Thursday 21 February 2013

Was Tolkien not a niggler?


"I am a natural niggler, alas!" said JRR Tolkien in a letter to Rayner Unwin of December 30 10961 - he was, of course, referring to his story Leaf by Niggle in which the protagonist with the name of Niggle is so delayed by his niggling-away at minutiae of his Big Painting, then death takes him before the work is completed.


Leaf by Niggle was written in 1938-9, during the time Tolkien was working on the Hobbit-sequel that ultimately became Lord of the Rings - and working on that particular book at that particular time, Tolkien was indeed a niggler par excellence.


I have been slowly re-reading volume six of The History of Middle Earth devoted to the early stages in composing Lord of the Rings (The Return of the Shadow, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1988); and sure enough there is a vast amount of niggling going on.

But the context is that Tolkien was (more or less) forcing himself to write this Hobbit-sequel - it was not what he spontaneously wanted to write, it was being done 'to order' following the success of The Hobbit and a request from the publisher for another book about hobbits.


As I read Return of the Shadow for something like the third time, and more carefully than before, I am struck by how poor (by Tolkien's own standards) some parts of it are - just about the worst fiction writing of  Tolkien's that I have seen: worse than the Hobbit, worse than Farmer Giles, and worse than the drafts of The Lost Road.

The problem is that so much of the writing lacks spontaneity and seems contrived and at times just silly. Clearly the story wasn't flowing forth, and was having to be squeezed out.

Consequently, the Hobbit-sequel was coming-out wrong, with gross incoherences of plot and tone, and vacillations on key principles - in other words the text needed an awful lot of 'niggling' in order to try and 'fix' the inconsistencies.


But later on in the writing of Lord of the Rings (I am not sure of the timing, but certainly from after Tolkien broke off in 1945-6, during which he began the aborted Notion Club Papers) the LotR text flows easily, and the first draft is typically very similar to the final published version.

The later portions of LotR thus emerged quite rapidly and without need of much revision.


And this seems to have been the norm for Tolkien.

Most of Tolkien's books were composed quickly, and the first drafts are both high in literary quality, and requiring very little revision and not much 'niggling'.

Thus Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wooton Major were all produced quickly with good first drafts. Both the Lost Tales, and the 1920s and 30s versions of The Silmarillion were composed quite quickly, and with an immediately-attained high quality of both literary finish and factual cohesion.

Even unrevised and only posthumously-published works like Roverandom and the Father Christmas Letters were written quickly, and with a high level of literary finish at the first (and only) attempt.

Tolkien's letters were also often of superb literary quality and organization.  


So, when Tolkien was writing what he wanted to write, for reasons of inner motivation - he worked quickly and attained excellent first drafts.

Tolkien was therefore not by nature a niggler

- except when he was being forced to work at externally-imposed projects, or work faster than he wanted to go.



Troels said...

I agree that the later parts of The Lord of the Rings were achieved far more easily than the earlier parts, and I would also agree that the first parts (certainly the first book) of LotR required far more revision (almost too heavy to qualify as ‘niggling’) than most other things that Tolkien wrote. However, I cannot help but feel that you are looking too narrowly at this by only considering The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien spent most of his life niggling away at his Silmarillion mythology — never really reaching a point where he'd have been happy to publish it. The Hobbit also shows evidence of much niggling.

The same can be said of his academic work: taking ages, revising and editing, editing and revising.

Yes, there is a clear difference in how easily he produced his first draft, but even an easily achieved (i.e. written for pleasure) first draft was revised and at times heavily edited. But the crucial thing is that he would keep on changing details (even in published books), never being entirely satisfied with the result.

If we had proof that Tolkien in general achieved a text in first draft that required only very light revision before he was himself satisfied with it, then I'd be inclined to agree with your conclusion, but in my eyes the reality is just the opposite: the relatively light revisions to the later parts of The Lord of the Rings is the exception, probably only achieved through the extensive niggling in the earlier parts and because he had, at that point, become very sure of his story.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Troels, I am not saying that Tolkien was *never* a Niggler - but instead that niggling was not an intrinsic part of his nature: there are several significant and important exceptions.

"Tolkien spent most of his life niggling away at his Silmarillion mythology — never really reaching a point where he'd have been happy to publish it." That isn't true! He was desparate to publish the Silmarillion along with Lord of the Rings - leading to the Milton Waldman/ Collins affair. Also, I think before he even commenced LotR he tried to publish the Quenta Silmarillion version with Unwin - who sent it to a reviewer who didn't know for sure whether it was 'fiction' or legendary 'Celtic' folkore.

"The same can be said of his academic work: taking ages, revising and editing, editing and revising."

Sometimes, especially with things he was trying to do 'on the side' from working on his Legendarium, or after he had 'missed the moment', or where he had lost interest - but would not (stobbornly, and quite unreasoably!) refuse to give up on the project.

(The worst example was the Clarendon Press edition of Chaucer, which he could not finish yet refused to abandon for *several decades* until the whole project was eventaull shelved. Another example was the introduction to his translations of Sir Gawain, Pearl and Orfeo which he failed to finish for about 20 years before his death...)

