The scholarly creative method of JRR Tolkien

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Bruce Charlton examines the scholarly creative method of JRR Tolkien:

Tolkien’s remarkable creative method has been elucidated by TA Shippey in his Road to Middle Earth; and amply confirmed by the evidence from the History of Middle Earth (HoME) edited by Christopher Tolkien.

In a nutshell, Tolkien treats his ‘first draft’ as if it were an historical text of which he is a scholarly editor. So when Tolkien is revising his first draft his approach is similar to that he would take when preparing (for example) an historically-contextualized edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Beowulf.

So, as he reads his own first draft, he is trying to understand what ‘the author’ (himself) ‘meant’, he is aware of the possibility of errors in transcription, or which may have occurred during the historical transmission. He is also aware that ‘the author’ was writing from a position of incomplete knowledge, and was subject to bias.

This leads to some remarkable compositional occurrences. For example, in the HoME Return of the Shadow (covering the writing of the first part of Lord of the RingsLotR) Tolkien wrote about the hobbits hiding from a rider who stopped and sniffed the air. The original intention was that this rider was to be Gandalf and they were hiding to give him a surprise ‘ambush’. In the course of revision the rider became a ‘Black Rider’ and the hobbits were hiding in fear — the Black Riders were later, over many revisions, and as the story progressed, developed into the most powerful servants of Sauron.

This is a remarkable way of writing. Most writers know roughly what they mean in their first draft, and in the process of revising and re-drafting they try to get closer to that known meaning. But Tolkien did the reverse: he generated the first draft, then looked at it as if that draft had been written by someone else, and he was trying to decide what it meant — and in this case eventually deciding that it meant something pretty close to the opposite of the original meaning.

In other words, Tolkien’s original intention counted for very little, but could be — and was, massively reinterpreted by the editorial decision.

The specifics of the incident (rider, sniffing) stayed the same; but the interpretation of the incident was radically altered.

By contrast, most authors maintain the interpretation of incidents throughout revisions, but change the specific details.

Actually, Charlton does not describe Tolkien’s method as simplyscholarly, but as shamanistic:

By shamanistic, I mean that I believe much of Tolkien’s primary, first-draft creative, imaginative work was done in a state of altered consciousness — a ‘trance’ state or using ideas from dreams.

This is not unusual among creative people, especially poets. Robert Graves wrote about this a great deal. And neither is it unusual for poets to treat their ‘inspired’ first draft as material for editing. The first draft — if it truly is inspired — is interpreted as coming from elsewhere — from divine sources, from ‘the muse’, or perhaps from the creative unconscious; at any rate, the job of the alert and conscious mind is to ‘make sense’ of this material without destroying the bloom or freshness derived from its primary source.

This is, I believe, why Tolkien did not see himself as inventing, rather as understanding. If key evidence was missing, he could try and interpolate it like a historian by extrapolation from other evidence, or he could await poetic inspiration, which might provide the answer.

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