Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tolkien's Failure (an IWSG post)

This is not one of those posts meant to make you feel better by allowing you to compare yourself to the failure of "stars" before they made it big. Actually, I hate those posts. I don't care how many times Rowling or Dr. Seuss or Stephen King or John Grisham were rejected before they met with success. If it makes you feel better when you get a rejection, well, good for you, but that's not what this post is about. Personally, I just don't find those kinds of stories all that inspiring, but, maybe, that's because I don't have an issue with persistence. Or maybe I just believe in the value of what I'm doing and don't care so much about the outside validation. That's probably closer to the truth. I do what I do because it's what I do, and I see the value in it, so I don't care as much whether other people do or not.

Sure, I'd like it if other people value my work, because, you know, it would be nice to actually make a living, well, even half a living, from writing, but I don't derive my worth from what other people think of my work.

I think it's vital that we don't derive our meaning from other people's opinion of what we do. After all, there's Van Gogh. Completely not appreciated in his own lifetime. We just don't, can't know how our work will be perceived later on.

Which brings me to Tolkien...

It might seem surprising, but Tolkien considered himself a failure in his literary life. Yeah, that's difficult for me to imagine, too, but it's true. But, then, it all comes from how we define our success, which is something I've mentioned before. The importance of knowing what it is you want when you start all this writing business. If you don't know what it is exactly that you want, you are sure to meet with failure, because you're going to layer over the world's idea of success over your life rather than your own.
Which isn't actually what Tolkien did, but, still...

So what happened with Tolkien?

The main thing to realize with Tolkien is that neither The Hobbit nor The Lord of the Rings was what he considered his real literary work. In many ways, those books were accidents. No, Tolkien's real work was The Silmarillion and his history of Middle Earth, work which never saw publication during his lifetime. So, despite the wide success and popularity of his two most famous works, he never believed he'd been successful because of the repeated rejection by publishers of his "real" work.

To put this slightly more into context: When Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit, it had nothing to do with Middle Earth. At all. It was a bedtime story for his kids. He didn't ever really mean to publish it. Only by the insistence of his friend, C. S. Lewis, and the accidental discovery of the manuscript by the publisher's son did it end up being published at all. Tolkien didn't take it all that seriously, and, like I said, it wasn't related to Middle Earth, which had already been his writing project for 20 years by the time The Hobbit was published.

The Hobbit was successful enough that the publisher wanted a sequel. Tolkien tried to give them The Silmarillion, but they turned it down. No, they wanted more hobbits. Tolkien sat down and began to work on that sequel: An Unexpected Journey, the book that eventually became The Lord of the Rings. See, as he was writing it, he realized that the stuff with the rings was the stuff from the end of The Silmarillion, and it was at that point that it all became a part of Middle Earth. It was an accident, and Tolkien had to go back and revise The Hobbit to make it part of  the narrative. Because, you know, it wasn't.

So, see, George Lucas is not the only one to go back and change things after the fact. That ring Bilbo found really was just, initially, a trinket. Something Tolkien threw in to enable Bilbo to escape from Gollum. He had to go back to the already published manuscript and make the ring important. Make into the One Ring.

Of course, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings became more and more popular. This is despite the overwhelmingly negative reviews when the books were published. Well, not so much with Hobbit, everyone loved The Hobbit when it was released, but, initially, the critics and reviewers hated LotR. But people did not, and they became great best sellers.

But it didn't matter to Tolkien, because, despite their success, he still couldn't get anyone to publish Silmarillion. He spent the rest of his life working on it and the other histories of Middle Earth, and no one would agree to publish it. To himself, he was an artistic failure. It would be rather like painting a great, intricate painting and not being able to get anyone to look at it, to study it, but, one day, sitting down with a kid and making a doodle for him and having everyone go crazy for the doodle. Tolkien was saying, "Look at this! Look at this!" and pointing at Silmarillion, but everyone was busy waving his doodle around saying, "But we like this!" And that is how things stood when he died.

It was only after his death that his son succeeded in getting The Silmarillion published.

So what is it I'm getting at here? Well, a couple of things, actually.
1. I think the thing that more people really need to do before they start writing is figuring out what they want to get out of it. I mean, what they really want to get out of it. Is the actual goal popularity? Is the actual goal to get rich? Is the goal immortality? Is the writing a path to something else or is the writing the goal? If more people knew this ahead of time, they might be more satisfied with their journeys.

Here is where Tolkien knew what he was doing. He knew what his goal was, and he didn't achieve that, so the success of his published works didn't matter so much to him, because those things were not his goal. He did actually fail to achieve his true goal.

2. Be malleable or flexible. Be able to acknowledge the things you do actually succeed at. Recognize your triumphs and adjust your goals to fit with where you are succeeding.

This is where Tolkien did not know what he was doing. His purpose was so single-minded and he was so unwilling to adapt that he was never happy, and he could not acknowledge the success of his two books. His creation, his Middle Earth, is brilliance. The scope of what he did is beyond what anyone else has ever done, and I'm not sure it's something that can be done again. Well, perhaps Asimov achieved something of the same thing with his robot and Foundation books. At any rate, so focused was Tolkien on the foundation, on The Silmarillion, that he could not see how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings rested on that foundation and how much they relied on his entire body of work. They were a part of that whole; I think he just chose to ignore that.

The thing is, Tolkien's goal has actually been achieved; he just wasn't around to see it happen. The Silmarillion has been published along with so so so much more of his work. It's actually quite incredible what Middle Earth has become. It's too bad he wasn't around to see it happen, but... But.
That's kind of the thing, he did what he wanted to do and what he believed in, and, even though it took people a while to recognize it, they did recognize it. I think he would be dumbfounded to find how... pervasive... Middle Earth has become on a cultural level. Which is what he wanted. He wanted to create a mythology that would speak to people, and he stuck to it, and, in the end, succeeded. Beyond anything he might have imagined, I'm sure.

