The Lord of the Rings
A few weeks after “The Hobbit” had been published, Tolkien went to London to discuss a potential successor to the book with Stanley Unwin. Apparently both found the other slightly odd. Tolkien informed the publisher that he had a number of stories to offer:
– The Silmarillion, even though Tolkien knew that it was not suitable as a successor
– Mr Bliss
– Farmer Giles of Ham
– The unfinished version of The Lost Road
He then sent the manuscripts of all these to Allen & Unwin. While they enjoyed the children’s stories, they wanted a story about hobbits. “The Silmarillion”, on the other hand, was clearly in a different league – though at that point in time, it was still in a much worse league. The MS arrived in a disorganised state, and the only continuous section was the Tale of Beren and Lúthien. Unwin passed it to a publisher’s reader, who was most uncomplimentary about it, even to the extent of being rude about the rhyming couplets. However, he did like the prose sections, finding the stories enthralling:
“It is told with a picturesque brevity and dignity that holds that reader’s interest in spite of its eye-splitting Celtic names. It has something of that mad, bright-eyed beauty that perplexes all Anglo-Saxons in the face of Celtic art.”
After that review, Unwin sent a letter to Tolkien saying that he found “The Silmarillion” to be more of a mine of inspiration which could be explored when writing further books than a book in its own right. He hoped that Tolkien would still be inspired to write another book about the Hobbit. Tolkien replied, saying that he would give some thought to the matter.
“But I am sure that you will sympathise when I say that the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology (and two languages) rather occupies the mind, and the Silmarils are in my heart. So goodness knows what will happen. Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental.”
However, even after those depressing words, Tolkien soon wrote to Charles Furth, a member of the editorial staff at Allen & Unwin, saying that he had the draft of a first chapter of a new book. The chapter was called “A long expected party”. At that point, Tolkien had no clear idea what the new book was going to entail. The end of “The Hobbit”, he had stated that Bilbo lived happily ever after, and so he was not clear to Tolkien how Bilbo could then go off and have further adventures. The first draft, however, had Bilbo going off to search for more dragon gold, as he had no money or jewels left. Only a section of the first chapter was written using this idea.
Tolkien then decided to introduce a new character – Bilbo’s son, Bingo. He was named after a family of toy koalas owned by the children – the Bingos. And he had another idea – one that proved pivotal – he would reintroduce the Ring, a feature that hadn’t been developed fully in “The Hobbit”. Perhaps it had as yet unknown properties? Tolkien jotted down some ideas in his notes:
“The Ring: whence its origin? Necromancer? Not very dangerous, when used for good purpose. But it exacts its penalty. You must either lose it, or yourself.”
Tolkien rewrote his first idea with a focus on the Ring in mind. He made his hero Bingo Bolger-Baggins, Bilbo’s nephew and this draft was sent to Allen & Unwin for Rayner Unwin’s review. Rayner was delighted with it, and his father told Tolkien to go ahead with the rest of the book. Tolkien’s response was to write a second chapter – “Three’s Company”, where Bingo and his cousins Odo and Frodo set off on a journey. A few weeks later, when a Black Rider made an unexpected appearance in the chapter, it seemed that Tolkien was unconsciously diverting off the light-hearted path that Allen & Unwin had wanted him to follow, and setting himself off down a darker, deeper, mythological road.
The book still had no clear aim, even when Tolkien wrote a third chapter, and eventually, in July 1938, Tolkien wrote to Charles Furth that he had lost interest in the Hobbit’s sequel. He was too busy with his everyday academic life and an additional worry – Christopher had recently been diagnosed with a mystery heart condition. Shortly after that hiatus came the death of EV Gordon, and another postponement of writing.
Yet in this time when the book came second, Tolkien began to organise his ideas about the Ring, and he inevitably started to work again, writing some dialogue between Bingo and Gildor, where the hobbit discovers the real nature of ‘his precious’. It was to be one of a number of rings made by the Necromancer, and the Black Riders were revealed as servants of the Dark Lord, looking for the Ring. After this, the plot been to become clear, and Tolkien soon after decided that the ring was the One Ring, and wrote a passage between Bingo and Gandalf, where Gandalf was explaining to the hobbit that the Ring needed to be taken to Mordor, and destroyed in the fires of Orodruin. The story then seemed to flow, and Tolkien quickly wrote chapters 4 – 7, though he noted that the book “progresses towards quite unforeseen goals”. After these plot basics were established, the book that started off as a light-hearted children’s story had changed into a dark-hearted quest story and a tale of heroic romance. This was good, as Tolkien hadn’t really wanted to write another “Hobbit”, instead preferring to work on his mythology. When the new book became firmly entrenched in the universe of “The Silmarillion”, and looked like it was going to have the same dignity of purpose and high style, Tolkien was happier, and mysteriously found more time and energy to devote to the project.
That summer, the family went for a holiday at Sidmouth, and there Tolkien found a good deal of time to write in peace and quiet. He brought the hobbits to Bree, where they met an odd character – who was also a completely unpremeditated element in the narrative. In the first draft, that person was a queer-looking, brown-faced hobbit called Trotter.
Soon after that, Tolkien named the story “The Lord of the Rings”, and he came to realise that “The Lord of the Rings” was the sequel to “The Silmarillion”, not “The Hobbit”. By the end of 1938, he was well into what would become Book II, and in 1939, Tolkien finally changed Bingo into Frodo, after a brief period of considering changing everything he had done and rewriting the book with Bilbo as the hero.
Every aspect of “The Silmarillion” was playing a part in the new story – with the mythology and elvish language providing a sense of depth and history. Under the title “The New Hobbit”, it was read chapter by chapter to the Inklings, who received it with much enthusiasm, though not everyone enjoyed the high style of prose that was coming to dominate.
During World War II
At the same time as Tolkien was devising his book title, Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement with Hitler. As a result, many people came to see “The Lord of the Rings” as a war book, reflecting real life in its fictional pages. This was clearly untrue, as CS Lewis pointed out:
“These things were not devised to reflect any particular situation in the real world. It was the other way round; real events began, horribly, to conform to the pattern he had freely invented.”
The outbreak of WWII had a very different impact on Tolkien’s life than WWI. This time, he wasn’t personally involved in fighting – but his sons were. He did, however, take turns of duty as an air raid warden, sleeping in the hut that served as the local HQ during his stands. He also organised a syllabus for naval cadets in the English school, and modified many of his lectures to suit less specialised audiences.
However, his moral and personal outrage over the war was just as strong as in WWI, but this time he had a focus for this outrage in Hitler, like millions of other people round the world.
“I have in this War a burning personal grudge against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler for ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
Tolkien later recalled that work on the book stopped for a year late in 1940, when the company had reached Balin’s tomb. When he restarted the work, he began to sketch out the character of Treebeard – an expression of his love for the green and unspoiled countryside – and perhaps a reaction to the war machines that were despoiling the land he loved.
In December 1942, Stanley Unwin received a letter from Tolkien saying that the new work was nearly finished, and that it would require but six more chapters. He was at “Flotsam and Jetsam”. However, six months later, he admitted that he was again stuck. One difficulty was his perfectionism – every detail had to fit beautifully into the bigger picture and be entirely consistent throughout the mythology. He did receive some help from Christopher, who had created a map of Middle-earth, but Tolkien did not consider this enough, and made endless calculations of time and distance, drawing up elaborate timelines. These showed dates, days of the week, hours, and sometimes even the direction of the wind and the phase of the moon. While this was sometimes simple perfectionism, it also showed a joy in creation – in fashioning all the little details of his world, and making it well.
In around 1943, Tolkien stopped work on “The Lord of the Rings”, and wrote “Leaf by Niggle” – a tale of a painter who niggled over every detail, and thereby forgot to look at the larger picture. This was clearly a reflection of the turmoil Tolkien found himself in. In the story, he expressed his worst fears for his mythology, and in real life, he worried – like Niggle – that he would be taken away from the world before his creation was complete. At the start of 1944, Tolkien wrote that he did not “seem to have any mental energy or invention”, but he was urged to write again by CS Lewis. He did so in April 1944.
