Friday, September 21, 2012

Happy Birthday to the Hobbit!

It's the 75th anniversary of the original publishing date for The Hobbit. I intended to celebrate today by having a second breakfast, but alas, it was one of those days that got off to such a crazy start, I hardly got a first one!

A few things have been making the rounds in honor of this special day. One I especially enjoyed was this article by Devin Brown on the C.S. Lewis blog. It's a lovely post. While most Tolkien and Lewis enthusiasts won't learn much from it that's new, it's still delightful to be reminded of the story of The Hobbit's genesis and of the life-giving friendship between Lewis and Tolkien in the early years.

Two things I especially took away from my reflections on this post today. The first is in reference to The Hobbit's beginning. About that momentous and mysterious start, when Tolkien scribbled the line "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" inside an exam booklet he was correcting, Brown writes:

"Had Professor Tolkien not needed the money which grading secondary school exams provided, had there not been so many of them, had there not been a blank page left in one exam booklet, there might never have been the beloved story we know today."

Don't you love that thought? We can trace the lines in hindsight, but at the time they were such ordinary things. Tolkien was a hard working teacher who needed money and took what I'm sure was a mind-numbing job. (There's that insight again: limitations can sometimes push us to new creative territory.) And in the midst of the mind-numbing pile of papers, a blank page beckoned and a story he didn't even know was percolating put forth its first tentative shoot as he scrawled that one gift line.

Isn't it good of God to give us gift lines and gift images? Remember Lewis saying that Narnia started with the picture of a faun carrying parcels in a wood? From such small beginnings -- one line, one picture -- whole stories can bloom. What a wonderful, mysterious thing creativity is.

And I loved this wonderful reminder from Brown's reflection:

"In a real life story as fascinating as the imaginary ones they would later write, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis became friends, Tolkien became instrumental in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, and then Lewis became instrumental in Tolkien’s completing his great works.  Together they formed the Inklings, the close-knit Oxford reading and writing group which met in Lewis’s college rooms and at a pub named The Eagle and Child.  It was at these meetings that the early versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were first read aloud, critiqued, and made into what they are today."

Again we can trace the lines. Lewis and Tolkien's friendship, complex as it was, was nourishing and fruitful for them both. As Brown goes on to say, after Jack's death Tolkien would talk about what a debt he owed him and how he wouldn't have finished LOTR if it hadn't been for Lewis' encouragement. It was because Lewis wanted to hear more of the story that Tolkien kept writing; he was the kind of writer who needed that encouragement (I think most writers are, but some more than others). Sometimes in our rush to write and create as artists, we can forget how important that gift of encouragement can be to other artists who are also giving their all to write stories that are good and beautiful and true. What it would be to have a friend like Lewis to draw out the best in us. What it would be to be a Lewis for other writers.

It's the beauty and complexity of that collaboration amongst Lewis and Tolkien and the other Inklings that Diana Pavlac Glyer captures so beautifully in her masterful book The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. The book is a great read for many reasons, but I think it especially helped me to understand Tolkien better. As I wrote in my review of the book three years ago:

"If one individual Inkling stands out in this volume, it's Tolkien. Though Glyer does a great job of covering the group as a group, it's inevitable that the members who wrote more and are better known will receive fuller treatment. But I think there's more than that in the thoughtful depths of her look at Tolkien: Glyer clearly wants to paint a more accurate portrait of his working style than has been attempted before. He's often been looked at as a kind of solitary genius, but as Glyer points out (and brilliantly backs up) of all the Inklings, Tolkien may have been the most dependent on community for inspiration and encouragement, as he was what I believe she terms a "notorious non-finisher." 

That was due in part to his incredibly lengthy revisions: he could write for years on one project, and create draft after draft. Just consider that the 600,000 plus words of Lord of the Rings took him about two decades to bring to completion, and that he worked many more years than that on his Silmarillion (only published after his death, its many drafts finally edited by Christopher).  Tolkien, Glyer asserts, would never have finished LOTR without the Inklings: "they supported Tolkien's natural impulse to keep polishing and perfecting his work." Beyond this general encouragement, the Inklings and Lewis in particular made specific comments and suggestions that we know (from evidence Glyer provides here) "led to modifications" in the work. Key changes were made in the shape of the narrative, and even in Tolkien's choice of how to end the book" 

On the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit, we can celebrate not only a wonderful story that has lasted in our hearts for so long, but the creative inspiration and collaboration that stood behind it.


Erin said...

Such a wonderful literary friendship! And one that I particularly feel a kinship with in relation to you. So grateful for their inspiration, and yours! :)

Beth said...

Oh, thank you, Erin! I feel that same literary kinship with you! And I love the role these two played in the formation of our own friendship.