As is the case for many sci-fi and fantasy writers and dabblers, there is no author who has ignited my imagination and influenced my writing more than J.R.R. Tolkien. The worlds he created and stories he spun have enchanted generations of writers and readers and inspired all manner of fantasy worlds and underdog stories. From a personal standpoint, his interest in language also compelled me to write explorations of word histories on my etymology Twitter account.
In celebration of this fantasy master's birthday on January 3, 1892, here are a few Tolkien quotes just for writers, drawn from from Tolkien's books, stories, lectures and letters.
1. On the makers of legends
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme of things not found within recorded time.
— from "Mythopoeia" (1931 poem)
2. On "truth" in fiction
The story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator'. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.
— from "On Fairy-Stories" (1939 essay)
3. On titling stories
It gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.
— from an interview with Dennis Gerrolt on the BBC's radio show "Now Read On" (January 1971)
4. On telling stories
A story must be told or there'll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving.
— from a letter to his son Christopher on January 30, 1945)
5. On imagination
The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power.
— from "On Fairy-Stories"
6. On the significance of myth
The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.
— "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (1936), p. 14
7. On the core of all human stories
If you really come down to any large story that interests people—holds the attention for a considerable time ... human stories are practically always about one thing, aren't they? Death. The inevitability of death.
— Tolkien in Oxford (1968), a BBC 2 television documentary (at 21:49)
8. On fantasy as a human right
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
— from "On Fairy-Stories"
9. On the motives of writers
The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.
— from the foreword to the 2nd Edition of The Lord of the Rings (1966)
10. On the writing process
Usually I compose only with great difficulty and endless rewriting.
— from a letter to Stanley Unwin (March 1945)
11. On the importance of names
My name is growing all the time, and I've lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.
— the Ent Treebeard in The Two Towers
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