Reading The History of The Lord of the Rings by Christopher Tolkien and The History of The Hobbit by John D. Rateliff gave me a fascinating insight into Tolkien’s creative process.
What I didn’t expect is how much his children influenced Tolkien’s creativity.
The epic of a lifetime
Probably the only work that didn’t follow this pattern was The Silmarillion.
Tolkien wrote Errantry when he was a student, in the early 1910s, while at Oxford. He wrote then a series of poems — of which Errantry was the first — that contained many names and first concepts that then allowed the epic of The Silmarillion to take form.
Errantry is about the mysterious figure of Eärendil the Mariner.
That first story is greatly influenced by his war experience and is about Eärendil’s childhood
When Tolkien came down with trench fever in the trenches of the Somme and was sent home to heal, he wrote The Fall of Gondolin, which was the first of the many stories of The Silmarillion.
In his book Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth proposes that Tolkien shifted to the narrative form rather than his favoured poetry because he didn’t know how long he had before he’d go back to France, and writing stories was faster than writing poems. That first story is greatly influenced by his war experience and is about Eärendil’s childhood.
In the early 1920s, Tolkien lay down the complete Silmarillion, which then evolved over the decades but always remained true to that first intuition.
Most of his subsequent stories had quite a different genesis.
At the end of the 1920s, Tolkien’s older children, John, Michael and Christopher, were old enough to listen to stories. Tolkien would gather them in his studio after dinner and tell them tales of magic and wonder.
Often, these stories mingled with the children’s life. For example, Tolkien invented the Roverandom when Michael lost his dog toy during a trip on the beach and became distraught. Through the story, Tolkien told Michael that yes, he didn’t have his toy anymore, but he shouldn’t be sad, because his toy was having incredible adventures with wizards, the Man on the Moon and the Moon Dragons.
Tolkien would gather his children in his studio after dinner and tell them tales of magic and wonder.
Many of the stories that Tolkien told to his children were recounted orally to them alone. But a few of them were then published — as it happened to Roverandom.
His were usually humorous stories, full of magic, and very often, they contained a connection to the children’s lives, because it was primarily for them that he invented them.
The Hobbit was one such story.
He started to recount it to his boys in the late 1920s or early 1930s (the date is uncertain) when they were ready for something narratively more complex. Like all the previous stories that were then published, The Hobbit also contained elements directly connected with the boys’ life and preferences, but it also more prominently elements of Tolkien’s own passions: the Norse and Germanic sagas.
A good example is Beron, the bear shapeshifter. Tolkien inserted this character because his children loved bears (as it can be seen from the Letters from Father Christmas, for example), but he infused into Beorn also his own love and knowledge of the ancient Norse sagas, in this case, the legend of Bothvar Bjarki.
Beorn, a Power of Nature
The Hobbit — Ch 7 Queer Lodgings — Beorn reveals what Tolkien loved the most as an adult and a father, and what his…
Up to that point, Tolkien had narrated his version of those sagas in his The Silmarillion keeping a more classic approach. His legendarium was about prophecies and curses, high kings and exceptional heroes.
In some respect, The Hobbit was an important innovation. Though an epic story in its own right, rather than with exceptional heroes, it concerns itself with a more common kind of heroism.
The protagonist, Bilbo, is a very normal person. He doesn’t even have any magic about him, and his qualities are those that any person may possess. His quest is very mundane. When the story starts — things change in the latter part of the book — he doesn’t go on a moral quest, but simply he is hired by a group of Dwarves as a ‘professional burglar’.
It may seem that it isn’t a very epic approach, and in fact, I suspect that, like the stories that precede it, it had a more humorous take, at the beginning. But then something interesting started to happen.
Tolkien dedicated all his life to studying and creating stories, and now that his children were old enough to grasp it, he was trying to ‘explain’ them why stories matter.
Bilbo was very much like his children at the time. A small person, with nothing special about him other than his sensitivity and sensibility. Yet, even among people so much more powerful than himself, those qualities allowed him to do things that impacted everyone’s life — including his own.
The epic action is moved by a character that is not epic in a classic way.
It was still a story about lands that never existed, magic, immortal Elves and terrible dragons, just like The Silmarillion, but — like The Silmarillion — these stories were not about that. They were about real life.
“It is always poor me.” Bilbo Emerging as a Leader
The Hobbit — Ch. 11 On the Doorstep –And how this chapter lays the bases for an alternative and a choice
In The Hobbit, Tolkien took that crucial step from a more classic epic tale to a stance closer to real life. And he did it in the first place for the benefit of his own children.
When it was published, The Hobbit was so successful that the publisher asked Tolkien for a sequel.
Initially, Tolkien turned this idea down. At the end of the 1930s, when he had revised The Silmarillion at least twice in its entirety, that was the work he wanted to publish, not another children’s story. He said to his publisher that The Hobbit was a complete work, that there was nothing more he could possibly say about hobbits, and offered The Silmarillion again. And once more, the publisher turned it down because he found it unpublishable and insisted on a sequel to The Hobbit. In the end, Tolkien agreed to try.
