWII twice and you still wouldn't have been done. I just got a letter from muse school saying I have to start repaying my loans.

The third volume was of course completed years ago, as far as the tale goes. I have finished such revision, as seemed necessary, and it will go to be set up almost at once. (April, 1954)

Really? I think I heard that one before. Let me guess, more revision? Some 16 years after we started. That's s-i-x-t-e-e-n years after we started. No one believes you anymore, John. I have an idea. Stick with the teaching. At least you won't starve.

But, yes dear reader, it's true, with some more drama and switching publishers, then going back to the one who had published "The Hobbit" – LOTR was published in July, 1954, over 16 years after he decided to start writing a sequel to The Hobbit which very well could have had Tom Bombadil as its hero. You know, looking back, it was worth the wait (actually, I wasn't even born yet).


  1. There, tbere, my precious, we will be fine. No, must not put you on, my precious, there may be nosy Hobbits about... no,no..... eh? What? Frodo, are you still at it? Must you be so singleminded? Surely, there are fields that need work, fences to be mended in the Shire. Something, beside this obsession that you can write about, if tell a tale you must.

  2. Thanks for a good laugh.
    So when were you actually "strapping"??

  3. A couple of wise guys, eh.

    When was I strapping, you ask, you who watches Dancing with the Stars - When I was a "young man," as in "strapping young man", damn you to hell. Back then I had a libido. I still have one, but it's not strapping anymore.

    As to Monsieur Bear, that was funny, but it seemed at the end that your Smeagol morphed into Yoda. You have to work on your Gollum. And with what obsession should I replace LOTR? Wuthering Heights?


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .