4 Writing Lessons from J.R.R. Tolkien You Really Don’t Want to Hear

March 22, 2024 | 4 min read

By Annie Cosby

The mastermind behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien is celebrated as one of the greatest fantasy authors of all time.

His work has inspired generations of readers and writers alike, including Ursula K. Le Guin and J. K. Rowling, shaping the landscape of modern fantasy literature. In addition to his iconic novels, people are fascinated by Tolkien's writing habits and how he managed to be so prolific within one human lifetime.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, published by Tolkien's son, Christopher, after his death provide a fantastic peek into the writer's personal life. Spanning more than six decades, the letters offer a chronological narrative of Tolkien's life and work. From his humble beginnings as a scholar to the towering figure of fantasy literature, Tolkien's correspondence reveals the evolution of his ideas and the challenges he faced in bringing his vision to life.

Hidden within these experiences is a treasure trove of writing advice writers probably don't want to hear. Let's explore four of these gems that challenge conventional wisdom: 

 

1. Sometimes you have to cut the grass.

One April letter from Tolkien reads:

"I managed to get an hour or two’s writing, and have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. Afternoon lawn-mowing. Term begins next week, and proofs of Wales papers have come. Still I am going to continue 'Ring' in every salvable moment."

 

The man had just 1-2 hours of writing a day and some "moments" and still managed to generate half a million words for the Lord of the Rings trilogy alone? Yes, even literary greats had to deal with the real world on a daily basis.

In fact, Tolkien had many other responsibilities that pulled him away from his writing, such as work as a translator and professor. (He also helped during the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.) But he didn't let that stop him.

P.S. Do you use generic working titles for your writing? It can't be more banal than using "Ring" to describe the sprawling fantasy epic that is Lord of the Rings!

 

2. Build the background.

Tolkien famously wrote extensive backgrounds to enrich his world-building. In one letter, he advises his son that "the tale should be more like a web than a chain." Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this web was Tolkien's fictional languages, including entire language families like Elvish and Dwarvish.

As a philologist, Tolkien was deeply familiar with the intricate nuances of words and their etymology. Tolkien's assertion is that delving into language creation not only enriched the world-building process but also lent authenticity and depth to his fictional cultures. Some of his languages even came before his books!

Now, we're not saying you need to create 15 different Elvish dialects. But we are saying that the richer the world-building, the more engaging the story. Tolkien is proof. 

 

3. It's not that deep.

If you're familiar with C.S. Lewis's relationship with Tolkien, you might know that Tolkien famously (and publicly) disliked allegory in literature. He and Lewis, though good friends, often butted heads about it.

Tolkien particularly hated when readers interpreted The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for World War II or other contemporary events. He vehemently denied any intentional allegorical elements in his work, saying:

"I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

 

Some scholars say this dislike of allegory relates to why Tolkien disliked Dune, writing in a private letter in 1966:

"It is impossible for an author still writing to be fair to another author working along the same lines. At least I find it so. In fact I dislike Dune with some intensity, and in that unfortunate case it is much the best and fairest to another author to keep silent and refuse to comment."

 

Thought it's just as likely Tolkien didn't like Dune for other reasons — like its treatment of religion (he was a devout Catholic) or political and societal commentary.

 

4. Success doesn’t make this easier.

One of the most poignant aspects of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien is Tolkien's reflections on the impact of fame and the pressure of literary success.

Many writers imagine a future level of success where this whole "creating intimate worlds and releasing them to the public for consumption and ridicule" thing gets easier. But Tolkien is evidence that it doesn't work like that.

After the commercial success of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien struggled to complete anything, revising the same stories over and over. (Sounds like he needed a Freewrite.) Tolkien is said to have worried that fans would be unsatisfied by stories not set in Middle Earth. He even wrote a few pages of a LOTR sequel before shelving it. When he died, Tolkien left behind a treasure trove of unpublished work.

At the end of the day, Tolkien's legacy serve as a reminder that true creativity must stem from a sincere passion for one's craft, rather than the pursuit of fame or fortune, in order to be sustainable.

 

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Whether you're a longtime fan of Tolkien's work or a newcomer to the universe of Middle Earth, Tolkien's writing life has left behind a legacy rich enough to inspire and enchant any writer.

What's your favorite aspect of Tolkien's legacy?

 

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Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri.

She lives in a little brick house in her hometown of St. Louis, Mo., with her Rottweiler mix and their favorite Irishman.

Learn more at anniecosby.com.

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