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Reading Tolkien as a Reader and a Writer

Unbealivable, don’t you think? Today marks my two years of reading Tolkien almost every day with my #YearOfTolkien group!

The first anniversary last year was pretty awesome. I never expected to come that far when in the summer of 2017 I started the readalong of Tolkien’s major stories with a lot of other people. By that first anniversary, only a handful of us were still reading, having gone through all Tolkien’s major stories, several of the minor ones, and having jumped into the History of Middle-earth without almost realising it.

This year has been all about the History of Middle-earth, and let me tell you, it has been one of the most fantastic, rewarding and enriching journeys I’ve ever made.

Visiting Middle-earth as a reader

Although I’ve been a Tolkien fan for most of my life, and although I enjoyed rereading his major works immensely during the readalong, I still doubt I’d had ever embark in reading The History of Middle-earth by myself.
It is a daunting undertaking. This is a work of twelve volumes collecting Tolkien’s drafts (first drafts and the many revisions) of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings and curated by Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien.
In the past I have often wondered whether I should read it or not and concluded that since I read the final work, I probably didn’t need it.

I mean. How wrong can a reader possibly be?

Reading Tolkien as a Reader and a Writer – Sharing, which is one of the most important themes of #Tolkien's stories, is also the most meaningful experience for his readers #readerslife Share on X

True, these are unpolished drafts, often chaotic, sometimes incomplete, certainly confusing (Tolkien was never satisfied with names, for example, and his characters changed names as other change their clothes). There are drafts that contradict other drafts, evolutions that change the course of the story you had known to that point. Characters appearing and (admittedly seldom) disappearing. Honestly I don’t know how Christopher could ever disentangle himself from this devilish chaos. Still his dedication is admirable and indeed endearing. I had often wondered about the relationship between this father and son.

THE RETURN OF THE SHADOW (JRR Tolkien) - Tolkien wrote the beginning of the 'New Hobbit' fourth times before he was reasonably happy with it.
Tolkien wrote the beginning of the ‘New Hobbit’
fourth times before he was reasonably happy with it.

One of Tolkien’s most important themes in his work – and one that you don’t really catch if you read only his major stories because it is entwined with so many other themes (especially in The Lord of the Rings) – is the power of sharing.
Community is a very powerful element in Tolkien’s worlds. Working together, sharing beliefs and values, joining forces to achieve a common goal, is presented over and over again in all his stories and always in a positive light, whereas solitude and isolation often leads to perdition.
This readalong has given me a taste of the positive feeling communion gives. Had I been left to my own, I’d have probably never read The History of Middle-earth, but the prompt of my group of readers (‘our little Fellowship’, as Melissa said once) eased me into reading it even against my scepticism. We read The Book of Lost Tales as a natural continuation to the Unfinished Tales, but the first book that was consciously the History, the one that made me realise, yes, I am reading The History of Middle-earth, was the third book, The Lays of Beleriand, the one dedicated to Tolkien’s poems. I’ve never been one fro poems. I almost stepped down at that point. It was because of the group that I didn’t. And luckily so, because I consider The Lays one of the best volumes in the History.
The group gave me the motivation to read, and sharing my impressions and experience with the others was the most rewarding part of it. Reading a chapter and then posting my impressions on the group, then receiving the impressions of others, sharing our feelings, discussing what we saw differently. This has made this reading experience even more enriching that it already was.

I do believe that today I’m a richer person (not just a richer reader) than I was two years ago.

Absorbing Middle-earth as a writer

THE RETURN OF THE SHADOW (JRR Tolkien) The first character to bear the name 'Frodo' was one of Bingo's (the original protagonist of the 'New Hobbit) companions, one of his Took cousins.
The first character to bear the name ‘Frodo’ was one of Bingo’s
(the original protagonist of the ‘New Hobbit) companions, one of
his Took cousins.

