Robin Sloan on Tolkien in his latest newsletter:
Tolkien, for all his vaunted designs, only got to The Good Stuff when he was IN it, really working the text of the novels (or novel, if you consider The Lord of the Rings one big book). He could not worldbuild his way into a workable story; he had to muddle and discover and revise, just like the rest of us….
In a single stroke, we get: a mythic backstory, a grand MacGuffin, a sense of language and history, the sublimely satisfying train of magic numbers — three … seven … nine … ONE! — plus something graphically weird and beautiful on the page.
It’s all just tremendous — the perfect kernel of Tolkien’s appeal.
And, guess what:
Not only was the inscription missing from the early drafts of LOTR … the whole logic of the ring was missing, too. In its place was a mess. The ring possessed by Bilbo Baggins was one of thousands the Dark Lord manufactured, all basically equivalent: they made their wearers invisible, and eventually claimed their souls. They were like cursed candies scattered by Sauron across Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s explanation of this, in his first draft, is about about as compelling as what I just wrote.
It’s fine, as far as it goes; he could have made it work, probably? Possibly? But it is not COOL in the way that the final formulation is COOL. It has none of the symmetry, the inevitability. It does only the work it has to do, and nothing else. It is not yet aesthetically irresistible.
There are several revised approaches to “what’s the deal with the ring?” presented in The History of The Lord of the Rings, and, as you read through the drafts, the material just … slowly gets better! Bit by bit, the familiar angles emerge. There seems not to have been any magic moment: no electric thought in the bathtub, circa 1931, that sent Tolkien rushing to find a pen.
It was just revision.
I find this totally inspiring.
I find it totally inspiring, too.
This reminds me of this Guy Gavriel Kay quote which I’ve posted before and will now post again:
I learned a lot about false starts in writing. I mean that in a really serious way. His [Tolkien’s] false starts. You learn that the great works have disastrous botched chapters, that the great writers recognise that they didn’t work. So I was looking at drafts of The Lord of the Rings and rough starts for The Silmarillion and came to realise they don’t spring full-blown, utterly, completely formed in brilliance. They get there with writing and rewriting and drudgery and mistakes, and eventually if you put in the hours and the patience, something good might happen. That was a very, very early lesson for me, looking at the Tolkien materials. That it’s not instantly magnificent. That it’s laboriously so, but it gets there. That was a huge, huge, still important lesson.