Sunday, 3 March 2013

Why is it important to recognize that Tolkien was not exactly a niggler?


In the previous post I argued that Tolkien was not fundamentally a niggler - against which Troels produced some robust arguments.

Now he has been joined in his pro-niggling onslaught by Tom Shippey, no less, who wrote me in an e-mail: 

Well, I have to agree with Troels. I've recently written the chapter on T as editor for Stuart Lee's forthcoming Companion, and honestly, how did he get away with it? Oxford professor, of course, which helps when it comes to dealing with OUP, but of the 11 projects he took up, only one was completed satisfactorily and more or less on time, which was the SGGK edition - and Gordon was the motor who drove that. Tolkien didn't really have a lot to do. 

The Sisam Glossary is full of niggling, in the sense of quite unnecessary detail - I bet the majority of his entries have never been looked at once in all the years since 1921, nor did they need to be - and that was what sank the Clarendon Chaucer (which, by the way, has been recently rediscovered under the urging of John M. Bowers from Las Vegas). 

Another failure was the Ancrene Wisse edition, which took 33 years to come out, and was not only delayed by totally unnecessary fussing over presentation, but appeared, quite against normal procedure, without the usual introduction and notes, which Tolkien was ideally suited to produce. If I had been the OUP editor responsible I would have handed the job over to G T Shepherd, who did many of the things Tolkien should have done, with far less backing.

I admit that I have known several academics who were EVEN WORSE, and that it is a professional deformation. And Tolkien was good about helping other people, like Simone d'Ardenne.

Also that he had an all-purpose excuse, which is that his mind was on other and more important things. He could indeed write quickly and directly once he saw his way clear.

Alas that he was not relieved of academic duties and put on permanent sabbatical, say about 1940. And maybe he would have been better-off to stay in Leeds and continue working with Gordon. But then he would not have had the stimulus of Lewis, without whom LotR would not have been finished, by all accounts.

So, why don't I just throw in the towel and admit defeat?


The reason is that we importantly need to recognize that Tolkien was not a niggler pure and simple, in order properly to understand his character and achievement.

Most nigglers - by which I mean those with an over-scrupulous attention to 'minor' details which other people regard as trivial - are highly conscientious characters, dutiful, able to grind away at any job until it is done.

If we have known nigglers in our own lives, the chances are that they were of this highly conscientious type.


Yet Tolkien was not of this type. His over-scrupulous attention to microscopic detail was (from his youth, and throughout adult and professional life) combined with an inability to stick to what he was 'supposed to do' but did not actually want to do.

This was what led to his failure to get a Scholarship to Oxford (and having to settle for a lower Exhibition award at the second attempt) and to his nearly disastrous performance in the first part of his Classics degree (only just avoiding a third class rank - which would probably have finished any realistic chance of an academic job).

Lack of conscientiousness also accounts for other aspects of his later professional performance - as one example that he apparently 'always' failed to complete the subject matter of his lecture courses, because of spending too much time on the early parts, until he ran out of time.


What we see with Tolkien is in fact is a much stranger mixture of extreme attention to detail and perfectionism with an ability to work hard and with close attention for long hours - yet combined with an almost endless ability to put off working on things he was not fundamentally interested by; leading to an apparent selfishness and willfulness of behaviour whereby he could not make himself complete, but would not abandon, projects.


Like most creative geniuses (according to H.J Eysenck), Tolkien was relatively high in the personality trait called Psychoticism.

(Word search this term in this blog for further information, and see

Psychoticism is associated with high creativity - especially 'schizotypal' creativity of the dream-like type: widely-associative and insightful (in novel ways).

But Psychoticism is also associated with low conscientiousness, and a certain independence from the opinion/ approval of others that borders on selfishness (in other words low Agreeableness, in one of the modern terminologies of personality traits).

So the typical creative genius, who is high in Psychoticism, is someone whose hard work is channelled into their avocation - their self chosen hobby - rather than their vocation (appointed job): to use the words of Robert Frost from Two Tramps in Mud Time:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes. 


Tolkien certainly succeeded in uniting his avocation and his vocation - but ruthlessly, at the expense of his vocation.

With respect to his vocation Tolkien was a prevaricator, a putter-offer and a delayer  - yet would not cancel because, in a sense, he needed the 'cover' of having these projects which he was 'working on'. The way he put-off working-on or completing these tasks was the most natural to him - that is niggling; but niggling without urgency or purpose.

Therefore I would regard Tolkien's 1961 comment to Rayner Unwin, that he was a 'natural niggler' to be essentially an excuse; a self-justifying but not complete and accurate explanation of frequent endless delays.

Meanwhile, no effort was too great for his avocation - yet the niggling was disciplined, kept in bounds by the need to complete and publish his beloved hobbies - as soon as he saw the way ahead, by which he could fulfil his distinctive purposes through writing, the work flowed swift and sure to completion.


So Tolkien was either at most a partial-niggler; or else the word 'niggler' needs to be redefined to exclude merely conscientious, dutiful attention to detail.



Wurmbrand said...

Very interesting, and I particularly enjoyed Dr. Shippey's perspective.

Deniz Bevan said...

Wait, I don't know about that "more important things" line of Dr Shippey's - certainly it is/was for us, but at the time, didn't many of his colleagues/superiors think Tolkien's focus on his made-up stories was a waste of time?

Also, in reading these, I wonder - what about his work on the Jerusalem Bible? That was another task that he completed...

"'always' failed to complete the subject matter of his lecture courses, because of spending too much time on the early parts, until he ran out of time"
Every English teacher I've ever had has done this :-)

Troels said...

Another point that I would argue points in favour of Tolkien as a niggler is that he was known by contemporary academics for a desire for perfection, not prevarication. This is exemplified by Kenneth Sisam who wrote, in a letter to Ida Gordon, advising her that “Tol­kien's weakness is a desire for perfection, which leads to delay.” (Hammond and Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology entry for November 11th 1948.)

At this point Kenneth Sisam had been working with Tolkien for how many years? Sisam became Tolkien's tutor in 1913, so that is 35 years of intimate knowledge of Tolkien's working habits speaking here.