I know you’ve all been eagerly anticipating the second part of this post, right? Thank you guys for making Mandy feel so welcome here with all of the comments and likes on part one. We both really appreciate it.
Admittedly, there were many ways in which Tolkien was not like us. He was a man who mastered Latin as a child, he became a professor at Oxford University at a young age, and he preferred stories written in ancient Norse over contemporary writings. Plus, he was undoubtedly “old school” in his beliefs and behavior. He said a prayer in the ancient Gothic language the first time a tape recorder was put in front of him.
Yet, I think Tolkien was more of a regular bookish guy than what we usually consider established authors to be. He earned fame for writing during his lifetime, yet he never changed his homebody ways.
Here are ten ways that J.R.R. Tolkien was remarkably similar to us!
*All information, quotes, and paraphrases derived from Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography.
- He struggled with balancing his domestic life with his working and writing lives.
- He had a great love for words.
- He preferred fantasy over contemporary fiction.
- His spouse didn’t understand his extreme love of books.
- He found comfort and inspiration from his bookish friends and book clubs.
- He thought news and public affairs were secondary to a good book.
- He preferred escapes through his imagination over globetrotting.
- He had a silly sense of humor.
- He was a perfectionist when it came to his writing.
- He made LotR allusions in everyday conversation.
6. “Honey! The Daily Stormcrow is here!”
If you’re at all like me, you watch or read the news with a bit of dread. It brings about as much bad news as Gandalf. I actually have to force myself to keep up with current affairs, because otherwise, my nose would be permanently glued to a book during all of my free time. I’ve even been criticized by my elders for preferring fiction to the so-called hard news available to me on television.
It turns out that Tolkien shared my views on the news:
“Tolkien glance[d] at the newspaper, but only in the most cursory fashion. He, like his friend C.S. Lewis, regard[ed] ‘news’ as on the whole trivial and fit to be ignored, and they both argue[d] (to the annoyance of many of their friends) that the only ‘truth’ is to be found in literature,” (121).
Yeah! So, take that Book Naysayers!
7. Vacations: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things
Who needs to travel when you’ve got a good book? Oftentimes, I daydream about visiting far-off places that have been the settings of the books I love, but who am I kidding? The book always seems to be better! Apparently, Tolkien felt the same way:
“Though he studied the ancient literature of many countries, he visited few of them, often through force of circumstance but perhaps partly through lack of inclination. And indeed the page of a medieval text may be more potent than the modern reality of the land that gave it birth,” (65).
Even if I had a ton of money, I’m not sure that I would become a worldly jet-setter. I’m a firm believer in the lyrics of the Reading Rainbow theme: “I can go anywhere! Take a look, it’s in a book, a reading rainbow…”. I think the comfort of my couch, a good book, and my imagination are all I really need to go places and see things. Tolkien seemed to share this view throughout his life:
“Later in life when he had more money and fewer family ties he did make a few journeys abroad. But travel never played a large part in his life–simply because his imagination did not need to be stimulated by unfamiliar landscapes and cultures. [...] Gradually one forms the opinion that he did not altogether care very much where he was,” (129).
8. Fool of a Took!
While, in a lot of ways, Tolkien could appear to be more of a stodgy old hobbit in his tweed suits and fondness of plain food, he actually had a very silly sense of humor.
“He could laugh at anybody, but most of all himself, and his complete lack of any sense of dignity could and often did make him behave like a riotous schoolboy. [H]e would dress up as an Anglo-Saxon warrior complete with axe and chase an astonished neighbor down the road. Later in life he delighted to offer inattentive shopkeepers his false teeth among a handful of change,” (134).
Oh that Tolkien…what a joker!
9. Striving for Elrond-like Perfection
As I write this, a dark cloud is hanging in the back of my head. Oh, all of the revising I’ll have to do!
I know I’m not alone in the desire to only put out work that is as near to perfect as possible. It’s hard work – writing and proofreading and editing and then writing some more. But, at least I’m not writing an epic fantasy novel!
C.S. Lewis commented on Tolkien’s desire for perfect writing: “His standard of self-criticism was high and the mere suggestion of publication usually set him upon a revision, in the course of which so many new ideas occurred to him that where his friends had hoped for the final text of an old work they actually got the first draft of a new one,” (143).
Tolkien was very much emotionally connected to his writing, and he would consider it to be nothing less than disrespectful to the work if he didn’t spend copious amounts of time revising, reconsidering, and polishing his writing until it was as perfect as it could be.
In this manner, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings took decades to write. The Hobbit was written during the years of 1930-1937, and published in 1937. This was a pretty swift process for Tolkien, compared to the epic battle of writing and publication of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien wrote the first 31 chapters of The Lord of the Rings (up to “Flotsam and Jetsam”) during 1937-1943, and then was stuck, due to his need for perfection.
“Not content with writing a large and complex book, he felt he must ensure that every single detail fitted satisfactorily into the total pattern. Geography, chronology, and nomenclature had to be entirely consistent,” (198).
So, he worked on a map for the book, and didn’t get back to writing until the late spring of 1944, when he finished Book 4. Then he was stuck again. It wasn’t until the summer of 1946 that he started writing again, setting out to complete Books 5 and 6.
“Yet even now he did not finish. He revised, niggled, and corrected earlier chapters, [...] But the final full stop was something he could not achieve,” (206).
Finally, in the autumn of 1949, it was finished. It only took 12 years to write. But, then came the publishing issues.
Tolkien struggled with finding a publisher who would publish his book exactly as he wanted it. Five years after he finished writing, The Fellowship of the Ring was published in the summer of 1954, followed by The Two Towers in November. Yet, then, Tolkien had to grapple with the appendices that would appear at the end of the third installment. This delayed publication for another 11 months, and in October 1955, The Lord of the Rings was complete with the publication of The Return of the King (a title that Tolkien greatly disliked as it was a spoiler. He wanted the third installment to be “The War of the Ring”).
Overall, it took 18 years for The Lord of the Rings to reach the hands of readers (which isn’t really that long considering the length of time we have to wait on G.R.R.M. to give us the complete A Song of Ice and Fire). But, it was certainly perfection!
10. “Don’t Make Me Get All Gandalf on Your Ass!”
Ok, so I don’t think Tolkien ever said that. But, I could imagine him saying that (I certainly could imagine me saying that) as he made many other LotR references in conversation. Here are a few examples (which are far more eloquent and grave than getting “all Gandalf on your ass”):
“I am not a ‘democrat,’ if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power – and then we get and are getting slavery,” (132-133).
On the end of the war in Europe during WWII:
“We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring [....] The War is not over (and the one that is, or part of it, has largely been lost). But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on; and it is no good growing faint,” (203).
On his new house that sits next to a never-ending flow of noisy traffic:
“This charming house [...] has become uninhabitable: unsleepable-in, unworkable-in, rocked, racked with noise, and drenched with fumes. Such is modern life. Mordor in our midst,” (220).
Tolkien repeatedly argued that The Lord of the Rings was not allegory, but it certainly works for comparison!