5 Lessons from Tolkien About Writing and Life
I recently reread The Lord of the Rings for the first time as an adult. I thoroughly enjoyed it and got so much more out of it than I did as a teenager. This time I was reading it both as a writer and as a fan. I was inspired to revisit the fascinating volume The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, to get more insight into Tolkien as a man and as a writer.
Tolkien lived through a series of horrifying historical events. He also had a happy marriage and a large family (by today’s standards), not to mention a full-time job as a philologist. He was a busy man with a lot to think about. Yet, somehow he managed to craft an amazingly detailed secondary world that has come to set the standard for a whole genre.
Here are some of the lessons Tolkien can teach us about writing and life:
- Only You Can Stop You From Writing
One of the most common excuses we use for not getting our work done is that we don’t have the time to write. Many people complain that they are not inspired, maybe they are too tired, too stressed, etc. While it is important to take care of yourself and take a break from time to time, it’s also important to know when to fight through these obstacles.
Tolkien wrote while he was participating in World War 1. Several of his letters mention days spent drilling in the rain, followed by a writing session. He had a demanding career and was a devoted husband and father. Not to mention that he lived through a laundry list of global crises and tragedies. Through all of his worries and obligations, he made time to write and forced himself to focus on it.
2. Fellowship is Important in Real Life Too
One of the main themes in Tolkien’s books, and especially in The Lord of the Rings, is fellowship. Frodo really wouldn’t have gotten very far without Sam, and the work of all the characters together accomplished what none of them could have done alone.
This was a concept that Tolkien understood from real-life experience. He was always a member of a group of other creators. They critiqued each other’s work and encouraged and inspired each other. When he was in school in 1911, he and his friends called their group the T.C.B.S. or Tea Club and Barrovian Society. This name alluded to their habit of illicitly taking tea in the library. Tragically, most of the young men in this group died during World War 1. Tolkien writes in his letters, “by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Tolkien didn’t let the pain of these losses stop him from forming new friendships. Later, when he was working at Oxford, he, C.S. Lewis, and several other literary-minded men joined together to form the Inklings. C.S. Lewis said of the Inklings, “What I owe to them all is incalculable.” Speaking of his work on the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said, “Only by [Lewis’s] support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end.”
If you are not working as a professor at Oxford, it might be harder to find like minded friends than it was for Tolkien, but it’s worth the effort.
3. Write About Your Passions
Tolkien loved languages and began inventing his own in childhood. This passion led him to create the languages that we now know as “Elvish”. He built the many cultures of Middle Earth on this foundation.
He also had some strong opinions and values that come through in his stories. For instance, one major theme of all of his works is the importance of hope and the existence of God as a source of hope. He also talks about the folly of glorifying battle — a lesson no doubt gleaned from the propaganda of WW1. His stories often center on friendship and romance, things that he felt strongly about in real life.
His work has a powerful effect on his readers because of the genuine feeling he put into them. I go to his works for encouragement and wisdom, and I’ve heard many other Tolkien fans say the same. If you care about something, write about it. Your passion will come through to your readers, and even though everyone might not see eye to eye with you, those who do will become loyal readers.
4. Know What Criticism to Take and What to Leave
Tolkien received negative feedback on his writing sometimes. I know that seems crazy, but it’s true! Without the criticism of his fellow writers, Tolkien’s work wouldn’t have been as good as it is. He writes that Lewis, in particular, would read a passage and say that he felt Tolkien could do better. He appreciated this criticism and used it to improve his writing.
Tolkien also received other types of criticism. Mainly about his choice to write fantasy, which at the time was seen as a genre for children and criticized as “escapist.” His fascination with made-up languages was also criticized and seen as an inappropriate hobby for a serious scholar. He defended his work against these types of criticisms and didn’t let it derail him from what he truly loved.
5. Be Humble
As hard as it might be to believe now, Tolkien never expected that he would become a best-selling author. Throughout his letters, he makes self-deprecating comments about himself and his work. He didn’t think that “the imaginings of his mind” would be important to the world. He was writing mainly for himself.
Even after he became a success, Tolkien often described his fame as “an accident.” I think it’s fair to say that he always wanted to achieve something great, but he didn’t let his ego get the best of him. He’d seen other men with high ambitions die young or simply fail to meet with popular success. I think he knew that the only satisfaction he could be sure of was the satisfaction he got from writing- not from publication or fame.
*All quotes sourced from the first Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback edition of The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, Edited by Humphrey Carpenter.