Reading an author you love is one of the awesomest experience in life, in my opinion. It goes from admiring the language, to pondering the themes, to applying your reflection to your own life and in the best instances this helps you disentangle your everyday worries (I’m not joking). But if you are an author as well as a reader, having the possibility to see your author’s creative process is one of the best thing that can ever happened to you and your creative life.

Tolkien was a methodical man and a methodical author and his ‘behind the scene’ work reflects that. Not only he wrote down his drafts, with all the subsequent changes and evolutions, he also made lots of ‘notes to self’ and wrote a lot of synopsis, sometimes exploring alternative possibilities in the story (especially with regard to The Lord of the Rings). He wasn’t afraid to rewrite entire passages when he felt he needed to, to go back and rethink episodes, and especially motivations and feelings. He halted many times as he wrote The Lord of the Rings, sometimes for long periods (the pause of almost one year when WWII broke out is particularly notable), but always he came back to his story.
He was a dogged author. He wanted the best for the story, no matter how much time and work that would required. So, even when he thought he was settled, if a new idea arose, if it would benefit the story, he would pursue it, letting it mingle with the rest – no matter how much it was going to change. This is what I think made his stories so deep.

THE RETURN OF THE SHADOW (JRR Tolkien) Trotter, the character that would eventually morph into Aragorn, was a hobbit
Trotter, the character that would eventually morph into Aragorn,
was a hobbit

For example: We are reading the end of what is today The Fellowship of the Ring and from everything we see (prospects, synopsis, first draft of ideas) Tolkien thought he was nearing the end of the story. He would bring Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and Aragorn and the rest of the Fellowship at the Siege of Gondor (or Ondor, as the name goes at the moment), and that would be it. A matter of a few chapter to go.
As we know, that’s far from being the case, and I suspect that as he set foot in Rohan, and he realised the Rohirrim were in fact his beloved Anglo-Saxons, he was simply swept away by his life-long love and admiration for this people. That Tolkien loved the Rohirrim is really quite obvious – at least to me.

Witnessing this laborious work, which is in many ways very similar to how I work my own stories, gave me a lot of food for thoughts.

When I selfpublished my novella three years ago, I knew it was an experiment, because I sensed I’m not cut out for the selfpublishing market. Three years later, I know I am not. Selfpublishing with any success means being able to publish very often. It used to be a couple of novels a year, but the number is increasing. It means being able to write and polished a novel in a matter of a couple of months.
Not for me. I can’t even write a first draft in a couple of months. And I wouldn’t be able even if I had a lot more time on my hands. Simply, that’s not the way I create stories.
Lately, this has given me a lot of insecurities. Is it even worth it? Should I really invest all this time in my stories, when I’ll never make anything of it. I will never be able to rely on my stories to make my life more comfortable. On the contrary, at the moment my stories are making me feel frustrated, because I can’t give them the care and time I’d want.
All things considered, I nearly came to the conclusion that no, it isn’t worth it. I’m not writing the kind of stories traditional publishes want and I don’t have the characteristics that selfpublsihing requires.
Isn’t this the recipes for a failure?

THE TREASON OF ISENGARD (JRR Tolkien) The famous line 'Fool of a Took' was not in the first draft of the Moria chapter
The famous line ‘Fool of a Took’ was not in the first draft of
the Moria chapter

But reading Tolkien, and especially this part of the History concerning the creation of The Lord of the Rings, has really made me think.
True, Tolkien was asked to write the sequel to The Hobbit by his publisher. He started off by trying to adequate to what the market required, but he ended up writing what his heart desired. The story he wrote wasn’t what his publisher expected and he realised it at a certain point. When he finished it – 12 years later – he knew it was unpublishable. The Lord of the Rings was too long, and too strange, and too unconventional, and probably too incomprehensible if read without the ground of The Silmarillion. Still he gave it his everything.
His love for the story gave him the strength and the perseverance to work at it to the end, whatever it would happen next. Tolkien believed in sharing and he believed he had something to share through The Lord of the Rings, something important, and so he went through his laborious process even if he thought it was probably for nothing.

