Last week, Word On Fire Research Assistant Jack Thornton made a visit to one of the best collections of original Tolkien manuscripts in the world. Today he reflects on his experience there.
A couple weeks ago some of the Word On Fire team were sitting at our lunch table finishing up yet another fun, entertaining lunchtime conversation. We have a lot of those, about many different topics, but towards the end this one veered towards literature.
I don’t remember exactly how we got there, but at one point Fr. Steve spoke eloquently of J.R.R. Tolkien’s excellence as a writer, not only in the wide scope of his stories but in the beauty of his sentences. Fr. Steve described a moment from a recent re-reading of The Lord of the Rings when he had to put the book down and just marvel at Tolkien’s stunning prose for a while. We all agreed that some writers have that intangible ability to invoke great awe, admiration and wonder at the beauty of their words, and that this awe sometimes so great that it interrupts the reading process itself.
This should sound familiar to anyone who appreciates good writing. I remember clearly, when reading authors like Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy or Salmon Rushdie, being frequently blown away at how incredible and beautiful their prose is—so blown away that I need to stop reading and take a moment to admire it. Sometimes, however, the always lovely experience of reading great writing is tainted by a tinge of jealousy and the question ‘why can’t I do that?’
When I admitted this to Fr. Steve he said, “Well, Jack, writing like that doesn’t just come out easily. Those writers put a lot of time and work into their craft. Yes, there’s talent there, but it requires immense effort to write like that. Think about it.”
So I did think about it, but I didn’t realize how right he was until a couple days later when I went on a little field trip to the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection in the Raynor Memorial Libraries at Marquette University to do some research for a future Word On Fire project involving Tolkien’s life and works (stay tuned for more details about that).
My kind hosts at the collection welcomed me into the archives, after nicely asking me to leave my coffee at the front desk, and sat me down to show me dozens and dozens of pages of original manuscripts of Tolkien’s writings. I saw pages with handwriting so wobbly it was almost unreadable. I saw pages written more carefully in Tolkien’s lovely, distinct and perfectly legible script. I saw pages of writing interrupted by sketches of mountains, towers, maps, cities, gates and inscriptions. I saw calendars Tolkien made for himself to make sure the scenes in different parts of the story were chronologically correct. I saw poems written in English and then translated into a made up language with a made up alphabet. I saw the original, hand-written copy of the table of contents of the entire Lord of the Rings. I saw drawings of various objects and places in that famous novel. I saw the typescripts of original drafts of some of the more memorable scenes from the trilogy. For a proud nerd like myself, who has been a Tolkien fan ever since my father read the books to my siblings and me, it was like seeing a great painting in person, along with original sketches and drafts that show how the painting developed and matured.
There were several things that stood out to me. One was how visual his writing process was, with drawings and sketches of places and objects in his works on the same page as the words describing those things. Another was how his drafts got neater and neater as he worked on them; the first drafts were almost unreadable, while later drafts were much cleaner. You could see that as he progressed in the book, his vision became clearer.
But the most interesting thing I noticed was that almost every single page, from the initial, scribbling first drafts to the final page proofs sent by the publisher, was covered in edits and changes. Lines were crossed out, words were changed, and notes adorned the margins of almost every manuscript. It was clear that Tolkien never thought good enough was good enough, and constantly strove to improve his work to the last possible minute. Over a period of eight years the Oxford professor never stopped editing and improving his writing.
That’s why his work is so good. That’s why Fr. Steve had to take a moment to wonder at how marvelous Tolkien’s prose is. Yes, Tolkien was very talented and bright, but I don’t think those books would be nearly as good if he had just written one draft and stopped working. He had to constantly re-word, finesse, adjust and correct his work to make the final product so many readers know and love.
I wonder what parts of ourselves we could shape into a masterpiece if we give it the same effort Tolkien did. I wonder what skills and virtues are lurking beneath the surface of our souls, waiting for the work and practice necessary to accomplish something great. It's there. We just have to put in the effort to realize it.
Jack Thornton is the Research Assistant at Word On Fire Catholic Ministries.
Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter