J.R.R. Tolkien’s Handwriting

If you know me well, you may be surprised that I haven’t publicly analyzed Tolkien’s handwriting before.  I’ve had a certain unmasked obsession with him for years, and I admit that I even studied Elvish in high school on my own time.  Strangely enough, it was my first foreign language, and it actually helped me grasp concepts in Latin and Greek when I began learning them in college.  Anyway, yes, I’m a huge follower and admirer of the creator of Middle Earth because of his incredible imagination and his ability to capture part of it on paper with his many stories, maps, illustrations, and even handwriting.  Below I’d like to pull some traits out of these two samples.  Please be encouraged to comment with further thoughts on how these characteristics of his personality come out in his life, habits, and work.

1. The first thing that strikes me when looking at this handwriting is the overall style.  The strokes are clean, heavy and attractive.  People who write this way have a strong sense of aesthetic.  They are drawn to things that involve their senses; they are attracted to beauty in what they see, what they hear, what they touch.  They are moved emotionally by whatever is aesthetically pleasing.

This really makes sense when we remember that Tolkien invented not only one or two languages but many, and each language and the sounds it incorporated revealed something about the people who spoke it.  The elves speak a lovely, melodic language reminiscent of Welsh.  The orcs speak a harsh, biting tongue with short, rough words.  The language of Mordor is rarely uttered as it causes its listeners discomfort and anguish – think of Gandalf speaking the words on the Ring during the Council of Elrond.  Much more could be said on this subject of aestheticism, and I could go on forever… but I won’t.

2. Tolkien’s ‘n’s and ‘m’s form v-shapes at the baseline, which reveal an analytical mind.  Writers with this trait analyze everything, from situations to people to words and languages.  They like to now how things work and why, and their reasoning ability is keen.

When Tolkien, on a whim, wrote on a loose piece of paper as he was grading “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, he didn’t leave it there.  He analyzed this statement, studied it, and discovered what it meant.  Again, SO much more could be said here.

3. Notice that although Tolkien is writing on unlined paper, his writing is perfectly straight.  If we were to put a ruler underneath his lines, they would be practically flawless.  People who write this way have perfectionistic tendencies.  They like to have everything in its proper place and may feel anxious when each piece isn’t “just so.”  They are thorough in what they do and will not be satisfied with shabby work.

As you probably know, it took about 12 or so years for Tolkien to complete the Lord of the Rings. He was so completely immersed in his history, his “myth” for England, that we know that this length of time didn’t stem from any lack of interest in his stories or writing.  On the contrary, the reason it took him so long was that he was never quite satisfied with the work that he felt so strongly about.  He would write and rewrite each sentence and chapter an unbelievable amount of times.  Perfectionists do wonderful work, but the downside is that actual finished products are rare because they’re never quite “good enough” in the eyes of their creator.

4. This fourth trait actually goes along with the one before it in some ways.  Tolkien paid a lot of attention to detail, as evidenced by his lower case ‘i’s being dotted extremely close to their stems.  People with this trait are observant, exacting, and scrupulous, rarely brushing over a detail.

Like I said, this rather goes hand in hand with Tolkien’s perfectionism, as he would scour each detail of his writing to see where there was room for improvement.  Because of this, the books he wrote are memorable for their detailed accounts of events, appearances, feelings, histories, locations, etc.  Tolkien made sure that any time even the moon was mentioned in a particular chapter, that it lined up with its appearance in a later chapter in which other characters were looking at the moon at the same time as before…this sort of thing makes me a little dizzy, but for him it was essential to the believability of the story.  And I love him for it.

5. Notice that Tolkien’s lower-case ‘d’s are written like a Greek delta, and that his upper-case ‘E’s like a lower case Greek epsilon.  These traits are especially common in readers and writers of high literature, and the trait name is “Desire for Culture.”  Those with this trait relish fine food, travel, literature, skillful music, and other things of that nature.

Tolkien, as a writer and lover of literature, clearly falls in the “desire for culture” category.  I’m not sure that he traveled much, but he walked a great deal and annoyed C.S. Lewis (close friend and frequent walking companion) by stopping at each interesting tree, flower, or plant for a closer look.  As for appreciating music, he not only made it a point to regularly attend concerts (especially in Oxford’s Holywell Music Room; click here for a post on it), but as we know, he also composed his own poetry for his characters to sing in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and elsewhere.  In The Silmarillion, the entire world’s formation begins with the Music of the Ainur, a great symphony of sounds conducted by Iluvatar, the creator.

6. The personal pronoun ‘I’ often reveals much about a person’s relationship with his/her parents or at least the father and mother figures in their life.  Tolkien’s ‘I’ looks rather incomplete, with neither the upper or lower loop fully present.  This would indicate a lack of presence of his parents, either literally or emotionally.

Sadly, both of Tolkien’s parents died when he was very young.  His father passed away in South Africa (JRR’s birthplace), and his mother several years later in England.  His father he barely knew since he was so young, but he long remembered the grief of his mother’s death.

