Don’t even publish your book: Tolkien’s option

With my recent conversation with Jim Rossi about self-publishing in mind, I turn again to J.R.R. Tolkien, whom I’ve been reading lately because of the publication of his Beowulf translation in May.

tolkien-associated-pressHe published The Hobbit and LOTR, and more besides these, but his translation of Beowulf never saw the light of publication in his lifetime.

Though complete, and though he generated a vast set of notes to go with it, it went into a file cabinet or a desk drawer.

It’s an extraordinary translation. We’re so lucky to have it.

So why the heck didn’t he publish it?

There are at least three theories that different critics (including his son Christopher) have suggested:

1) his family’s life was disrupted by his taking a post at Oxford just as he was finishing it
2) he became too engrossed in the writing of The Hobbit and didn’t think about it anymore
3) his relationship to Beowulf was so special, and secret, that he didn’t want to pollute it with publication

The first two make little sense to me. Few writers have disruption-free lives, right? And his Beowulf was done by the time he started The Hobbit. So reason 2 doesn’t work either. All he needed was a brown paper package and some postage stamps to send it off.

But the third reason …

… now that’s appealing. The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella offers this explanation near the end of her splendid recent piece about the translation. She describes Tolkien’s relationship to Beowulf as “a secret love” that fed his imagination. It was so special to him that he kept it only for himself.

Can you imagine any writer today who’d spend enormous time and energy on a manuscript only to consign it to their files?

Unthinkable.

And incredibly brave.

I like Acocella’s theory though I think another factor was behind it, too   — something that his son understood as he prepared the poem for publication.

Christopher Tolkien writes, in the recently published edition, that he worked from a clean typescript that was all marked up by his father’s margin notes about alternative phrasings and other ideas. His father never stopped tinkering with the poem. He was never satisfied with it.

Even though the text is complete — to us — for Tolkien it wasn’t finished.

That’s less romantic than Acocella’s idea, I know, but for me it underscores how devilishly hard the craft of writing is.

As you fumble around with your own manuscripts, my friends, and as you feel discouragement, take heart. Tolkien experienced frustrations like yours. He understood, like you, why writing sometimes feels like this picture:

 

sisyphus

 

But he learned a lesson, which those marginal scribblings and tinkerings clearly suggest: You just have to keep going.

Keep that ball rolling.

 

AND DON’T FORGET:

4 responses

  1. Just looking at that guy trying to move the boulder kills me. From the perspective of one who’s fumbling around with my own manuscripts, I think your theory holds water.

  2. I agree, Jil, that picture’s a perfect metaphor. I’ve been there quite a few times, but you know it’s worth it for those other times when the boulder was just marble-sized.

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