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7 Lessons for Creatives from the Life of J.R.R. Tolkien by Trevor McMaken

Like many in my generation, I have spent countless hours following diminutive folks with hairy feet around the magical, yet familiar world of Middle Earth. As an artist, I’ve often wondered how anyone could create a world so immersive—complete with millennia of histories and language lexicons—and still so personal and spiritual. In the face of such genius, I often feel insecure in my own meager artistic endeavors. How could I ever create something of such lasting depth and beauty? But after reading J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, I came away refreshed and recommitted to my own art.

Here are seven ways in which reading about Tolkien’s creative life has inspired mine.

1. Art Is a Lifelong Discipline

Tolkien did not initially set out to write fantasy novels and create an entire world. He first ventured into it when he read the phrase “Middle Earth” in an old english manuscript and it inspired a poem when he was twenty-two (1914). Three years later (1917) he wrote “The Fall of Gondolin” which was the first story of his mythology.

If three years sounds like a really long time, hold on, cause we’re just getting started.

Thirteen years later (1930), he began telling his children a bedtime story about a hobbit. It was published seven years later (1937). The publisher immediately asked Tolkien for a sequel and twelve years later he completed the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (1949). The trilogy was published five years later (1954), forty years after he first saw the phrase “Middle Earth.”

In a youth-focused culture like ours, I sometimes feel like I haven’t accomplished enough at a young enough age, and therefore I never will. As a (nearly) thirty year old, I have no idea what it would mean to work on something for forty years! Tolkien was no child prodigy, but he was a master.

His story reminds me that our path as artists take many twists and turns (i.e. the road goes ever on and on) and that our greatest artistic endeavors may yet lie ahead if we keep on the adventure.

Are you ready to devote the span of your life to your art?

2. Inspiration Can Come at Anytime

Tolkien had been developing his mythology for years. Then one day he sat down and penned the phrase, “In a hole there lived a hobbit.” What was a hobbit? Nobody knew! Perhaps Tolkien didn’t even know. His biographer wrote,

“Not until the [Hobbit] was finished and published—indeed not until he began to write the sequel—did he realise the significance of Hobbits, and see that they had a crucial role to play in his mythology.” (Humphrey Carpenter, 198)

Tolkien found that hobbits had crept into Middle Earth at the most pivotal moment of his life and writing.

Inspiration can come at any time, but it can only be transformed from idea to art if we are already developing our skills as artists and cultivating the space to be creative.

Are you ready to capture inspiration when it comes?

3. Your Art Might Not Be Your Day Job

Tolkien never wrote fiction as his day job. Year after year he worked as a professor faithfully supporting his family. Certainly his professional work provided the foundation for the languages and histories that he developed for Middle Earth, but his greatest artistic achievements came when he was off the clock—in the middle of the night after spending his day giving lectures and grading papers, and his evenings with his wife and family.

After the demands of work and family, do you still find yourself sitting down to create? Maybe it is five minutes before breakfast sketching an idea and then 15 more minutes over lunch; three months later during a holiday you have an entire morning; and then it’s a month before you can get back to it. But you always do come back to it because it’s your air and you’ll suffocate if you don’t.

Tolkien discovered how to be an artist amidst the common responsibilities of life. And I think that it is out of these ordinary, mundane moments that extraordinary art is created.

How do you keep practicing your art in the midst of everyday life?

4. Practicing Art Means Setting Priorities

Tolkien’s colleagues often bemoaned that he devoted so much spare time to his invented languages, poetry, and children’s stories instead of applying his considerable philological expertise to his academic field. Perhaps he could have been a giant in the field. His contributions were certainly respected, though there was only a relatively small body of his academic work. But Tolkien’s heart was in another world, and it was there that he set his priority.

What are your priorities as an artist?

5. Artists Need Collaborative Friends.

While there is much in the creative process that must be undertaken alone, the greatest art always comes out of community. Tolkien was famously part of a group of authors called The Inklings that met at a local Oxford pub, The Eagle and Child (or Bird and Baby as it was nicknamed), to read and critique each other’s work. Deep friendships with men like C.S. Lewis and women like Dorothy Sayers provided artistic collaboration.

Tolkien once wrote of The Inklings,

“How those wise ones sat together in their deliberations, skillfully reciting learning and song-craft, earnestly meditating. That was true joy!” (Humphrey Carpenter, 169)

Lewis would later write,

“Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” (The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis)

The depth of friendship that can grow while creating art together is incredible and is one of the greatest joys of the life of an artist.

Some of my most enriching creative experiences have been in collaborations so deep that we cannot remember who brought which piece that now makes up the whole—just that we did it together and the results were greater and more surprising than anything we could have ever done on our own.

Are you cultivating friendships in a community of artists that collaborate for the sake of something greater than themselves?

6. Our Art Reflects Our Faith

Tolkien’s art flowed out of a personal faith. There is a deep level of authenticity between who he was and what he wrote. Tolkien disapproved of biographies as “an aid to literary appreciation” and instead pointed to his work as really communicating his heart.

For Tolkien, that didn’t mean that he had to change the genre or art form that he was working within or try to force his Catholic faith into it. It meant that the framework of the story would share the values that he believed and practiced. In his writings he tried to embed “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality” that he believed was true to this world, even though it was lived out in another world.

What we believe and how we live as people deeply affects our work as artists. For those like Tolkien who create as Christian artists, the hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ allows us to face the suffering caused by sin, the sacrifice of the cross that it takes to put things right, and the beauty and glory of what will be. Any ways in which we doubt or do not practice that true story will show through in the art we create.

Is your spiritual maturity and faith keeping pace with your maturity as an artist?

7. Art Can Start in the Home

As I read about Tolkien’s life, the death of his parents early on, and the family he was devoted to, I imagined what it would be like to live in that home and listen to his stories around the fire at the end of the day. Storytelling seemed to be a way of life for the Tolkien family. It was out of this integration of art and home that the story of the Hobbit came into being and grew into his masterpiece. Then later, he was also able to collaborate with his son Christopher in the writing of The Lord of the Rings.

I also noticed as I read Tolkien’s biography, that very little attention was given by the biographer to his wife. Perhaps it was an oversight of the biographer. Whatever the case, I was reminded that the discipline of marriage is an art that takes just as much devotion and time, if not more, than any other artistic medium. Some are blessed with a spouse that is a vital collaborator in their art. I feel that way about my wife.

When creating art becomes a way of life for a family, it can become part of an integrated whole. Even if art is not your day job, your home can be a place of inspiration, collaboration, and spiritual meaning. Whether you have a spouse, or kids, or roommates, or a community of friends, or any combination of the above, your home life and your art can be priorities that enrich one another.

How do your home life and your artistic life interact with one another?