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The Return of the Shadow

Tolkien was, unquestionably, a master of his art. There has never been anyone quite like him – not before him, and not since. I have written about this at some length before, and I suspect I will again.

In reading Christopher Tolkien’s The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part I, one salient point about artistic endeavors came into sharp focus: Tolkien’s remarkable self-discipline and work ethic. He just kept at it.

book cover image

The book explores J. R. R. Tolkien’s work in drafting what became The Fellowship of the Ring, up through the point where the Fellowship reaches the tomb of Balin in the depths of Moria. When I say “explores,” I mean: provides, with detailed comments and explanations of the process by Christopher Tolkien along the way.

Truth be told, I suspect most people would find this reading maddeningly dull. I inherited my copy of the book from a friend who picked it up not realizing exactly what it was – and, I believe, who never finished it. Reading successive drafts of a novel most people already consider a bit wordy or slow isn’t for the faint of heart. For a fan like me, however, it’s fascinating – and equally so for someone continually intrigued by the the artistic process.

What quickly becomes apparent – and what should encourage every writer who toils at his story and indeed every artist who struggles with her work – is that the masterpiece that The Lord of the Rings became was the result not only of genius but of incredibly hard work. The Return of the Shadow sees the story turn from a light-hearted sequel to The Hobbit to a darker, grander tale. The scope of the world at least quadruples just in this first phase of drafting; the characters are renamed and reshaped a half dozen times; individuals that became central elements of the story do not even make their appearance until the third draft. In some cases, they have yet to appear by the stage of drafting this volume covers – well over a year into the process of writing the book.

It is easy, looking back at a great work like The Lord of the Rings, to mistake the real source of its genius. It is true that Tolkien was a world-class thinker. His work on Old and Middle English literature remains significant to this day in academic circles, and his analysis of Beowulf remains one of the seminal works on the subject. Yet his intellectual brilliance was not the sole or even necessarily the primary component of his artistic genius.

Nor, surprisingly, was his remarkable imagination. Though Tolkien first began imagining the world that became Middle Earth in scribbles in notebooks while in the trenches in World War I, and let the fantastic world flourish all the remaining decades of his life, his imagination itself would not have finally created The Lord of the Rings, even when coupled with his remarkable intelligence and breadth of knowledge, without another crucial component: discipline.

Tolkien began working on The Lord of the Rings in 1937. The end of what was published as The Return of the King was finished in 1949 (though The Fellowship of the Ring was not published until 1954). He worked on his masterpiece for over twelve years. Twelve years.

Too many artists in every field think that mastery is possible without enormous effort, that success comes to those with talent – and the more so in a world saturated with YouTube hits and instant glamor for many pop stars. The reality, though, is that lasting art is almost never produced by undisciplined geniuses or remarkable talents who refuse to labor away at their work.

Genius helps, of course. Much of the power and brilliance of the writing in The Lord of the Rings is there from the first; Tolkien had a better grasp on the English language and a better sense of wordplay than most of us could ever hope to match. But that genius came to fruition because Tolkien just kept at it, month after month and year after year, until he was finally satisfied (mostly) with what he had created.

The result stands over half a century later as the most popular, best-selling novel ever written. Not just because Tolkien was smart or talented, but because he set his face to the grindstone and kept at it until it was good. Would that we were all so disciplined.

Pipe up!

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