Why Tolkien wouldn’t be published today – and what that means for writers now

I posted the other day about style. It’s important for authors. And with The Hobbit being filmed around where I’m living, I thought I’d talk about its author. J. R. R. Tolkien, his style – and why he wouldn’t be published today.

Tolkien could be chatty – as in The Hobbit, where he nailed the voice of a storyteller. Or he could be epic – as in most of The Silmarillion. In The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) he was both. At times his words had a biblical quality.

Now, we could claim this was accidental. Tolkien became a household name in spite of himself. He tinkered. He never really finished anything – breaking one of the Heinlein rules about writing. Structurally, LOTR broke a lot of the rules. Many of his characters were cyphers. And as for the written style with its wanderings – well, Tolkien began LOTR as a sequel to The Hobbit in the late 1930s. It was finished around 14 years later, after many stops, starts and re-writes. There were enough inconsistencies for a revised edition in the mid-1960s.

Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.

So did his style actually drift? LOTR’s creation has been made transparent through the work of Tolkien’s son Christopher, who diligently edited and published the first, second and nth drafts. And Tolkien knew what he was doing. He was creating epic mythology, broadly founded in northern forms. His styles were appropriate to purpose – in LOTR, underscoring the switch from the homely Shire to the world shattering evil of Mordor and Sauron’s war. And as with most myths, many of his characters were mythic – especially Gandalf/Odin (I know what I said). LOTR was no ordinary novel. It was a vast, vast mythos, deliberately founded in often obscure European myths, similar but different – close enough for people to identify with. By contrast with a modern commercial novel, the power of the story came from the mythology he brought to life. And there was more. He also had hobbits.

Hobbits. They spoke to the mid-twentieth century in ways Tolkien perhaps did not anticipate. The Shire was ‘Merrie England’ – specifically, the idealised pre-industrial version that nostalgic folk from the nineteenth century looked back to. Hobbits were also children, effectively – but children with an adult mind. And that was a powerful combination; they spoke to the inner child of adult readers – and at the same time, appealed to children who could identify with the aspirations.

That gave Lord of the Rings a particular appeal – one that multiplied in the 1960s when the counter-culture picked up on the Shire with its rosy view of the world. Bam. Suddenly the ageing Oxford don was focus of some extraordinary adulation from a youth culture that was way removed from his own.

Tolkien, in short, had created a new kind of writing. A new genre. Now the key question. Would Tolkien have had any chance of publishing that today, commercially? I think not. Even in the 1950s, Allen and Unwin were leery enough about LOTR to spread the risk, which is why it is three books. Tolkien wrote it as one (or six) – the three-way division into The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Two Towers and The Return Of The King  was a publisher imposition. And they didn’t want to touch The Silmarillion, which Tolkien offered first. Not then, anyway.

The reason was simple; Tolkien had broken the book-writing rules. LOTR was distinctly odd. And because his mythos had yet to gain much popular traction – remember, he was known then as a professor and a childrens’ writer – his publishers did wonder. A bit.

Today it’s even harder, if anything, to publish with the major houses. The bar has been raised, the demands on author skill are even higher. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t try. It’s better to try and fail than not try at all. Isn’t it. But for those of us who lack Tolkien’s incredible ability to key into deep parts of the human psyche and condition – and that, I fear, is just about all of us – it means following the rules.

At least until we’ve become a household name.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

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21 thoughts on “Why Tolkien wouldn’t be published today – and what that means for writers now

  1. I absolutely agree with your assessment that Professor Tolkien would not have been published today. New and different can’t get traction from the mainstream publishing industry.

    But I do disagree with your conclusion, that:

    The bar has been raised, the demands on author skill are even higher.

    Skill is necessary, but the real mainstream limitation is that the publishers seek to publish only sure fire hits. This limits their offerings to a mere two paths: brand name authors and/or publishing works very much like what has already been successful.

    Technological advances in Print on Demand, eBooks, and digital dissemination via the Internet make self-publishing not only possible, but increasingly the preferred way for authors to share their work with their audience.

  2. Tolkien broke a bunch of rules, and sure, there are definitely areas a good, strict editor could have cleaned up (For example, Tolkien-nut that I am, I am sure there would be a smoother, less pointless way they could have received the enchanted blades than involving Tom Bombadil) but to say that Tolkien lacks talent is simply not true. I mean, sure, his work is more dense, more academic, and at the same time in certain ways less polished. But the man created a whole, huge, tragic and sprawling mythos. It’s a coming of age story at the same time as an existentialist quest and an environmentalist treatise.

