The Origins of an Accidental Masterpiece

by Chad Burchett


Grades, pen strokes, folded pages, stacked exam papers—this was a very run of the mill experience for an Oxford literature professor in twentieth century England. Yet in the humdrum ordinary, a hapless hand awakened an extraordinary creation.

It was one summer day in his solitary home that J.R.R. Tolkien sat reading a large stack of exam papers, methodically grading each one—what he later recalled as a rather “laborious . . . boring” task.1 In a letter to W. H. Auden, Tolkien recorded his weariness of slogging through page after page of vapid prose: “All I remember about [it] is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children” (omission mine).2 Page after page, as weariness gave way to boredom, Tolkien continued to toil through the stack of exam papers at his side.

Then, while reading through a rather unremarkable paper, Tolkien discovered an unexpected treat that would bring him years of recurring delight. As he recalls in a later interview: “I remember picking up a paper and actually finding—I nearly gave an extra mark for it, an extra five marks actually—it was one page of this particular paper that was left blank. Glorious! Nothing to read.”3 Quite baffling to Tolkien even in later years, he picked up the page and did something entirely unexpected. As Tolkien shared with Auden, on that “blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.”4 And thus the literary empire that is Tolkien’s Middle Earth was born, having first been inscribed by mere accident on the fortuitous page of an exam paper.

Tolkien would later recollect:

I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror’s Map. But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and was eventually published not because of my own children’s enthusiasm (though they liked it well enough), but because I lent it to the then Rev. Mother of Cherwell Edge when she had flu, and it was seen by a former student who was at that time in the office of Allen and Unwin. It was I believe tried out on Rayner Unwin; but for whom when grown up I think I should never have got the Trilogy published.5

Again quite by accident—or the will of a wizard—Tolkien eventually published his fictional classic: the Hobbit. Now, in Tolkien’s words,

Since The Hobbit was a success, a sequel was called for; and the remote Elvish Legends were turned down. A publisher’s reader said they were too full of the kind of Celtic beauty that maddened Anglo-Saxons in a large dose. Very likely quite right. Anyway I myself saw the value of Hobbits, in putting earth under the feet of ‘romance’, and in providing subjects for ‘ennoblement’ and heroes more praiseworthy than the professionals.6

Tolkien’s impulse to create a sequel only added a whole new hurdle. Indeed, since his literary theory of fiction would not permit a reduplication of the children’s faerie genre, he searched for another form. As he recounts,

All the same, I was not prepared to write a ‘sequel’, in the sense of another children’s story. . . . As I had expressed the view that the connexion in the modern mind between children and ‘fairy stories’ is false and accidental, and spoils the stories in themselves and for children, I wanted to try and write one that was not addressed to children at all (as such); also I wanted a large canvas. A lot of labour was naturally involved, since I had to make a linkage with The Hobbit; but still more with the background mythology. That had to be re-written as well. The Lord of the Rings is only the end pan of a work nearly twice as long which I worked at between 1936 and 53.7

The publication of the Lord of the Rings trilogy served as Tolkien’s coronation as lore master and fiction genius, causing his dynasty to explode and making both he and his works household names.

Although we may despair of ever rivaling Tolkien’s skill, we can at least learn from his own hapless narrative and remember that even the most casual creative ideas can become culturally formative works of art, equally formative on our own souls and the souls of others. So let us keep on writing, and maybe one day our ideas will take us somewhere on a journey we never quite expected.


1 BBC, 1968 broadcast interview BBC special with J.R.R. Tolkien.

2 Humphery Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 215.

3  BBC, 1968 broadcast interview.

4 Carpenter, 215.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 216.


Material quoted from a 1968 BBC broadcast interview special with J.R.R. Tolkien and from Humphery Carpenter’s book: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (2000).


Published with permission from

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