Welcome to ‘writing inspirations’, a new series exploring all that the title implies. Not just ‘things to inspire writers’ – though we’ll be looking at plenty of those – but also ‘inspiration’ in its widest sense. What drives writers to write? What inspires them to write on particular themes? What do their ideas mean? And how do readers respond?
I’m opening the series with one of my favourite authors – J. R. R. Tolkien. A literary great who has inspired so many people with his work, in so many ways. Not least my fellow Wellingtonian, Peter Jackson.
Tolkien found ideas for Middle Earth all around him, from the definitions he researched for the OED, to the quiet English countryside that unfolded during rambling walks. Thanks to Jackson, we envisage Middle Earth as New Zealand – epic landscapes of green and brown – but Tolkien’s conception was fuelled by different visions. The dissonance is one of the things that makes writing great; books are not just what the writer imagines, but also what readers see.
One of Tolkien’s largest inspirations was the First World War. He served on the Western Front with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, and the experience relentlessly pokes into his mythos, from orc talk to his visions of warfare. The most blatant is his description of the Dead Marshes before Mordor. This is, absolutely and precisely, a description of what the trenches were like. Including the ghastly spectacle of the dead lying in graves inundated and exposed by water. The stench, the horror – all fuelled his vision of the appalling road to Mordor.
The subtle intrusion came in his philosophy of life and death. By 1917, life was cheap on the Western Front. Soldiers were fatalistic, as often as not; they knew their life could end in a moment, maybe without warning as a random shot, shell or gas exploded across them. They had no life ahead , nothing they could look forward to; their lives were a dream, an endless, homogenous cascade of horror where the days and weeks blurred. Time meant nothing, and in a way they were also immortal, for many never grew old. This life of terror stood in sharp contrast to the world outside, a world where everyday life stretched long ahead into the weariness of age.
During and afterwards, writers caught up in the turmoil reflected it in their works – directly and metaphorically. Poets such as Sassoon poured out the way that the trench world of horror had twisted their lives. Tolkien had a different approach; he took that framework of thinking, added deeper inspirations from mythology, from faerie – and came up with the driving force behind one of the most complete and powerful fantasy concepts of twentieth century literature. A complete mythology with immortal Elves, a people with eternal life for whom the days, weeks and months blended as in a dream, for whom time meant nothing, who never grew old. He introduced Orcs, a twisted caricature of his Elves, who fought relentless wars against them. And the Numenoreans – long-lived, but still mortal men who aged, feared death – lusted after Elvish power. All of it framed, in part, by the soldiers’ mind-set of the trenches.
That, to me, is one of the ways writing inspiration works – fuelled by the way that the writer’s imagination re-shapes their experiences into something wonderful.
There is a lot more I can say about Tolkien – and I will. But enough for now. What do you think? Does the First World War strike you as unlikely inspiration for one of the greatest fantasy worlds of all time? Do you find inspiration in your own writing from equally unlikely places – and how does it work for you? Talk to me!
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012