“Tuesday 25 April: “… struggled with recalcitrant passage in “The Ring”. At this point I require to know how much later the moon gets up each night when nearing full, and how to stew a rabbit!””
“Thursday 4 May: “A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir … If he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices….””
In 1946, Tolkien told Allen & Unwin that he hoped to have the book finished later in the year.
In autumn 1945, Tolkien became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, a position that came with a Fellowship of Merton College – a situation he found much preferable to life at Pembroke. However, when CS Lewis was later passed over for the position of Merton Professor of English Literature, a cooling in their friendship started. They both still attended Inklings meetings regularly, but their easy intimacy was lost. Furthermore, Lewis started to show Tolkien his stringent criticisms of details in “The Lord of the Rings” – particularly its poems. In return, Tolkien did not like Lewis’s “Narnia” stories – deciding that he had simply decided to “have a go” at fantasy, drawing on a lot of Tolkien’s original elements as the plot design. After Lewis was given a new chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, the two men rarely saw each other.
In 1947, the family moved from Northmoor Road, which had become too big and expensive to maintain, into a Merton College house on Manor Road. However, when they arrived, Tolkien immediately realised that it was too small and cramped – he didn’t even have his own study. Release from the small house came only several years later when Merton offered them 99 Holywell – an old house of much character, with a larger number of rooms.
The end of the tale
In the summer of 1947, Rayner Unwin, who was then an Oxford undergraduate, was shown a typescript of most of “The Lord of the Rings”. He commented that it was a “weird book”, but a “brilliant and gripping story”. Rayner had no doubt that the book deserved publication, though he suspected that it was, in some way, an allegory, comparable to Wagner and the Nibelungenlied.
That autumn, “The Lord of the Rings” was finished. After some further revision that took many more months, Tolkien sat down and typed a fair copy – using only two fingers and balancing the typewriter on his attic bed. In autumn 1949, his venture was concluded.
Tolkien then lent the typescript to Lewis, who commented:
” … the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it would indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me. In two virtues I think it excels: sheer sub-creation – Bombadil, Barrow Wights, Elves, Ents – as if from inexhaustible resources, and construction. Also in gravitas. … I congratulate you. All the long years you have spent on it are justified.”
Tolkien did not think the book flawless, but as he told Stanley Unwin: “It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin, and I can no other.” The book had taken 12 years to write, and at the end, Tolkien was not far from his 60th birthday.
However, at that point, Tolkien was not convinced that he wanted Allen & Unwin to publish the book, as he thought that he had found someone else that would publish both “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion”. Over the years, he had become increasingly angry with Allen & Unwin for rejecting “The Silmarillion” in 1937, and he desperately wanted to see his beloved mythology published. When Milton Waldman from Collins showed an interest in publishing both, Tolkien was unsurprisingly swayed to his cause. In May 1950, however, his plan backfired when Collins told him that “The Lord of the Rings” would need severe cutting. Tolkien said he would try, but later told Collins that they must publish as it was, or he would take the book back to Allen & Unwin.
This he did on the 22nd June 1952, writing to Rayner “What about “The Lord of the Rings”? Can anything be done about that, to unlock gates I slammed myself?”
Tolkien then got the finished manuscript to Rayner, who was working at Allen & Unwin, after a holiday in Ireland.
On the 10th November 1952, Rayner wrote to Tolkien saying that Allen & Unwin would publish “The Lord of the Rings” under a profit-sharing agreement, in which the author would be paid 50% of any profits – and therefore would receive nothing until the book started to make money. This was a normal course of action for books that publishers thought may prove uneconomical to print.
But before that could happen, Tolkien wanted to check through the typescript one more time to iron out any inconsistencies. He also needed to write the appendices, and was worried about needing an accurate map. To decrease the amount of time and energy he had for his book further, he had a huge backlog of academic work to cover, and had also decided to move house again. 99 Holywell had been made unbearable by the stream of motor traffic that now ran past it:
“This charming house has become uninhabitable: unsleepable-in, unworkable-in, rocked, racked with noise, and drenched with fumes. Such is modern life. Mordor in our midst.”
Priscilla had moved away from home, and Edith had become pained with arthritis, so Tolkien moved her to a house in Headington, a quiet suburb to the east of the city. The move was completed in March 1953.
