As ever, dear readers, welcome.
I suspect that anyone who has spent any time with Tolkien has probably seen this passage:
“The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” (letter to Houghton Mifflin, 30 June, 1955—with a rather complicated history—see Letters 219 for the quotation and 218 for an explanation)
As a rather sceptical person, I’ve always then looked at the extensive appendices to my copy of The Lord of the Rings,
which cover pages 1033-1138, and then at the many volumes subsequently edited and published by Christopher Tolkien,
and thought, “That’s an awful lot of ‘story’ for the bits and pieces of Elvish, Dwarfish, and even Black Speech, which are to be found there.”
And so I wondered if JRRT, for all of his language passion, hadn’t also a passion for world-creating and was somehow misrepresenting himself and his creativity. As a young grown-up, he certainly once had large plans, as he explained in this 1951 letter to Milton Waldman:
“But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths…” (Letters, 144)
We know that, as a child, he was given those “fairy-stories”, from books like Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890),
and it’s clear that he once even tried his hand at writing such a story:
“I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years…” (letter of 7 June, 1955, to W.H. Auden, Letters, 214)
(This lovely beast is by “Deskridge”—that’s Daniel Eskridge–at Deviant Art—I couldn’t resist including it. If you’d like to see more of his work, you can find it at: https://daniel-eskridge.pixels.com/featured/green-dragon-daniel-eskridge.html )
When he took up story telling again, however, it was, by his own account “Say 1912 to 1913.”, when he was a student at Oxford.
(He’s easy to spot, isn’t he? In the far back, clinging to that rather elderly vine.)
And, to my sceptical mind, the question was always, why?
After all, in contrast to JRRT’s one attempt at such things at seven, and then not again till his very late teens, early twenties, we have two literary families who began very early at world-building.
The first began in a rather bleak part of England in 1826
with a gift of wooden soldiers
by a priest father
to his son
and his three daughters.
The soldiers became characters in a place first called “Glasstown”, then the “Glasstown Confederacy” which was then extended by two of the four children, Branwell Bronte (1817-1848)
and his sister, Charlotte (1816-1855),
into the more complex world of “Angria”,
of which Charlotte has left us a series of short story accounts of some of its characters and events.
The two younger sisters, Anne (1820-1849)
and Emily (1818-1848)
were soon relegated to minor positions in this world and, in time, seceded, perhaps about 1834, creating their own world, Gondal.
(I found this recreation at the website of “Merricat Mulwray”, credited to “Bruce Poulsen”. Here’s the website, should you like to read the attached essay: https://merricatmulwray.com/2019/10/11/the-brontes-paracosm-gondal/ )
We appear to have much more about Angria, thanks to Charlotte, but some Gondal material survives, in bits and pieces, as well as in a series of poems by Emily, found in a manuscript and first printed in their original form in 1938. (Some, heavily edited by Charlotte, had appeared earlier.)
The older children seem to have abandoned Angria with childhood, but Anne and Emily continued their creation into adulthood—here is a wonderful sketch, by Emily, of the two sisters at work in 1837.
Another literary pair, almost a century later, lived in a house in northern Ireland
which appears to have been piled high with books. As one of a pair of children, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
described it in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1956:)
“There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for children and books most emphatically not.” (quoted in Lewis and Lewis, Boxen, 348-349)
This was a world of rainy day reading, in a place where there were many rainy days, at a time when middle-class children like the Lewises,
were watched closely for signs of childhood illnesses and kept at home, just in case. These two children, the older, Warren (1895-1973),
dubbed forever “Warnie” by his brother, and Clive, who, as a child renamed himself “Jack”, practically immured at times, read and read and began to evolve new worlds from what they found in books and their imaginations. The initial result was Warnie’s “India” and Jack’s “Animal-Land”, which were then blended into the more comprehensive “Boxen”. Characters and situations came from their reading and from the political world around them (this would have been in the years of rising international tension before the Great War of 1914-1918, in which both served, and when there was increasing debate over whether Ireland would have home rule, or continue to be governed from London) and the material eventually gathered and published in 1985
sometimes reads like a comic nightmare version of the sort of history from which Stephen Daedalus was trying to awaken in Ulysses—itself begun in 1907. Perhaps one of my favorite characters combines a monarch at a time when virtually all of Europe was in the hands of royal families (many of them the descendants of Queen Victoria),
with a character from the world of Beatrix Potter,
to produce King Bunny.
(imagine his tam-o-shanter replaced with a crown)
Such childish creativity brings me back to that “green great dragon”. It’s clear from the mass of later material that Tolkien had the ability to create worlds even more complex than Angria, Gondal, or Boxen: why didn’t he begin to do so until his university days? Perhaps because the Brontes had each other to bounce ideas off, as did the Lewises? JRRT’s own brother, Hillary, is a shadowy figure, especially in contrast to the almost hyperactive and endlessly creative Brontes. I wonder, however, if along with being on his own creatively, Tolkien also lacked the very stimulus to create such worlds with which I began this essay. In my quotation, I left off what might be a crucial clue:
“The fact that I remember this [the green great dragon problem] is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.” (Italics mine)
Tolkien had already told Auden in that letter that:
“All this only as a background to the stories, though languages and names are for me inextricable from the stories. They are and were so to speak an attempt to give a background or a world in which my impressions of linguistic taste could have a function. The stories were comparatively late in coming.”
So, although the capacity for world-building was always there, something was lacking—and then it appeared:
“I mentioned Finnish, because that set the rocket off in story. I was immensely attracted by something in the air of the Kalevala, even in Kirby’s poor translation…the beginning of the legendarium, of which the Trilogy is part (the conclusion), was in an attempt to reorganize some of the Kalevala, especially the tale of Kullervo the hapless, into a form of my own.”
The rocket went off,
Middle-earth began to appear, and sceptical I began to believe.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Remember that Hillary built his own little world in his garden and orchard,
And know that, as ever, there’s