I thoroughly enjoy The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia books and movies. My wife has had the experience of visiting the pub in England where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would sit by the fireplace discussing their stories, characters, hopes and dreams regarding their work. However, I recently discovered that The Lord of the Rings came close to never happening. We were almost deprived of one of the greatest literary works of all time. Here is the story from Michael Hyatt’s book Your Best Year Ever (pg.177-179):
After the surprise success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s novel, The Hobbit, in the fall of 1937 his publisher asked him to write a sequel. The public, he wrote, will be “clamouring to hear more from you about Hobbits!” Tolkien had no plan for a follow-up at first. “I am a little perturbed,” he responded. “I cannot think of anything more to say about hobbits.”
The issue might have ended there, but it didn’t.
Tolkien mentioned that he had written more about Middle Earth, the imaginary world in which The Hobbit transpires. He offered to let his publisher read the material, even though it was missing the star attraction. “I should rather like an opinion, other than that of Mr. C. S. Lewis and my children, whether it has any value in itself . . . apart from hobbits.”
A cog was turning in Tolkien’s mind. For nearly two decades he’d hustled at uninteresting, sideline writing projects to make financial ends meet. But now, despite having no real plans for a sequel, he was imagining how he might pull it off. “I must confess that your letter has aroused in me a faint hope,” he continued. “I begin to wonder whether duty (the need for cash) and desire (his passion for the stories he loved) may not (perhaps) in future go more closely together.”
You can hear it through the tentative language: Here at last was his big chance to tell stories he loved and simultaneously improve his family’s financial situation Tolkien knew this was a life-changing opportunity. All he had to do was write another novel – preferably with more hobbits. Easy, right? It seemed so at first. By Christmas he finished the first chapter of the sequel. He was on his way! But then life happened.
Personal distractions, professional duties, and health crises seemed to pile up and prevent him from making any progress. Several times he gave up work on the project. “I have no idea what to do with it,” he admitted. Reading through his letters, you can spot a familiar zigzag pattern. He went back and forth between feeling confident and close to finishing, and running out of inspiration and energy to complete the project. At one point he said his “labour of delight” had been “transformed into a nightmare.”
So how did Tolkien overcome the distractions and discouragement to finish The Lord of the Rings, one of the top-selling books of the twentieth century? The answer starts back at the beginning with Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis. At several critical moments, Lewis encouraged Tolkien to stick with the project when he had given up. “Only by his support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end of the labour,” he said in 1954 as the first reviews began coming in. Over a decade later, he still was quick to credit Lewis for his support:
“The unpayable debt that I owe to him was . . . sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my “stuff” could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.”
Leadership expert Jon Maxwell has a simple litmus test to know if someone needs encouragement or not: “If they are breathing, they need encouragement.” Why don’t we make it our ambition this year to be excessively liberal with our praise and encouragement to those around us? What great work is being stalled or perhaps extinguished because a person is fed up with it, and no one around them is speaking life to them?
“So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.” (1st Thessalonians 5:11)