Reading Tolkien as a Reader and a Writer – "#Tolkien was a master storyteller and having the opportunity to read his first drafts is an awesome learning adventure #writingtips #writerslife Share on X
THE TREASON OF ISENGARD (JRR Tolkien) Seeing how Tolkien initially envisioned Galadriel in his notes, she definitelly had her way with him!
Seeing how Tolkien initially envisioned Galadriel in his notes,
she definitelly had her way with him!

Of course I know I’ll never write anything remotely approaching The Lord of the Rings, but that’s not my goal. What Tolkien is teaching me is that we should stick to what we are passionate about, because inside our passion there’s always something we can share, and by sharing we become better human beings, not least because of the gift we make.
It is an adventure worth going on.
Writing my stories is still worth it. Not because they can change my life in a more comfortable direction, but because they may change me in a way that I think is valuable and because whatever little I have to offer it’s worth offering.
Tolkien is teaching me that writing the story we want to write is more important than making the market happy. Whatever fate those stories will have.

So this is my toast to my #YearOfTolkien reading group (@Daisey @Riveted_Reader_Melissa @eanderson @wordslinger42 @tdrosebud @BookwormAHN) who have given me one of the most enriching experiences of these years, and to Professor Tolkien, who offered us everything he had.

READING TOLKIEN AS A READER AND A WRITER - A toast to my awesome Tolkien Reading Group, to our second year of reading Tolkien (almost) every day, and to our favourite professor
READING TOLKIEN AS A READER AND A WRITER - A toast to my awesome Tolkien Reading Group, to our second year of reading Tolkien (almost) every day, and to our favourite professor


  • Steven Malone
    Posted July 18, 2019 at 23:01

    I envy you your ‘little fellowship’ of readers. I envy the ambition of the group. I consider reading Tolkien’s LOTR as on of the monumental events of my life, teaching me the real meanings of courage and friendship. Tell your fellowship I admire you all. Great post. Thanks.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 20, 2019 at 08:41

      I so understand you. Lord of the Rings is in my opinion one of the best books ever written.
      And yes, I’m so grateful for my #FellowshipOfTolkien group 🙂

  • Sue Bursztynski
    Posted July 19, 2019 at 01:44

    Well said! In the end, you can only write for yourself and hope that others will also like it. You probably know that the same young man who had read the manuscript of The Hobbit for Allen And Unwin also read the manuscript of LOTR. He said that it was never going to sell, but they should buy it anyway, because it was going to be a classic. So the publishers did a special deal, offering half the profits, believing there was unlikely to be too much profit to share… I guess that the fact the author loved what he had written simply showed through. And it does! If an author has written for the market, that shows too.

    I read several volumes of the HOME, by myself, during a Tolkien binge. It’s amazing how much changed over the years… At the same time, it helps you appreciate the finished products more. It’s a bit like something Roger Zelazny wrote in one of his story introductions, about writing something that tells the readers something about your character, then cutting it. It gives your work more depth. He said he got that from Ernest Hemingway.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 20, 2019 at 08:45

      If you think about it, the history of The Lord of the Rings is pretty awesome. Its author didn’t want to write it, but did it and ended up writing what he really wanted to write. Its publisher thought it was going to be a failure but published it anyway because he also thought it was a marvellouse story.
      All in all, it shaped up as a story that nobody wanted, and ended up touching the hearts of so many people through the decades.

      I wonder whether there’s something really important here for us. I don’t see anything like this happening today.

  • Roland R Clarke
    Posted July 22, 2019 at 04:16

    Tolkien inspires me as does you & your group. The market is getting more demanding and perverse, so it’s time to take a different approach and write what I want to write. Thank you and Tolkien.

    • Post Author
      Posted July 25, 2019 at 12:08

      You used the right word. The market is becoming more perverse and expect from authors more and more unearthy things, in my opinion.

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