But, see, he knew what he wanted, knew what his goal was, and he stuck to that thing. I think the real achievement is being able to look at your work and know that you have done what you wanted to do. Which is why you have to know why you're writing. And, you know, if you are writing for fame and fortune, not because you want to write, maybe find some other way to get there, because writing isn't a great way to go about it.


  1. This was definitely worth reading. Thanks for the Tolkien lesson (especially the part about editing the One Ring into "The Hobbit").

  2. Tolkien was a scholar first and I understand why he felt the way he did. He endured some kidding from his Fellows at Oxford over The Hobbit, but I don't think he minded as he and Lewis were quite cheeky.

    You seem to have a pretty good perspective about yourself and about your motivation for writing. I think that balance will serve you well.

  3. Attempting malleability... ok, it's gonna take practice.

    I've never read The Hobbit, although it's waiting in the pile. Should try and rush through before the kids drag me to the flick.

  4. Know what you're trying to accomplish - best piece of advice I've heard all week.
    I've exceeded all goals and expectations, so I've no complaints with whatever happens next. I'm happy and at peace.

  5. You do see writers who are in it for very different reasons. Some for the craft, some for the validation, some, believe it or not, for the money. I have a few friends who write erotica and make pretty good money at it, but it's their "side" work. They also work on their "main" novels, hoping to publish those someday in the mainstream literary world.

  6. I was talking about this with some of the people in my writers group yesterday. Not Tolkien specific, mind you, but the rest of it.

    As always, a fantastic post.

  7. Great post, Andrew. I'm with you on saying that those posts of J.K. Rowling and others getting seven rejections before they went on to make billions of dollars to be a waste of time and not really inspiring at all. I really could give a shit about J.K. Rowling's personal struggles. She made it big pretty fast and now life is easy peasy.

    I know that I only really discovered what my first book was about after I'd finished the second book (I had the second book finished before I even sent out the first book). I know that sounds weird. That's why Oculus and Slipstream all got published this year. I kinda had this backlog of completed manuscripts. But now the third book is gonna take me forever to write. Ah well.

    My point is though that I went back plenty of times to the first book because I knew what was happening in the second book and I wanted them to match up and mirror each other. So yeah...I'm as guilty as Tolkien when it comes to drawing out importance over multiple volumes.

  8. You're very right about needed to decide before you write what you want to get out of it and what success means to you. I'm struggling with that one, I have to say.

  9. Tony: Sure! It's the kind of thing you pick up when you've read 3 biographies about him.

    Anne: Yeah, he did. There was one guy in particular (whose name is escaping me at the moment) that would fling himself onto a couch and shout "not more bloody elves!" any time Tolkien was going to read from LotR.

    Charmaine: I'd say to wait until after the movie to read the book, but you'd have to wait 2 more years for that. Go get reading! And welcome to the blog!

    Alex: It's possibly the most difficult, too! Well, maybe not for you.

    L.G.: You know, writing erotica to make some money is a rather long standing authorial position. Hmm...

    M.J.: Did you come to any conclusions?
    And thanks!

    Michael: Yeah, Rowling had a pretty easy time of it all things considered.
    Personally, I have no issue with revising and harmonizing.

    S.L.: It can be a hard thing to work out. Especially when the dream of making it big clashes with what you really want.

  10. I especially like what you say about not deriving our worth from other people's opinion. That's exactly how I've felt about my writing from the beginning - but sometimes I forget that I feel this way.

    This was a fascinating background on Tolkien. Thanks for not only providing it, but for also tying in the lessons for us writers. I wish he would'v been happy w/ what he had instead of pining for what he didn't.

    I've not actually set goals for myself with this writing thing, and I don't think I will - I'm more of a..."look for the cues and follow them to where you're supposed to be" type. So I guess I've got the malleable down, hehe.

  11. Great advise and very interesting post! I'm not a fan of Tolkien but it was very interesting to read how he conceived his most famous stories and how he felt about them. Thanks!

  12. You just made me feel loads better! Thanks Andrew!!

  13. This really is brilliant. I know several people who write because they enjoy writing and they have no idea of publishing, they just want to write.

    You are just brilliant, that's all.

  14. Good points. I think a lot of us, even if in minor ways, look past what we HAVE done and find ourselves failures for not achieving our future goals earlier.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  15. I need to read The Silmarillion again, now that I'm older. I read it in high school, and it was just a bit much for me at the time.

  16. Nicki: I think Tolkien was mostly happy. In truth, he would never have sought publication all on his own. Lewis urged him to publish. However, once he was published, he wanted it for what he thought of as his true artistic work. All things considered, though, most of his satisfaction came from his academic career.

    Georgina: Sure! He was an interesting man.

    Nancy: I'm glad!

    Tasha: Wow, now I'm all blushy.
    Not that I don't disagree with you, but, still... :P

    Shannon: I just wish I'd -had- my future goals earlier!

    Callie: I've been wanting to read it again for a while, now, too, but I have such a stack of books!

  17. Fame and fortune would be nice and it's all fun to dream about. No one should be counting on it though. That's kind of delusional in all probability.

    A Faraway View

  18. Lee: Yeah, it is, but it's that thing that everyone wants, right?

  19. Oh wow, I didn't know about the "One Ring" business. And poor guy. We need to accept the successes that come our way!

  20. Ravena: Yeah, that's true. I guess they can just be hard to recognize when they're not the ones we want.

  21. I hadn't realized some of these things about Tolkien. It's good stuff to think about. And you're totally right, there are lessons to be learned from it.

  22. neal: There's a lot to be learned from Tolkien, which might explain all the biographies I've read about him.