I apologize greatly for how I’d suddenly dropped off the blog-space last week. An unforeseen illness confined me to bed. But I am well again, so that’s what matters.
Today we have the acclaimed king of the fantasy genre: J. R. R. Tolkien! I’ve just finally gotten around to watching the movie, Tolkien, which was amazing. Although, like all movies, some parts are dramatized for the sake of it. I still loved it, and recommend it.
The really funny thing about J. R. R. Tolkien is that it’s almost impossible to find a specific routine he preferred. So for Tolkien, I decided to share the literary clubs he belonged to.
The first one is the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.). This club was formed in his school years as teenagers. The club included three other members, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Gilson and Christopher Wiseman, from King Edward’s School in Birmingham. As portrayed in the movie, they did share their artistic works and often spent many days dreaming about their future. The usual meeting place was at Barrow’s Store, a tea shop. They also met in the school library on occasion.
The second and more well-known club he was a part of was the Inklings. Now, I can’t deny that I love this group since it was mainly founded by C. S. Lewis (!!!) and J. R. R. Tolkien, who were good friends. (Never mind the fact they sort of fought on various occasions.) They began by meeting every Monday morning “for a glass”. They would discuss politics, literature, and also critique each other’s works. Then, it developed into a more solid group with more members (mostly men), and they switched from Monday mornings to Thursday evenings. The Inklings met in places like pubs and like locations.
This includes general advice for writers seen in Tolkien’s letters, as well as specific advice for fantasy writers (especially those in the high fantasy genre).
- Create a reliable map. “I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.”
- Keep your childish side alive. “Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; a,d anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years’.”
- Keep writing, no matter what. From his correspondences, it’s clear that Tolkien struggled with various things in his life, from illness to overwork to his son being in the Royal Navy during WW2. But he kept writing, no matter what.
- Listen to critics. “When he [C. S. Lewis] would say, ‘You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!’ I would try. I’d sit down and write the section over and over. That happened with the scene I think is the best in the book, the confrontation between Gandalf and his rival wizard, Saruman, in the ravaged city of Isengard.” He writes that he “cut out some passages of light-hearted hobbit conversation which he [Lewis] found tiresome, thinking that if he did most other readers (if any) would feel the same…to tell the truth he never really like hobbits very much, least of all Merry and Pippin. But a great number of readers do, and would like more than they have got”.
- Write about what you love. “I began the construction of languages in early boyhood: I am primarily a scientific philologist. My interests were, and remain, largely scientific. But I was also interested in traditional tales (especially those concerning dragons); writing (not reading) verse and metrical devices. These things began to flow together when I was an undergraduate to the despair of my tutors and near-wrecking of my career”.
- Poetry works into prose. Tolkien wrote in poetry and verses when he couldn’t write it in prose. “The first version of the song of Strider concerning Luthien,… originally appeared in the Leeds University magazine, but the whole tale, as sketched by Aragorn, was written in a poem of great length”.
- Names matter. “The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stones’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.”
- You are also a character in your story. “I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me … I had never been to [the town of] Bree. [Seeing the character] Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo … I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.”
“I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size.”
- Real people make great characters. “There was a curious local character, an old man who used to go about sweeping gossip and weather-wisdom and such like. To amuse my boys I named him Gaffer Gamgee, and the name became part of family lore to fix on old chaps of the kind. At that time I was beginning on The Hobbit. The choice of Gamgee was primarily directed by alliteration; but I did not invent it. It was caught out of childhood memory, as a comic word or name. It was in fact the name when I was small (in Birmingham) for ‘cotton-wool’”
- Edit as you go. Tolkien spent almost twenty years on Lord of the Rings. Given his language inventions and earliest ideas, as well as later creations of Middle Earth continued, he could have spent almost thirty years and more on one set of story he wished to tell. In that span, he kept on revising his world and editing. Even after all he did, he still viewed his work as needing revisions. So, it just goes to show there isn’t enough editing you can do.
This is so different from what we saw from Lewis, but at the same time so insightful! Although I don’t intend to write high fantasy, this is such an excellent guide to world-building. Like advice number 9, for example, is something I already do. I usually start with a base character I know well enough in real life, then modify the person into an entirely new character.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s installation! Are there any Tolkien junkies out there? Did you know about Tolkien and his literary clubs? Are you in one like him? Let me know in the comments below.
Until next week, comrades!