Tolkien on Inspiration
Did this Roman ring inspire The One Ring? (Photo courtesy “The Vyne”
Today’s post is fortuitous in that Tolkien is again in the news. Yesterday NPR ran a story about an ancient Roman ring that may have been the inspiration for The One Ring in Tolkien’s Middle Earth epic. You can find “The Vyne” here, but the summary of the story is that Tolkien was brought in to examine a Roman ring that apparently had the legend of a curse tied to it and that this was shortly before he began penning The Hobbit.
According to the story, once the ring was found in a field in Dorchester by a farmer, Tolkien was called in and “asked to comment on how this curse might have been and to comment on who was this god, Nodens. So he was called along to inspect the tablet and would have had awareness of the ring” (NPR).
This story intrigued me, so I dug around in Tolkien’s letters to find out if he indeed made mention of this ring…but to no avail. As far as I can tell, his inspiration was not a ring found in a field, but it’s a nice story anyway. What I did find, however are a few passages about what Tolkien thought about inspiration. The fact is that the great J.R.R. Tolkien struggled with inspiration like any of us.
In a letter to C.A. Furth, Allen & Unwin on August 31st, 1938, Tolkien writes that “[The Lord of the Rings] is now flowing along, and getting quite out of hand. It has reached about Chapter VII and progresses towards quite unforeseen goals (Carpenter 40). On October 13th of the same year in a letter to Stanley Unwin, “[The Lord of the Rings] has reached Chapter XI (though in a rather illegible state); I am now thoroughly engrossed in it, till I do not know when” (Carpenter 41). He goes on to write that his friend Gordon, a professor at the college, died in the middle of their “Honors Exams” and that he had to finish grading the papers for him, but it is evident that he could not wait to get back to writing the book. All of us have had these moments. I call it “being in the zone”. This report from Tolkien is the way we want to picture him: stalwartly writing away at his epic that he had planned out and designed down to the last tree in Mirkwood.
Even great writers have their dry days, though.
In a letter to Christopher Tolkien on August 12th, 1944, Tolkien writes “I am absolutely dry of any inspiration for the Ring and am back where I was in the Spring, with all the inertia to overcome again. What a relief it would be to get it done” (Carpenter 91). If you notice, this is not the only time he was “dry of any inspiration”, mentioning that he had one of these times “in the Spring”. There were times when even Tolkien’s great intellect couldn’t make order out of the chaos that was the world of Middle Earth; so much culture to write about, so much information that he had jotted down in his creation of his fictional world. To understand why he catalogued the entire history and geography of Middle Earth, one has to realize that he probably did it just to keep everything straight, and would often write about it “getting away from him” (Carpenter 41).
It is good to know that we are in good company when the inspiration dries up. I am currently having trouble with my WIP and know that if I give it time I shall surely find some inspiration that will plow through my brain like one of Legolas’s arrows, usually in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep. What inspires you? What do you do when you run out if ideas about where a character or plot is moving? Post below and realize you are not alone.