The final revision of the script was completed for Book I in April 1953, closely followed by the script for Book II. After a long, drawn-out discussion, Tolkien and Rayner finally decided on the titles for the three volumes – “The Fellowship of the Ring”, “The Two Towers”, and “The Return of the King”, though Tolkien was steadfast in preferring “The War of the Ring” for Book II.
Tolkien had his normal run-ins with the publishers, who wanted to change spellings and details, and map creation was eventually handed over to Christopher Tolkien in its entirety. He then produced one large-scale map, and a smaller one of the Shire.
The first volume was due to be published in summer 1954, with a limited print run of 3500 copies. The second and third volumes were to follow at short intervals afterwards. Rayner Unwin decided that he did not want to write the dustjacket copy, and so he found three authors to give their opinions – Naomi Mitchison (a devotee of “The Hobbit”), Richard Hughes (who again liked “The Hobbit”) and CS Lewis.
Tolkien looked on the book’s publication with apprehension, and in a letter to Fr Francis he wrote:
“I am dreading the publication … for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.”
The creation of a classic
Only six weeks after the publication of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, a reprint was ordered. While some reviews were harsh, most were enthusiastic – and even Tolkien admitted that they were better than he had feared. In mid-November, “The Two Towers” was released, to similar reviews.
In America, Houghton Mifflin published “The Fellowship of the Ring” in October 1954, and “The Two Towers” shortly afterwards. Reviews were cautious, though enthusiastic articles penned by WH Auden helped boost sales.
One last problem remained – the appendices, which were proving difficult for Tolkien to write. He wanted to fill an entire volume with the details of the history and linguistics of Middle-earth, and now he found he had to compress his ideas greatly. He had also wanted to create a large index of names, but this turned out to be another project which had to be abandoned. The final copy of the appendices reached the printers on May 20th 1955 – long after the publication of “The Return of the King” had been expected in both the UK and America.
By the time the printers had gone through the appendices, and fashioned a list of questions for Tolkien, he and Priscilla had gone on holiday to Italy. Venice was particularly admired by the father and daughter, Tolkien writing that the city:
“is almost free of the cursed disease of the internal combustion engine of which all the world is dying … Venice seemed incredibly, elvishly lovely – to me like a dream of Old Gondor, or Pelargir of the Númenórean Ships, before the return of the Shadow.”
Only when the Tolkiens travelled on to Assisi did the queries from the printers reach them, and eventually, almost a year after the release of “The Two Towers”, the third volume was published.
When the entire work had been published, opinions were highly polarised. Some reviewers loved it, some loathed it:
“One of the most remarkable works of literature in our, of any, time. It is comforting, in this troubled day, to be once assured that the meek shall inherit the earth.” Bernard Levin.
“all the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes” Edwin Muir.
Sales climbed steadily, boosted by a radio dramatisation, and in early 1956, Tolkien received his first profit from his work – a cheque for more than £3500. A larger cheque followed in 1957. He then became worried about the tax implications of his money, and when Marquette University in America offered to buy the manuscripts of his principal published works in 1957, he accepted £1250 for them. Therefore, in the spring of 1958, the university received the scripts of “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “Farmer Giles of Ham” and “Mr Bliss”.
At the same time, Allen & Unwin began to negotiate for translations of “The Lord of the Rings” into different languages, starting in 1956 with a Dutch edition. A Swedish edition followed in 1959, and later “The Lord of the Rings” was translated into all the major European languages and a good many non-European tongues. With this proliferation of interest in the book, Tolkien received many invitations to travel abroad and talk about his work, but he only accepted one – an invitation to Holland in 1958, where he gave a speech in English, Dutch and Elvish.
Stanley Unwin warned Tolkien that offers would soon be made for the film rights to the book, and the two of them agreed that offers would only be considered if they involved a respectable treatment of the book, or a large amount of money. One has to wonder which of these criteria Peter Jackson was aiming towards!
