Mastodon The Writing Desk: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Writing Habits

2 June 2014

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Writing Habits

J. R. R. Tolkien in 1968
(BBC Archive)
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, English writer, poet  and Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, is best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

It is hard to be certain of the exact figures, due to the proliferation of ebook versions, but The Lord of the Rings is the biggest-selling single genre novel of all time and possibly the best-selling single novel of all time.

Surviving the horrors of the Somme as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers , when his battalion was almost completely wiped out, Tolkien began writing to help his recovery from trench fever. His first work, The Book of Lost Tales, was a collection of short stories, where he developed the ideas for his later work, with the subtitle ‘The History of Middle Earth’.

One hot summer day he was bored marking endless examination papers and found that one candidate had left an entire page of an answer-book blank. On this page, Tolkien wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit“. (See interview below.) It took Tolkien seven years to turn that sentence into The Hobbit and he struggled to get the manuscript finished because of his teaching commitments at Oxford College.

Writing habits

Tolkien once said his typical response on reading a medieval work was not to make a critical study of it, but instead to write a modern work in the same tradition. A prolific letter-writer, Tolkien suffered from severe rheumatism and would apologise for not handwriting his correspondence. “I usually type,” he wrote in one letter, “since my ‘hand’ tends to start fair and rapidly fall into picturesque inscrutability.”

Tolkien's favourite typewriter was an expensive American Hammond Varitype, made in 1927.  Insead of conventional typebars, it had a replaceable C-shaped curved rubber type-plate (which anticipated the IBM "golf ball" by fifty years). Tolkien could therefore change the typewriter "font" which included italics, which he used a great deal, as well as the small font he called ‘midget type’.  The Hammond Varitype was the most advanced ‘word processor’ of its day and produced such fine work that they were used as "cold typesetting" devices, to prepare camera-ready copy for printing.

Later in life, Tolkien found the Hammond too heavy and turned to more portable typewriters. Despite the pain it caused, he often wrote detailed notes about Middle Earth in longhand with a pen, before switching to his typewriter. He typed the entire manuscript of The Lord of the Rings twice in his favourite writing space - on his bed in an attic. In a letter written in 1964, he wrote to a friend: “I like typewriters; and my dream is of suddenly finding myself rich enough to have an electric typewriter built to my specifications, to type the Fëanorian script.”

The manuscripts, typescripts and proofs for The Hobbit survive in the Memorial Library Archives at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and give a useful insight into Tolkien’s writing methods.  The collection includes a working draft of the first twelve pages, typed on Tolkien's Hammond typewriter. The rest of the pages are handwritten and numbered consecutively from 13 to 167, and Tolkien changes the type of paper and uses a different pen near the beginning of Chapter 5.

The next stage of development is a full typescript done on the Hammond typewriter, with the songs typed in italics and the only changes being to the names of characters. (Interestingly, to modern writers with the benefit of word processing, there is also a second full typescript, which seems to have been abandoned due to the significant number of typographical mistakes). 

Tolkien later recalled, “I wrote the first chapter first, then forgot about it, then I wrote another part. I myself can still see the gaps. There is a very big gap after they reach the eyrie of the Eagles. After that I really didn't know how to go on. I just spun a yarn out of any elements in my head. I don't remember organizing the thing at all."

Always modest about his work, Tolkien wrote in a letter about The Lord of the Rings in July 1947, “I certainly hope to leave behind me the whole thing revised and in final form, for the world to throw into the waste-paper basket.  All books come there in the end, in this world, anyway.”  He was surprised by the success of his first book and also of the others, and felt his best-selling success was a complete accident.

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