"I Do Not Remember A Time When I Was Not Building It": writing Lessons from Tolkien

I just finished reading The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien’s posthumously published cosmology and mythology of Middle Earth, for the first time. It feels long overdue, since as a tween I was deeply obsessed with The Lord of the Rings. (I’m also very interested in the way that around middle-school age we each seem to devote ourselves body and soul toward one or a few obsessions, but that’s probably another blog post.) I did try to read The Silmarillion once before, around age twelve, but failed out very early—the prose is Biblical, heavy on names and SAT vocab and light on dialogue, and I wasn’t ready. Now that it’s been a decade and a half and I have college and grad school under my belt, I was better prepared to tackle it and appreciate, or even just understand, what I was reading. (Though it’s worth noting that my girlfriend was devoted to The Silmarillion and reread it many times as a tween and teen, so I can’t really use age as an excuse.)

This book is uniquely fascinating, of course especially to fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s reputation is stellar and monolithic based on those more narrative works alone; he’s the standard of an entire genre. (As a kid, it seemed every fantasy novel worth its salt had some version of the same blurb, usually very hyperbolic, on the jacket: “deserves a spot on the shelf next to Tolkien.”) But The Silmarillion is where it really hits home that he was a genius, that his brain worked in a unique and wonderful way. At least for me, it’s only possible to even conceptualize Tolkien’s worldbuilding process because we have him as an example. To start with creating working and distinct languages (multiple!) “deduced scientifically” from scratch; to devote your life to deciding who would speak these languages and where they would live and their world’s mythology, history, and natural change on a geologic scale—it’s impressive to imagine both the ego and confidence needed to even begin and the pure devotion to the work to keep going, considering that The Silmarillion wasn’t published in Tolkien’s lifetime and he was, albeit more by necessity than by choice, crafting most of these world-enriching details for himself.

You can see where I’m going with this. I’m partly glad that I wasn’t up to reading The Silmarillion as a kid, because I think I’ve gotten more out of it now that my writing process is more tempered and mindful. In a letter to Milton Waldman excerpted in the preface, Tolkien gives a fascinating and now poignant origin story for the mythos itself—he says “I do not suppose that it is of much interest to anyone but myself. I mean, I do not remember a time when I was not building it.” He describes his education and training as a philologist as though it functioned mostly to help him build his fantasy world. He mentions his early hope that he would jump-start a collaborative modern mythos for England, that he would sketch some tales in less detail than others in order to “leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.” This self-chastised hope for fanart/fiction and adaptation (or at least so it reads to me) is moving, given the life and devotion his work has earned—and also casts in an even harsher light his estate’s tight grip on The Silmarillion’s rights.

All of this is to say two things: first, that if you’re a big fan of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings and have not yet read The Silmarillion, you should—it will give you almost literal vertigo as you realize you’ve been devoted to the tip of an iceberg, that every name-drop about someone who “doesn’t enter into this tale” or untranslated rune that Gandalf just calls “very old” has a rock-solid and frankly terrifying story of its own. Do you have a vague sense that Galadriel and Elrond have seen some shit? Would you like the definite sense that Galadriel and Elrond have seen some shit?


And second: J. R. R. Tolkien was a singular genius—but also an emulatable icon of work ethic, scope of vision, and a devotion to art for art’s sake. Remember that Infographic that called him a “slowpoke” for taking sixteen years to write LotR? Reframe that: the trilogy was one product of a continuous lifelong process of mythopoetic invention. What a more useful and encouraging way to conceptualize being a working writer.