Sunday 8 November 2009

The shamanistic creative method of JRR Tolkien


Tolkien's remarkable creative method has been elucidated by TA Shippey in his Road to Middle Earth; and amply confirmed by the evidence from the History of Middle Earth (HoME) edited by Christopher Tolkien.

In a nutshell, Tolkien treats his 'first draft' as if it were an historical text of which he is a scholarly editor. So when Tolkien is revising his first draft his approach is similar to that he would take when preparing (for example) an historically-contextualized edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Beowulf.

So, as he reads his own first draft, he is trying to understand what 'the author' (himself) 'meant', he is aware of the possibility of errors in transcription, or which may have occurred during the historical transmission. He is also aware that 'the author' was writing from a position of incomplete knowledge, and was subject to bias.


This leads to some remarkable compositional occurrences. For example, in the HoME Return of the Shadow (covering the writing of the first part of Lord of the Rings - LotR) Tolkien wrote about the hobbits hiding from a rider who stopped and sniffed the air. The original intention was that this rider was to be Gandalf and they were hiding to give him a surprise 'ambush'. In the course of revision the rider became a 'Black Rider' and the hobbits were hiding in fear - the Black Riders were later, over many revisions, and as the story progressed, developed into the most powerful servants of Sauron.

This is a remarkable way of writing. Most writers know roughly what they _mean_ in their first draft, and in the process of revising and re-drafting they try to get closer to that known meaning. But Tolkien did the reverse: he generated the first draft, then looked at it as if that draft had been written by someone else, and he was trying to decide what it meant - and in this case eventually deciding that it meant something pretty close to the opposite of the original meaning.

In other words, Tolkien's original intention counted for very little, but could be - and was, massively reinterpreted by the editorial decision. The specifics of the incident (rider, sniffing) stayed the same; but the interpretation of the incident was radically altered. This pattern is often seen throughout the HoME - specific details are retained, while the meaning of these is transformed throughout the process of revision.

(By contrast, most authors maintain the interpretation of incidents throughout revisions, but change the specific details.)


This corresponds to the transmission of texts through history - specific and striking incidents tend to be remembered and preserved - while (due to historical changes in culture, assumptions, background knowledge etc) these incidents get hugely re-interpreted in 'anachronistic' ways. So the incident may stay the same, but its meaning may be reversed.

I have seen this with a couple of folk tales during my life. When I was a child King Midas - everything he touched turned to gold - was regarded as a cautionary tale of greed leading to (potential) death (since his food and drink were also turned to gold). But nowadays, the Midas Touch is regarded as something desirable - it means the ability to make money in any situation. Presumably the benefits of wealth are now regarded as greater than survival!

"Shooting yourself in the foot" used to mean a deliberate act of self-wounding with the aim of being invalided away from the front line of a war. Someone shot themselves in the foot on purpose, but pretended it was an accident. But it now means almost the reverse - an accidentally self-inflicted wound.

In both cases a striking detail is preserved, but its meaning is transformed.


Tolkien's compositional technique recognizes this process - and Tolkien approached his first draft of composition as if the draft were the end product of this type of misinterpretation or distortion. So, his draft containing the striking detail of the sniffing rider'; but it is as if Tolkien assumed that the meaning of the detail had been misunderstood by one of the copyists via whom the text had been transmitted to Tolkien.

But why did Tolkien write in this way? I think there are two reasons. The first is that he was by profession a philologist: a scholarly editor, a man concerned with old and fragmentary and distorted texts - and he brought this skill and perspective to his fictional writing.

But secondly it relates to Tolkien's creative processes - which were 'shamanistic' (and it is one of the purposes of this blog to demonstrate the fact, since it comes through so strongly in the Notion Club Papers). By shamanistic, I mean that I believe much of Tolkien's primary, first-draft creative, imaginative work was done in a state of altered consciousness - a 'trance' state or using ideas from dreams. The re-writing was done in clear consciousness, with full critical faculties brought to bear.


This combination of creating a dreamlike first draft which is then used as the basis for scholarly and meticulous revisions is not unusual among creative people, perhaps especially poets. Robert Graves wrote about this a great deal.

And neither is it unusual for poets to treat their 'inspired' first draft as material for editing. The first draft - if it truly is inspired - is interpreted as coming from elsewhere - from divine sources, from 'the muse', or perhaps from the creative unconscious; at any rate, the job of the alert and conscious mind is to 'make sense' of this material without destroying the bloom or freshness derived from its primary source. In this respect, and others, Tolkien wrote more like a poet than a novelist.

This is, I believe, why Tolkien did not see himself as inventing, rather as understanding. He was not consciously inventing his first drafts but rather 'transcribing' material which came to him during altered states of consciousness, by a process of inspiration which was not under his control. When revising this primary material, if he found that key evidence was missing, he could try and interpolate it like a historian by extrapolation from other evidence, linking between the inspired material; or he could await further poetic inspiration, which might provide the answer.

This interpretation is also consistent with Tolkien's oft stated remarks that the Legendarium came from the language; in the sense that words were often primary data which required to be understood - for example the Anglo Saxon word Earendil. As Tolkien's Legendarium evolved, the meaning of Earendil (the myth behind the word) changed - but the word remained.

Or, the meaning of the Beren and Luthien story changed (Beren was originally an elf) - but key details of the story remained constant.


Tolkien - I think - regarded these key words or key story elements as his primary source material, material which must be preserved throughout revision because it had been inspired. The interpretation of these emotionally-charged, entities (words, story elements, images, artefacts) might change, might even reverse, but the entity should be kept the same throughout all these changes, because that was what had been 'given' to Tolkien from his primary sources, accessed during his most profound creative states.



Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful piece, and I'm surprised that nobody else has commented on it yet!

Thank you for elucidating Tolkien's creative method; the "shamanistic" approach which you described is fascinating, and in regards to the professor himself, it also makes a lot of sense due to his background as a philologist.

Unknown said...

Thank you very much for a glimpse into the mind of the great one :)
I myself had those trance like writing spells , but never knew what to do with it later. Its hard to get back to the freshness and vividness of the vision in which you were once so enthralled by.
So i might take some cues from this essay as to how to approach developing it later.


Susanne said...

Thank you for this blog.

I came here after watching a biographical film about Tolkien that gave me the idea that at least part of his creative process might have happened in an altered state of consciousness. That made me curious to learn more as I have become a hypnotist during the past few years.

But having been a philologist-historian myself for mostnof my adult life, currently in the process of reshaping raw material of an unfinished fantasy novel (in German) into TV series format (in English), I am mesmerized by Tolkiens method as I found while reading this blog that my own work is a combination of both approaches - the usual novelist one when there is a rough idea of the meaning and the details are reworked and the poetic one when certain details or incidents are being kept as crucial elements and the interpretation is reworked and changed during the editing process.

I mostly don't end up with the opposite but crucial incidents and turning points, details, names etc. have been there since the first draft and a good deal of the story had to be arranged around them. The very reason why this story could develop this far was that two characters sprang to life and something unexpected happened while I was writing a scene as an exercise and suddenly, a whole new story started to unfold. I even saw the face of my main character in the time between sleeping and waking clear enough that I managed an halfway decent sketch in a rather tricky perspective with next to no drawing skills. Another character suddenly appeared out of nowhere while I was writing a scene and I feel he still has not fully arrived at his final place and meaning for the story. So I might test Tolkiens method now.

Thanks again, utterly fascinating read.