Saturday, December 1, 2007

Even Tolkien Struggled

I have been reading a book titled The Company They Keep - C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer. I am not sure I can recommend this book wholeheartedly, but I am getting some good insight from it. The book seems to be a Doctoral Thesis, and is geared more toward making a specific argument about a point of view. Namely that the member's of the Inklings influenced each other's writing significantly. I was expecting a more "writerly" look at the romanticism behind the group. If you haven't heard of them before, the Inklings were a group of writers that met for nearly two decades each Thursday night to read portions of their writings to one another and offer encouragement and criticism. Lewis and Tolkien were the two primary members.

As I've said in previous posts, some reading I have done on Tolkien in the past, and how he wrote, really inspired me to pick up the pen (keyboard) and try my hand at writing a novel again. I read a section of The Company They Keep today where the Glyer describes a time early in the writing of The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien was stuck. Apparently Tolkien wrote, and rewrote the first few chapters, and then was unable to go any further. He had a notion of how he wanted the story to go, but really no direction. He had Lews, and his publisher, Rayner Unwin read the chapters, and the general consensus was the writing consisted of too much "hobbit talk". Tolkien created a story that delved deeply into the Shire, and the goings on, but was unable to move beyond the light-hearted "Hobbit" story. For five months in 1938 Tolkien was unable to write any more of the story.

Then Lewis commented, "...hobbits are only amusing when in unhobbitlike situations." It seems that this comment changed the direction and feel of the story completely. It became darker and more serious, very "unhobbitlike". Then Glyer gave this example. Toward the end of the chapters Tolkien had completed was this scene originally. It takes place as Frodo, Odo and Bingo (the original names for Frodo's two companions) were walking in the Shire:

"Round a turn came a white horse, and on it sat a bundle--or that is what it looked like: a small man wrapped entirely in a great cloak and hood so that only his eyes peered out, and his boots in the stirrups below"

The horse and rider stopped near Bingo. "The figure uncovered its nose and sniffed; and then sat silent as if listening. Suddenly a laugh came from inside the hood." It is Gandalf, who calls out, "Bingo my boy!" as he throws aside his wrappings."

Sounds vaguely familiar doesn't it? So Frodo and his two friends were out for a stroll in the countryside of the Shire and this white horse rides up and Gandalf, in high spirits, greets them. But what to do next? How it Tolkien going to get the story moving at this point. Then Lewis made the above comment, and Tolkien rewrote this passage to look like this:

"Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit-pony but a full-sized horse; and on it sat a large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle, wrapped in a great black cloak and hood, so that only his boots in the high stirrups showed below; his face was shadowed and invisible.

When it reached the tree and was level with Frodo the horse stopped. The riding figure sat quite still with its head bowed, as if listening. From inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing to catch an elusive scent."

Wow! What a change. One is this light-hearted romp, and the other is full of fear and darkness. I can picture Tolkien's train of thought, and the direction the story began to take after this. "Where is Gandalf? Who is the Black Rider? Why was he sniffing?" I love that last one. So simple a thing as keeping the sniffing in from the first draft to the last can build so much depth to the feared enemy. Tolkien built this whole idea that the Black Riders couldn't see, but used their sense of smell, quite possibly from that single word.

This is what I love about the method Tolkien used to write. He did not map out the plot and every element of the story. He painted in broad strokes, and let the story go in the direction it wanted to go. Did he even know that the black rider was one of the "nine" at this point? Maybe not. From what I've read before he had no idea why Gandalf didn't show up.

So I guess the broad themes we can learn here is "Listen to your friends" and "Don't be afraid to go where the story takes you." I think both of these things make the story much richer in the end.

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