But his most famous and infuential philological work was done with the normal rapidity of such things: for example the Middle English glossary from Sisam's book; the co-written edition of Sir Gawain; Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics; The Homecoming of Boertnoth...

And his shorter works, were often substantially written in one major go - with some revision, of course, like almost all writers

(CS Lewis being a notable exception - since as a rule he published his once-corrected - plus proof-read - first drafts.)

Troels said...

Having written most of my reply, I came to wonder if we mean exactly the same by niggling?

For me the ability to produce a text for publication has little to do with the niggling, and the speed with which such a text is produced has nothing to do with it.

When I speak of Tolkien as a natural niggler, I refer to his inability to let things be even after they were published — most of his works exists in several editions where he has changed things here and there to improve them. The published essays usually have appendices or postscripts, or they have been substantially changed in one or more editions (and if originally given as a lecture, the argument of the published essay is usually quite different from that used in the lecture).

It is this desire to change even small details — the turn of a phrase or the form of an Elvish word — in an futile desire for perfection in everything that makes Tolkien, in my eyes, a niggler. The larger revisions — abandoning Trotter the Hobbit ranger, for instance — is not, in my understanding, niggling, but rather a natural part of the creative process.

So, with that sense in mind (which may differ from the sense you intend), there were certainly several exceptions — Leaf by Niggle is, curiously, possibly the greatest exception of them all — Tolkien seems to have hardly revised or niggled anything about this at all :-)

When Tolkien tried to get first Allen & Unwin and then Collins to publish The Silmarillion together with The Lord of the Rings, he did not consider his Silmarillion mythology ready for publication: that is what the work he started on about 1951 is all about (what Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring and The War of the Jewels calls the ‘LQ1’ — the Later Quenta Silmarillion, first phase). There was a significant amount of rewriting and then niggling to this effort (which was eventually abandoned as Tolkien gave up on the idea of combined publication and went back to Allen & Unwin to have just The Lord of the Rings published there).

Changes in the forms of names and changes in the names themselves are excellent examples of the niggling that belongs to this period, and are examples that we see continue even in the published The Lord of the Rings — thus Galadriel's lineage and the dual form of some Quenya words (omentielmo > omentielvo) were changed in the second edition.

It is, in my understanding, more correct to say that the acceptance of The Lord of the Rings (and before that of The Hobbit) forced Tolkien to first do some serious niggling and then draw a kind of line in the sand (not that this line, as demonstrated above, would stop the niggling, but it would get the text published).

I'd have to check up on the details, but my recollection of Tolkien's work on the glossary for Sisam's book is quite different (I believe it was delayed), just as the later appendix to the MC essay attests to Tolkien's desire to work on with what had once been finished (as does his many revisions, additions and changes in the ‘On Fairy-stories’ essay).

Bruce Charlton said...


I think the basis of our disagreement is what we consider to be a baseline. My judgment abaout academics is that - by your standards - we are all nigglers!

This is in the nature of doing scholarship. So that whenever a scholarly book is republished, academics will revise it as a new edition. What I am saying is that by the normal standards of academics (especially of his generation) Tolkien did not niggle more than most in at least several of his works - including some of the most successful.

Therefore he was not always, necessarily or by his nature a niggler - but only under specific circumstances.

wrt the Silmarillion circa 1951. I would argue that Tolkien certainly did regard the S. as ready for publication, in the sense that he very much wanted it published with LotR - he was *desparate* to co-publish them; and would certainly have gotten it ready in time to do this, had the opportunity for co-publication become avaiable.

How he would have done this we shall never know - but somehow it would have been done.

He could, for example, have published the S. as a collection of partially corrupted texts, in order to explain their mutual incoherence and points of disagreement with LotR.

In other words, he could have feigned that he was a modern editor of ancient texts, rather than their author - and written a pseudoscholarly introduction as he did with The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and the song cycle The Road Goes Eever On.

So - in summary! Most academics are nigglers - in so far as they have time to be; but Tolkien would let things go when the priority of publication was sufficiently urgent.

His extreme niggling was restricted to situations where he did not feel personally impelled to complete the work and where publication was uncertain.

The special prblems with starting LotR were of this latter type, because this was a work Tolkien did not (until a later stage) feel impelled to write - but which was written 'on commission' and 'to order' - he needed to find a way to make it his own and to serve his own 'obsessions' before the New Hobbit took flight.

Deniz Bevan said...

Interesting discussion!
Rayner and Unwin were certainly very supportive of Tolkien, but I wonder - had he had a true champion, might have drawn that "baseline" sooner? By which I mean, might he not have published The Silmarillion himself sooner, if he'd had an editor or publisher who pressured him to finish?
Lucky for us that his son was willing to continue the work, as it were.

Deniz Bevan said...

Or else we might not have known the depth of his niggling...

Chris said...

So, when Tolkien was writing what he wanted to write, for reasons of inner motivation - he worked quickly and attained excellent first drafts.

I don't read the Charleton blogs regularly, but I am always fascinated by them. I loved Tolkien and Lewis and, after my brother was diganosed with ADD (not ADHD) via university neuro-psych center, my mother and I both found similar symptoms in ourselves. Always love to see the two commented on by a psychologist.