J.R.R. Tolkien did not write his books for you or for me. Middle-earth was a personal project, firstly created for himself and his family. Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit as a story for his own children, but after his breakout book became a great success he was convinced by his publisher and fans to create a sequel to Bilbo Baggins’ adventure. Fans of The Hobbit wished for more of the same, wanting more dragons and whimsy.
But the author turned inward as he wrote The Lord of the Rings. Middle-earth darkened as the texts grew more dense over the years. Tolkien sought to please an academic audience that held no respect for fantasy literature, and instead he found that his works were being appreciated by a type of person he knew little about.
When working on a creative project, authors tend to have an audience in mind. Writers of fiction are often told to fight against such thoughts. A story should be pure, constructed for the sake of creativity and not bound to the whims or desires of any individual. For generations college professors and successful authors alike have passed down to young writers the old saying: “Don’t write for others: write for yourself.”
But just how profound is such a statement? Authors write for others all the time. Publishers demand audience satisfaction. Sequels are the result of success and are usually just a way to exploit a captured audience.
So, just how important is it for a writer to write for themselves? Is it possible to achieve a balance between the two? To walk the tightrope between writing for yourself and for an audience? Yeah I think it is. And it’s possible for authors to reach other audiences outside of their intention.
Look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. The story was originally written for his own children, its lore and legend a personal satisfaction meant to be retained by the author and his family. It was not meant to be read by you or me, not originally at least. And Tolkien’s great followup story of The Lord of the Rings? Nope. That wasn’t written for us either.
In this episode we will look into Tolkien’s relationship with his audiences and uncover who he was writing for, and why. I am your host, Arthur McMahon, and this is Paracosms.
To understand who Tolkien was writing for we need to understand a bit of who he was. Each aspect of his storied life can paint a picture by itself. Most of us know him as the creator of Middle-earth, of hobbits and powerful rings. We can picture him toiling away in his study, a room with a simple desk and chair, the walls lined with the literature of the ages. I can see him right now with pen in hand as he explored and defined his fantasy world. But, even though this is how most of us define Tolkien, this was only a part of his life.
In another time Tolkien served as a British Army lieutenant in World War I. He commanded troops in the Battle of the Somme against the German Empire and lost many dear friends in the conflict. He returned from the war and raised three sons who decades later would go on to fight in the second World War against Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Looking further back we can picture Tolkien as a child born at the end of the 19th century in South Africa. His family moved to England when he was still just a babe in arms. As a toddler he lost his father to fever, and then at the age of twelve his mother passed away from diabetes. He was taken into the care of a family friend and raised as an orphan in the English countryside.
As a youth Tolkien attended King Edward’s school for boys. He met the love of his life at age sixteen and married her several years later.
He went on to work as an etymologist for the Oxford English Dictionary and continued to further his studies in constructed language, later becoming a professor at Oxford University.
Friends and relatives remember John Tolkien as a simple man who appreciated simple things. He loved good bread and wine, adored objects made of wood and stone.
The natural world was close to the man’s heart. It dominates the landscape of all that is good across Middle-earth. He held an intense hatred for the effects of industrialization. Business and industry had taken over much of the English countryside during his lifetime. To Tolkien, the beauty of the world was in its flowers and its trees. The beauty of man was in his humanity, his appreciation of the natural world.
Our world, Earth, is what Tolkien referred to as the primary world. Living his life during a time when two world wars ravaged our planet and Henry Ford’s moving assembly line brought mass production to the industrial age, Tolkien yearned for the simpler times that, as appeared to him, were being left behind. The modern world was not to his liking, and envisioning the future was a frightening prospect.
To Tolkien, the machine was the enemy of all things good in the world. Literal machines polluted the air, made lots of hideous noise, and caused unsightly congestion. The figurative machine was an even larger threat. By filling the world with new technologies and producing them at increasing rates, the human machine clamored for resources to meet the demand. We stripped forests bare like the orcs of Mordor. We mined the mountains to the point of collapse, not unlike when the dwarves delved too greedily and too deep into the darkness of Khazad-dum, awakening a terrible evil within the Mines of Moria. We were dominating the natural world. We were killing each other over control of the land.
