Tolkien on Inspiration

Did this Roman ring inspire The One Ring? (Photo courtesy “The Vyne”

Today’s post is fortuitous in that Tolkien is again in the news.  Yesterday NPR ran a story about an ancient Roman ring that may have been the inspiration for The One Ring in Tolkien’s Middle Earth epic.  You can find “The Vyne” here, but the summary of the story is that Tolkien was brought in to examine a Roman ring that apparently had the legend of a curse tied to it and that this was shortly before he began penning The Hobbit.  

According to the story, once the ring was found in a field in Dorchester by a farmer, Tolkien was called in and “asked to comment on how this curse might have been and to comment on who was this god, Nodens. So he was called along to inspect the tablet and would have had awareness of the ring” (NPR).

This story intrigued me, so I dug around in Tolkien’s letters to find out if he indeed made mention of this ring…but to no avail.  As far as I can tell, his inspiration was not a ring found in a field, but it’s a nice story anyway.  What I did find, however are a few passages about what Tolkien thought about inspiration.  The fact is that the great J.R.R. Tolkien struggled with inspiration like any of us.

In a letter to C.A. Furth, Allen & Unwin on August 31st, 1938, Tolkien writes that “[The Lord of the Rings] is now flowing along, and getting quite out of hand.  It has reached about Chapter VII and progresses towards quite unforeseen goals (Carpenter 40).  On October 13th of the same year in a letter to Stanley Unwin, “[The Lord of the Rings] has reached Chapter XI (though in a rather illegible state); I am now thoroughly engrossed in it, till I do not know when” (Carpenter 41).  He goes on to write that his friend Gordon, a professor at the college, died in the middle of their “Honors Exams” and that he had to finish grading the papers for him, but it is evident that he could not wait to get back to writing the book.  All of us have had these moments.  I call it “being in the zone”.  This report from Tolkien is the way we want to picture him: stalwartly writing away at his epic that he had planned out and designed down to the last tree in Mirkwood.

Even great writers have their dry days, though.

In a letter to Christopher Tolkien on August 12th, 1944, Tolkien writes “I am absolutely dry of any inspiration for the Ring and am back where I was in the Spring, with all the inertia to overcome again.  What a relief it would be to get it done” (Carpenter 91).  If you notice, this is not the only time he was “dry of any inspiration”, mentioning that he had one of these times “in the Spring”.  There were times when even Tolkien’s great intellect couldn’t make order out of the chaos that was the world of Middle Earth; so much culture to write about, so much information that he had jotted down in his creation of his fictional world.  To understand why he catalogued the entire history and geography of Middle Earth, one has to realize that he probably did it just to keep everything straight, and would often write about it “getting away from him” (Carpenter 41).

It is good to know that we are in good company when the inspiration dries up.  I am currently having trouble with my WIP and know that if I give it time I shall surely find some inspiration that will plow through my brain like one of Legolas’s arrows, usually in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep.  What inspires you?  What do you do when you run out if ideas about where a character or plot is moving?  Post below and realize you are not alone.

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. Massachusetts: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. Print.

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Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

6 thoughts on “Tolkien on Inspiration

  1. I agree that fear is a right little bugger in stopping you writing, but for me its victim is more often my motivation rather than my inspiration. When I sense the feeling is coming from inside me I put it down to lack of motivation. Often I find the only way to get back writing then is to put some space between me and my WIP. Sometimes it’s physical space so I actually miss writing, which is when I usually get on my bike or do that chore I’ve been putting off. Other times I simply go and write something else (I’ve blogged before about short stories being a great little diversion to get my mojo back). Basically, like anything else in life, sometimes you just need a break.

    Lack of inspiration is more tricky. When you feel that it’s the screen itself that’s staring at you, judging your lack of insight, your lack of creativity. I picture it laughing at me behind my back when its in sleep mode. Sometimes, as Jonathon points out, it’s fear that what I’ve written is no good (in which case I try and let the edit sort it out…but that’s easier said than done), but usually its not about the past, but rather what I need to do to get the story moving – basically I don’t know where to go next. When I realise that’s the problem I do one of two things –

    1. Go to my storyboard and if necessary jump to another part of the story and hope the dots start to join. This is risky as I don’t like wastage and occasionally I’ve found the magic solution comes to me and means I have to redo a lot of what I’ve written. But often that I don’t need more than just writing something related. Obviously it means you need to storyboard to some degree which I appreciate isn’t for everyone, but for me it’s crucial for just this reason. [If shameless plugs make you nervous, avert your eyes now…] If you want a quick way to storyboard, have a look here at some tips I gave a while ago:

    2. Have a shower. I think everyone has that place where lightening strikes (sounds like Rogers is asleep!), and the shower is where mine is. But the inspiration still needs some cultivating even amongst the steam and suds. I’ve found (bear with me) that if I imagine the scene I’m stuck on and just wind it forward in my mind, things that ‘could’ happen start to emerge. If I don’t like it, I just rewind it. Like a TV show. Eventually consistencies creep in and the thing that ‘should’ happen pops into existence. Then I jump out and write it down, and usually can’t wait to get writing again.

    The telling off for leaving wet footprints round the house is totally worth it.


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