The epic of everyday life
It is indeed a very strange genesis to a global masterpiece.
Today, The Lord of the Rings is one of the most read books in the world. I find it so fascinating that it almost didn’t happen. Because I think it’s quite safe to say that Tolkien never intended to write it.
The New Hobbit wasn’t written for his children, but the story he had indeed created for his children weighed heavily on it. In the beginning, the New Hobbit was meant to have the same mood and the same intuition than its predecessor. Again it would have a normal person as protagonist, the same kind of person Tolkien used to mediate his story with his children’s life. And the motif that set the story off was as mundane: Bilbo’s gold was all gone so he, then, in subsequent revisions, his heir, set off to find a new means of living.
Tolkien Reading Day 2020 — Reading “The Lord of the Rings” at the time of Covid 19
It’s mere chance that I’m reading The Lord of the Rings during a time of pandemic and emergency, but it’s giving me…
But then something interesting — if not totally unexpected — happened.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien had not only inserted ideas and characters from the epic sagas he loved. He had also used some elements from his own legendarium. Not because he intended The Hobbit to be part of it, far from it, but in the same vein as he used the actual mythical elements. The would sustain the story and also — I believe — they would let his children become aquatint with the meaning of those fantastical elements and their possible applicability in real life.
Those ideas from his legendarium started to become prominent in the New Hobbit. As his initial hesitation about the new story says, what Tolkien really wanted to write at the time were his more classic epics stories. Whether it was intentional or not — it doesn’t really matter — the few elements he had inserted in The Hobbit were now the excuse to write precisely that.
Bilbo’s innocuous magic ring became a very special ring, the One Ring of the Lord Sauron, and its origin and history went back to the Second Age of Middle-earth — that is, The Silmarillion as it was evolving. The story was becoming darker (like the end of The Hobbit had done, after all), but still not so far from the mood of its prequel.
When WWII broke out.
Tolkien was a WWI veteran. We don’t have many remembrances written out by him about his war experience, which is not uncommon for veterans of any wars.
When I read The History of The Lord of the Rings, I was very curious to see what the breaking out of the war did to Tolkien’s story.
First of all, it stopped it. In a place that Tolkien thought was close to the end, he stopped writing for almost one year.
When he came back to it, the story had morphed forever. It became darker (he started again from the chapter of the Caradhras, which is more or less where the mood changes in The Fellowship of the Ring still) and above all it was now a story of mortal creatures, not of immortal Elves. It was about mortality, vulnerability, fallacy, and the braveness necessary to face it all.
Tolkien was a WWI veteran. We don’t have many remembrances written out by him about his war experience, which is not uncommon for veterans of any wars. He came as far as to assert that the war had nothing to do with his stories. At least this is what he said publicly. Some of his private letters tell a different story.
The case of WWI veterans was different from any other previous war experiences.
On the one hand, WWI was inhuman in comparison with all other wars. The industrial war did things to the body and mind of soldiers and everyone else on the battlefields unthinkable before that war started. It lasted a lifetime — five years, which would have been considered crazy, before WWI. No war could last that long.
On the other hand, WWI had been terrible, but these veterans thought they had fought the War to End all Wars. Instead, they saw their children go off to another terrible war only twenty years later.
The Hobbit, the WWI Officer and the Power of Freewill
The Hobbit — Ch. 16 A Thief in the Night — Bilbo and all his unorthodox decisions
Two of Tolkien’s boys went off to war, including Christopher, who was then just out of his teenage years, and younger than Tolkien himself when he went to France.
Christopher had always been the most involved in his father’s stories. He had helped him type them out. He had drawn maps for him. In fact, he was going to be into it his entire life. In his letters to Christopher, who was posted out in South Africa, Tolkien continued to tell him about his progress in the new story, mixed up with reflections on the war, why it was loathing and why it was still necessary to fight. This is probably why Christopher once said his father wrote The Lord of the Rings for him. And I don’t doubt it.
Once again, his stories, his passion and his children’s life came together. In the past, rather than tell it outright, Tolkien wrote his experience of WWI into his Silmarillion. In the face of the new war, that experience surfaced more prominently in the new story, which in a way was a dialogue between a WWI veteran and a WWII fighting soldier. That these two men were father and son is what makes The Lord of the Rings the soulful story that it is.
Sarah Zama is a Tolkien nerd and proud of it. She read The Hobbit the first time as a teenager and was a Tolkien fan years before Peter Jackson’s trilogy ever hit the theatres. She’s always been involved with Tolkien groups, both online and in person. In 2004, she founded a Tolkien group in her city, Verona (Italy), which is still meeting and divulging the Professor’s work. In 2017, she started reading Tolkien’s work with a group of other nerdy readers, one chapter a day. They are still on the road together.