To escape the ever-changing primary world Tolkien envisioned Arda, Middle-earth, or what he called his secondary world, the one which existed solely in his mind.
Calling back to his childhood and the natural world, Middle-earth was made of green shires and misty mountains. It is where the Hobbits live, where they make things of wood and stone, where they enjoy bread and wine. They worry little of events outside of the Shire. Hobbits keep to themselves. As the rest of the world is much too big for them.
In many ways our world was much too big for Tolkien. He was not fond of travel. Trains, planes, and automobiles were a luxury he felt the world did not need. A bicycle was enough to help with his commute to Oxford and he chose to walk just about everywhere else he could.
Middle-earth was his escape, his way of traveling to a far off land. Though it’s nice for us to imagine that Tolkien created Middle-earth to share with all of us, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. His secondary world was a personal project for many years. As stated earlier, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his children, never intending for the outside world to learn of Bilbo Baggins and his adventures. Years passed after writing his book before a woman by the name of Susan Dagnall caught wind of the story and convinced Tolkien to publish it. The book became a hit with children and adults alike, creating a wave of fandom which demanded more hobbits and dragons from the writer.
In response Tolkien began working on the Lord of the Rings, initially intending for the story to keep to a similar tone as the Hobbit, but it grew dark and more serious over the time he spent writing its narrative. Tolkien spent twelve years constructing the Lord of the Rings. Over its course he abandoned his originally intended audience. Many of the same fans and critics who adored The Hobbit would come to criticize the Lord of the Rings upon its initial release because it was considered too dark and detailed for a fantasy world.
While writing the Lord of the Rings Tolkien turned inward, focusing on his own beliefs and memorializing them forever in Middle-earth’s narrative. He was creating the story for himself, but he also had something to prove to his colleagues. During the mid-twentieth century fantasy literature was kind of a joke, something for mothers to read to their children. Great works such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland existed in popular culture, but to many they were thought of as nothing more than glorified nursery rhymes. Tolkien wanted to change that. His world was more than an adolescent wonderland. He was determined to show his Oxford colleagues and the rest of the literary world that his work was important, that a fantasy story could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest literary works of all time.
Middle-earth may have been born of Tolkien’s own sense of wonder, but it’s depth and nuances were constructed around his desire to impress intellectual minds, to dismantle modern prejudices of fantasy and literature. The opinions of the notable literary scholars of Tolkien’s time weighed heavily on his mind.
And it was an uphill battle for him. After Lord of the Rings was released it was criticized as a dubious work of popular culture rather than “real literature”. It wasn’t until near the end of his life that academics truly began to respect Tolkien’s works as quality literature. Instead of garnering interest in his intended audience, Tolkien found his initial following in a crowd he knew little about, the American hippie.
We know well the mindset of the hippie movement from the 1960s and 70s. Love, peace, and tranquility were intertwined with extensive drug use and loud rock and roll music. Fashion consisted of long hair and bell-bottomed jeans. Young people wanted to preserve the natural environment and take down the polluting corporations. Anti-war protests often turned violent. People were not only upset with, but angry at their government. This counter-culture embraced Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings because of its critique of materialism, its anti-war themes, and its call for environmentalism.
Likewise, Lady Eowyn of Rohan was a feminist icon of the time, a female character who struggled to overcome the limits of a patriarchal society. “What do you fear, lady?” asked Aragorn of Eowyn. “A cage,” she replied, “until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.” These lines resonated among feminists of the 1960s.
It is possible that the drug culture in Middle-earth served as the initial hook that drew interest from the hippie generation. Hallucinogenic plants such as the Shire’s pipeweed were sought after by the lovable protagonists of the stories. The drug references even made it into Peter Jackson’s Fellowship movie in scenes like the one where Saruman scolds Gandalf, saying to him, “Your love of the halflings’ leaf has clearly slowed your mind.”