The Ballantine Controversy
Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s American publishers, found out that Ace Books were planning an unauthorised paperback version of “The Lord of the Rings”, and they realised that they would need to publish their own paperback version pretty quickly to gain the US copyright for the work. But Tolkien did not do the necessary revisions, and continued to work on his new story, “Smith of Wootton Major”, as well as his translation of Gawain. By the time he had finished those, the Ace edition had already been published.
Allen & Unwin then asked Tolkien to finish his revisions as soon as possible. So Tolkien started doing some revisions – but to “The Hobbit”, not to “The Lord of the Rings” as requested. It was only a good few months later that he got round to the requested revisions, and in late 1965, the authorised paperback was published in three volumes. One of the only good things resulting from the publishing war with Ace was that the story became widely publicised in the US, and as a result, Tolkien’s name became much more familiar to the book-buying public.
Approximately 100,000 copies of the Ace edition sold during 1965, but sales of the authorised paperback quickly reached a million.
A university cult
The books soon appeared in the top of the best-seller lists, and started what was pretty much a “The Lord of the Rings” “cult” in American universities. The books began to outsell classics such as “Lord of the Flies” and “Catcher in the Rye”, and lapel badges with slogans like “Gandalf for President” became a common sight among students. Branches of the Tolkien Society were created along the West Coast of America in New York State, and these eventually grew into the Mythopoeic Society – which is still in existence.
Eventually, the writings even achieved academic respectability, being the subject of theses and volumes of criticism. Nowadays, there are even university lecture courses based around the books.
By the end of 1968, approximately three million copies of “The Lord of the Rings” had been sold around the world, and a “Tolkien in Oxford” documentary had been filmed.
Tolkien really didn’t like the attention that his success thrust on him. He wrote to a reader:
“Being a cult figure in one’s own lifetime I am afraid is not at all pleasant. … in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense.”
Fame simply puzzled him. He hadn’t ever expected it, didn’t see why de deserved it, and indeed didn’t even find it appropriate. His house started to overflow with letters and gifts from admirers, and since both his address and telephone number were widely available, he was bothered with callers and telephone calls at all hours of the day and night. As he wrote to Simonne d’Ardenne:
“The Book (The Lord of the Rings) continues to sell astonishingly, and to receive tremendous praise, and the opposite. But, my dear, I am so dreadfully tired.”
The Lord of the Rings on film
In 1957, Tolkien was visited by people who wished to make an animated version of the “The Lord of the Rings”. He was given a copy of the film synopsis, which he duly read, and wrote the following to Rayner Unwin:
“An abridgement by selection with some good picture-work would be pleasant, & perhaps worth a good deal in publicity; but the present script is rather a compression with resultant over-crowding and confusion, blurring of climaxes, and general degradation: a pull-back towards more conventional ‘fairy-stories’. People gallop about on Eagles at the least provocation; Lórien becomes a fairy-castle with ‘delicate minarets’, and all that sort of thing.
But I am quite prepared to play ball, if they are open to advice – and if you decide that the thing is genuine, and worthwhile.”
And then this to Christopher:
“The Story Line of Scenario was, however, on a lower level. In fact bad. But it looks as if business might be done. Stanley U. & I have agreeed on our policy: Art of Cash. Either very profitable terms indeed; or absolute author’s veto on objectionable features or alterations.”
In June 1958, Tolkien wrote a commentary on the script to Forrest J Ackerman. Below are some of the more pertinent comments:
“If Z [Mr Zimmerman] and/or others do so, they may be irritated or aggrieved by the tone of many of my criticisms. If so, I am sorry (though not surprised). But I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation … of an author, who finds, increasingly, as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about …
The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.
Z … has intruded a ‘fairy castle’ and a great many Eagles, not to mention incantations, blue lights, and some irrelevant magic (such as the floating body of Faramir).
19. Why does Z put beaks and feathers on Orcs!?
21 ff. ‘A splendid sight. It is the home of Galadriel … an Elvenqueen.’ (She is not in fact one.) ‘Delicate spires and tiny minarets of Elven-color are cleverly woven into a beautiful[ly] designed castle.‘ I think this deplorable in itself, and in places impertinent. Will Z please pay my text some respect, at least in descriptions that are obviously central to the general tone and style of the book! I will in no circumstances accept this treatment of Lórien