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 Click To Tweet
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.