Middle-earth pervaded the hippie counter-culture to the point that slogans such as “Frodo Lives” and “Gandalf for President” became popular graffiti tags and bumper stickers. Top tier rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Genesis all had Lord of the Rings-themed songs on the billboard charts. Hobbits had made their mark in the unlikeliest of places.
But hippies and feminists were not the types of people Tolkien wanted to be associated with. He didn’t understand them. In his distaste for the fandom which built around his books he referred to his fans as ‘deplorable cultists’ and openly spoke of his disapproval of fan art and fan fiction. Even The Beatles attempted to put together a film version of Lord of the Rings starring themselves, but Tolkien himself put a stop to that.
The hippie generation and Tolkien shared a disenchantment with modern life that reverberated through the books, linking them together. But the hippies were further derailing the larger aim of Tolkien’s works, his desire for his world to be taken seriously by academia. The admiration of pot-smoking American liberal low-lifes did not impress literary critics, serving only to fuel the fire of their criticisms.
Tolkien once said, “Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I am not.” This is an important admission that has gone largely unnoticed. Though Tolkien spent the majority of his life crafting his secondary world of Arda, and thus Middle-earth, and though he modeled the world after his own wants and desires, constructing the lore with detail forged to impress the brightest of minds, in the end he came to understand that any person could come to experience Middle-earth in their own unique way. Any person could come to love or hate the characters for their own reasons, could choose to admire or despise any of his created cultures or beliefs.
Once created, the world was no longer his to control. It was left to interpretation by audiences as they saw fit, as they needed it to be.
In the end, Tolkien preferred working on his creations rather than publishing them. He never finished the Silmarillion in his lifetime because it was too large of a task. The world of Arda had grown to a point where keeping consistent with timelines and moral themes over the course of all of Middle-earth’s lore was problematic for Tolkien. During his lifetime, he attempted to rewrite the Hobbit and considered rewriting the Lord of the Rings. He wanted to update the novels to his most current thoughts of Middle-earth and make the texts more consistent with his most-recent version of the Silmarillion. Tolkien never intended to call his world complete, insisting that ending his work on Middle-earth would mean the ending of his life. He continued building and altering Middle-earth until his passing at the age of eighty-one.
Tolkien created the world he wanted, but did not capture the audience he sought until decades later when the young hippies aged and became respected scholars themselves. The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s related works are now studied by academics around the globe and are regarded as literature greater than most that has ever been.
Modern world builders can learn from Tolkien’s biases. Striving to please a specific audience is a difficult task that even J.R.R. Tolkien took a lifetime to accomplish. Seeking approval is a daunting prospect. Part of why Tolkien became a success is because he firstly created Middle-earth for himself. It was a personal project that extended far beyond the published pages, one that Tolkien passionately continued to work on despite his wealth and fame. He strived to improve his creation long after he had made a comfortable retirement for himself.
So maybe those college professors and weathered authors are correct in telling younger novelists to write for themselves. Audiences may be worth considering, but you never really know who might enjoy your stories. So make them for yourself. In the end, at least you will know that one person out there enjoys your work. You.
This has been an episode of Paracosms. To find out more about this show and myself you can head on over to my website at arthurmcmahon.com. I post the full transcripts to each Paracosms episode on my blog. You will also be able to find links to my social media accounts. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
Creating this podcast has been a joy and I am excited to produce more content for you. As much as I love discussing imaginary worlds, I also like creating my own. I’ve written two science fiction books which you can find on my website and Amazon. My books, Frostarc and Silhouette, can be purchased in paperback, ebook, and audio formats. I’ve also published a journal of one of my real-world explorations called Adventure and The Pacific Crest Trail. Check it out if you’re interested in trail magic and hiker trash.
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