Writing inspirations: Tolkien’s legacy

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.

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

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.

Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2004, 2012

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


18 thoughts on “Writing inspirations: Tolkien’s legacy

    1. Thanks – yes, please do. Glad it’s of use. If you could point them to this site rather than copying my post, I’d be grateful. I’ve written various other posts on Tolkien through my blog which may also be of interest, e.g. https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/worldbuilding-tolkien-wrote-from-experience-too/ and https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/why-tolkien-wouldn’t-be-published-today-–-and-what-that-means-for-writers-now/ for instance. Hope that’s useful..

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  1. Your line, “the book is not just what the writer imagines, but also what readers see” is something which I worry about with many of today’s school students who, for the most part, no longer read the actual book, but only watch a movie of the same title (even in english class). They are seeing another persons interpretation of the original idea without having to interpret it themselves. While many do not have wide experiences of the world to draw on, despite how available it is, their experiences with actual books (apart from the most ‘popular’ fiction) is falling dramatically. And the narrow view of the world which many appear to possess explains why possibly there are fewer writers of the broader styles, but a prolific quantity of formulae writers.

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    1. I agree – and it’s a worry. Actually, it’s worse than that in many ways, because the availability of distractions has slashed attention spans. We live in an age of instant entertainment – and nt only instant, but transient; a relentless variety of social networking, tweets, texts, the evanescent flash content of the web. It’s training people (and not just kids), to not have the persistence to run with a novel. I suppose the distance of time will put all this in perspective…but just now, to me, it seems to reduce the depth of experience available to today’s young readers.

      Hey, we must be getting old!

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  2. Why should WW1 be an unlikely “inspiration” for fantasy?

    I volunteer at the Hickory Aviation Museum. One of our events is a meeting for veterans. We still have a cadre of World War 2 guys — priceless, priceless people, fading just like the world they knew.

    One of our veterans — from the Korean era, actually — brought in an account of an airplane crash he’d been through. He said something apropos to your post; that the ten minutes or so that he lived through that event were more vivid to him even now than yesterday’s dinner.

    I have seen that truth over and over with the combat vets I’ve spoken to. I’m equally convinced that, if you watch their faces carefully (and not too obviously) you see something else — the terrified, resolute young man masked now with age, but still there. In a way, it’s almost like being able to look back through time.

    “Fantasy” can be a way of talking about reality; using abstractions in a different way to arrive at an image of what the writer feels to be a more fundamental truth. I’ve read elsewhere that Samwise Gamgee was sort of a “Tommy Atkins” figure. If so I think I understand that.

    For if one cannot find a way of redeeming the horror of that war in particular, to find some good, not in the war itself, but in the lessons we draw from it, the deaths and the suffering are just business as usual.

    “For it is the doom of men that they forget.” (What movie, what character? Speaking of fantasy.)

    As for inspiration, like gold, it’s where you find it, which can be in the most unlikely places. Finding inspiration mostly, to me, means keeping your mind alive to the possibility.

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  3. I agree – in point of fact, you’ve summed up my own thoughts pretty much exactly! I don’t find Tolkien’s source of inspiration particularly unusual, though I did wonder whether anybody else did. As you point out – and as I’ve also seen borne out in my own research for my military histories – it was normal to abstract the horror of it. What fascinates me is the way Tolkien did it.

    The question, indeed, is what good can we find in the terrible lessons that each new generation keeps having to re-learn about the dark side of the human condition – and that, too, was one of Tolkien’s enduring themes.

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  4. Wonderful discussion and a great post, Matthew. I suspect your blog posts on Tolkien are my favorites but you know what an overall fan I am.

    I believe I once heard that Tolkien was concerned about the coming of World War II and his trilogy was a statement regarding that, although I’ve long forgotten the source. You know better than I the number of myths surrounding Tolkien’s inspiration. I don’t find it odd that World War I was a source of inspiration for him, and like you, I find it intriguing the kind of world he created in response to his experiences. Every time I immerse myself in his work, I find inspiration for living in this world, another perspective if you will.

    I’m really looking forward to this inspiration series, Matthew. Again, wonderful post.

    Karen

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    1. Thank you – yes, it’s amazing how far WWI intruded, certainly into European and British Imperial thinking. I’ve analysed the impact it had on New Zealand society in a number of my books; it was pretty profound. Britain had it worse – I always thought it was pretty well summed up in ‘A Month In The Country’. I suspect that Tolkien’s response, at that fundamental psychological level, was effectively an imaginative ‘escape’. A coping mechanism. But what other choice did they have? It was either that or madness; and Tolkien knew that too. I was always intrigued by the ‘magic’ he used in Middle Earth; it was almost a psychological or will-power magic, and that too has its origins in the trenches, where strength of will counted for much as a hedge against being undone by the horrors of it all.

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  5. Tolkien was a Brummie like myself, and by chance I was married on the 100th anniversary of his birth. What inspired Tolkien’s writing has always interested me. I would imagine WW1 affected everyone who lived through it, and how that was channelled would depend on the individual. A writer has a safety valve of release.

    Which leads me on to the question of what global events affects and inspires writers now. In the UK at least we don’t have a war at the moment, but we do have the big issue of climate change, over consumption of the Earth’s resources and the nightmare of gross inequalities in society to contend with – for starters. Or do writers pretend it’s not happening and write for pure escapism?

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    1. Cool link to Tolkien – marriage date and Birmingham! Apparently there were places around Birmingham that were written into The Lord Of The Rings in various sly ways.

      Interesting question about what inspires us now. I suspect some writers do produce pure escapism – vampire stories (I never got into those). And yet the nature of that escapism, I think, also speaks volumes about the world we live in; and I suppose other writers do pivot their ideas on current problems, I’m thinking Stephen Baxter in particular. (I got rather depressed reading his ‘Titan’).

      What do other readers think? This a very interesting question – needs exploring. Let’s discuss it!

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  6. For my part, as I grow more into myself as a young adult, I feel inspired to write about themes based on our current, toxic political atmosphere in the United States. I look at this growing cultural rift between the secular, “progressive” left and the religious, “traditional” right and see echoes of this conflict on a larger scale as the more conservative Eastern states of the world feel threatened by the encroaching threat of the godless West and vice versa.

    At the risk of sounding dire, there are many times now where I look at all the infighting, and I wonder how we can even call ourselves The United States of America when we are anything but united, and I wonder why– and how– it has come to this. With my writing, I feel particularly drawn toward exploring this theme and the dangers therein, as I find Thomas Paine’s quote, “Gentleman, we must all hang together or we shall surely hang separately,” ominously salient.

    As for your worries about younger generations not appreciating a novel, or even possessing the capacity to interpret a story for themselves, rest assured that there are still some of us out there who cherish the literary tradition. I’m about to turn 22 in two days, and I share your concern, but I do what I can to combat it.

    Hmm, now there’s another interesting theme for development: what happens when an entire generation loses its literary heritage…

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    1. These are important matters – thanks for sharing your thoughts on them. Certainly fertile ground for writing; looking in from outside (as a New Zealander) I see the US as a particular kind of lens for the human condition, one that throws a good deal of light on both our best and our worst Other nations and cultures offer different lenses, many of them equally as diverse, insightful, or potentially worrisome. Optimistically, I always hope that sensible people will prevail. And writers have their part to play, by using the revealed truths as inspiration – obliquely, metaphorically, perhaps. Even allegorically, but never failing to write. One of the best writers I can think of who did was Shakespeare – living in a world that was just as troubled, dangerous and divided as our own. And in the process, he gave us something that transcended his time and place. Wonderful stuff.

      Good luck for your own writing, too – and glad you’re carrying on the literary traditions!

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  7. Matthew, I loved this blog! You taught me things about Tolkien I’d never heard. I pay little attention to global effects, other than the upcoming election here. Mostly I live in my own little fantasy world and thank God that I’m retired and don’t have to eke out a living.

    Don

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    1. Thank you. I remain fascinated by the way so much fed into Tolkien’s thinking – a tremendous writer. And I have to agree, it would be great to live somewhere other than the real world, just now, for so many reasons. I guess as writers we can help – not just by exploring aspects of the human condition, but by offering words for people to escape into, even for a few hours.

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