    And since when is”breaking the rules” such a bad thing? If anything, the fact that arbitrary rules by a bunch of checkbook-minded bureaucratic, checkbook-minded CEOs is what guides mainstream publishing is a detriment to mainstream literature, not an advantage, if it locks out art like Tolkien.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, though I did not say that Tolkien lacked talent or that breaking the rules was bad. Quite the opposite; I actually wrote that Tolkien had an ‘incredible ability to key into deep parts of the human psyche and condition’. It’s from the rule-breaking by those of capability like Tolkien’s that new forms of literature are created. The problem, as I argued, is that it’s not possible to do so without being a household name these days. Even e-publishing, I suspect, is not the answer because it is so competitive that innovation may well be drowned out. We’ll see.

      Apropos the Bombadil sequences, I thought it a pity these weren’t in the movies because of the way these narrative elements carried LOTR’s mythic form forward. However, Phillipa Boyens explained to me, a few years back, that she, Jackson and Walsh had felt it necessary to cut that from their script because it wasn’t obviously moving the story along, so you may well have a point there. I think that sequence certainly played a good part in the appeal LOTR had to the counter-culture of the 1960s – a link wonderfully parodied, incidentally, in Kenney and Beard’s ‘Bored of the Rings’.

  3. I’m no Tolkienist for sure, but I read somewhere that that world war also served to make readers take notice of LOTR. I’ve never critiqued the story to the depth you have, just enjoyed it and the style of its writing.

    Glad you posted this; it was intriguing.

    1. Thanks for commenting. There was talk that LOTR was influenced by the Second World War – though in fact, it wasn’t. The actual influence was earlier – First World War. A lot of the Orc soldier talk, and certainly the Dead Marshes outside Mordor, were specific descriptions from the Western Front, where Tolkien served. There’s a book published recently, I believe, that explores that side of his work.

  4. Oh! I love you! lol. I prefer Tolkien’s writing in the Hobbit. I fall asleep every time I have to read LOTR. I couldn’t read it until I was 35 and had to do it for my writing career (was doing PR for one of the LOTR websites). But there is no doubt that he changed the writing world, the specfic/scifi/fantasy genre FOREVER.

    I love Tolkien for what he did for fantasy. I love him for what he did for CS Lewis (who I never fall asleep reading, btw). But I completely agree with you that he wouldn’t be published today, not TRADITIONALLY. He is probably the only professor whose book went viral through the college system and then spread to the public at large. He could have totally taken advantage of ebooks and self publishing. And what that means is more of us should be using it (IMO).

    1. Thank you! I think you’re absolutely right. For my part, I read The Hobbit first, then LOTR – which I must have read about 30 times now. A whole new genre, really. I’ve read Lewis, too – he and Tolkien knew each other very well, apparently Tolkien’s Treebeard was a spoof on the way Lewis spoke.

  5. You’re absolutely right about Tolkein not being published, and about the mindset of today’s commercial publishers. Actually, it’s not much different today than it was in Tolkein’s time. Tolkein already had an ‘in’ with the publishing establishment through Oxford, and that makes a difference.

    Part of the Tolkein’s limitation today would be all the Tolkein emulators publishing and self-publishing. Somebody is buying these books, and they’re the readers that publishers are chasing.

    The insolvable problem is that the big breakthrough books always break the rules, and the reading public buys the books because they’re different. But no one can ever predict what the next big thing will be. For every JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, there are unnumbered authors who tried something new (well, Meyer never did anything that new or original) without gaining much audience.

    1. In the sense of being predictably stereotypical (think ‘Richard Cypher’ from Goodkind’s ‘Sword of Truth’ novels). For example, Aragorn was very much the classic mythic hero, complete with romantic tragedy – and very deliberately so. Tolkien was a fantastic writer and knew exactly what he was doing – and in his books, the modernist focus on character came second to his deliberate emphasis on the mythic. Sam was the classic batman, in virtually every respect – though here, Tolkien underscored his true talent by revealing a much greater depth to the character. Others were more cypher-like, notably his female characters; Tolkien had great difficulty doing women, something critics have repeatedly noticed. But that does not detract from his colossal creation. The thing being that it was so far out of swing with what a ‘novel’ is meant to be, that it was very nearly not published in the 1950s and certainly wouldn’t be today. Which is a pity, because it’s obvious that he struck deep chords with his readers.

  6. It does me good to remember Tolkein’s almost-impossible transfer from academic works (I read his books at uni) to groundbreaking fiction that caught the public imagination, so thank you for reminding us that it can and it does happen! Both as a prolific reader bored of bookshops and as a writer, this is something to keep me hopeful.
    Great analysis.

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