I just finished reading a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien that discussed the sort of problems Tolkien encountered while writing The Lord of the Rings. I found it interesting and a little amusing to find that the first draft of the novel was quite different from the final version we’ve come to know.
For example, Frodo was initially named Bingo, and Aragorn was also a Hobbit. The Ring was hardly even part of the plot. And Gandalf was held captive by Treebeard instead of Saruman because Saruman wasn’t even part of the story. Neither were Lothlorien or Rohan.
It’s odd to think of such a classic has having been anything but the novels we have today, but clearly they went through a long road to become what they are.
There are two main points of encouragement we can take from this:
- Even Tolkien didn’t get it “right” right away. At one point he stopped writing for over a year because the story had become a muddled mess that he couldn’t find a way out of. We often think that our favorite novels sprang fully-formed from the author’s mind like Athena from the head of Zeus. In reality even the best works require rework, and often a lot more than we realize.
- Tolkien did get it right–or at least right enough–through hard work. He was notorious with his publisher as a perfectionist, but there’s no denying now that the finished product was one heck of a story. If you’re willing to put work into it, your story can be improved. Editing may not be fun, but it’s a useful discipline to develop.
Tolkien had to spend time developing his craft, too. Before The Hobbit was even published he had spent years writing stories for his family and colleagues to enjoy. And The Lord of the Rings took over a decade to complete–and then another five years to get published. And even then it was not before it had gone through significant revision. In short, even Tolkien wasn’t Tolkien right away. There is always hope.