7.  This last trait I will explain but will comment on hesitantly because I’m not sure how exactly it fit into Tolkien’s character, though I have some ideas.  Tolkien’s ‘y’s, instead of going down below the baseline and then curving left, actually go down below the baseline and form a v-shape out to the right.  This is a sign of aggression of some sort.  Writers with this trait may be physically aggressive, verbally aggressive, or sometimes it shows up in other areas and must be weighed against the writer’s other traits.

Here is my thought on how this does and does not show up in Tolkien’s personality.  From all the accounts we have of him, no one tells us that he regularly got into fist-fights or anything like that.  If he had other traits such as impulsiveness, anger, etc., then the aggression stroke might surface in that kind of behavior, but those other traits are not in Tolkien’s make-up.

I rather think that Tolkien’s aggression reveals itself in what he cared most passionately about and what shows up in other parts of his handwriting: literature and culture.  As an English professor at Oxford, he was familiar with and influential in the language and literature curriculum, and he found it outrageous that students’ choices in classes were very limited.  He especially disliked that linguistic classes focused completely on declensions and cases and had little to do with the actual literature these words were found in. And on the other hand, courses on literature had basically no emphasis on language.  Tolkien saw these two subjects as intertwined and co-dependent and fought for six years against most other men on the curriculum committee to have this system modified.  He never gave up, and in the end he got the result he wanted.  Read more about this by clicking here.  I have not read this whole biography, but I found this section helpful in understand this event in Tolkien’s life.  Even the fact that the author refers to this push for change in the curriculum an “Academic Crusade” reveals that she also notices a type of aggression in Tolkien’s behavior when it came to things he cared deeply about.

Wow, thank you to those readers who made it all the way to the end of this lengthy post!  I very much enjoyed delving into such a brilliant man’s personality.  If you’re interested, please check out this list of a few of my favorite books on Tolkien (below).  Also, please comment with any further thoughts on Tolkien’s handwriting traits coming out in his life or works.  I’d love to hear from you and discuss two of my very favorite topics – Tolkien and handwriting. :)

All the best,

Allie

The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey

Author of the Century by Tom Shippey

Tolkien: Man and Myth by Joseph Pearce

Splintered Light by Verlyn Flieger

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15 thoughts on “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Handwriting

  1. Jason Fisher says:

    Hi, Allie,

    This is an interesting piece of work. I cannot recall any extended studies of Tolkien’s handwriting off the top of my head, but it’s a fasinating topic. If you wish to take this analysis and research further, I would recommend you consider a few avenues of additional inquiry: (1) Tolkien as artist and calligrapher, which I imagine had some impact on his handwriting; (2) the calligraphy and penmanship of Tolkien’s mother, Mabel Suffield; and (3) Tolkien’s interest in runes and invented alphabets. I can recommend some books, if these are areas you want to explore.

    Also, a couple of small corrections to your piece above.

    (1) Tolkien did not spend 35 years writing The Lord of the Rings. It was more like 12, from roughly December 1937 to October 1949. He did make revisions for a revised edition in 1965, and he continued to tinker with writings related to The Lord of the Rings until the end of his life, but the published novel was basically just a dozen years in the making.

    (2) The upper-case Greek epsilon looks exactly like the upper-case Roman E. Tolkien’s capital E looks different, more rounded, etc., but I don’t think it’s quite right to compare it to the Greek epsilon.

    (3) “Tolkien’s ‘y’s […] go down below the baseline and form a v-shape out to the right” — I’m not really sure what you mean. How do they go to the right? I don’t see that.

    And finally, just a question: have you looked at more samples than just these two you reproduce above? Tolkien’s handwriting varied from the wonderfully calligraphic to the hastily scribbled to the almost unreadable. You might want to examine a wider range of samples. I think a really interesting piece of research could be developed out of this. Good luck!

    • Allie B. says:

      Jason, thank you for commenting! I know you’re very knowledgeable about Tolkien, and I appreciate your input. Thank you for correcting me, especially on the length of time spent completing the trilogy – I guess that’s what happens when I try to remember things off the top of my head. :) I think I was remembering the approximate length of time he spent constructing the whole history/myth, since that started way back in his war days.

      I actually meant that his upper-case E looks like a lower-case epsilon, but I guess I wasn’t very clear on that.

      On the question of the ‘y’s, they’re formed normally at first, going down below the baseline, and then at the very end of the stroke, they often dash out to the right (for example, “your” in the last line of the first sample or “you see” in the 6th line of the second sample, among others).

      Great ideas for continued exploration on this subject! And I always love getting book recommendations. :)

      All the best,
      Allie

  2. Deborah Sabo says:

    In the last trait of your analysis, “aggression,” you might just interpret this a little more freely. There is the famous quote by his friend C.S. Lewis that Tolkien was (I’m paraphrasing because I’m not sure if I remember the exact words) “about as easy to influence as a bandersnatch.” In other words: stubborn.

    • Allie B. says:

      Great observation, Deborah! Lewis also said somewhere that when Tolkien received criticism on his writing, he would react either by starting from scratch or not paying any attention at all. :) Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. Robert Parker says:

    Might I ask what the second sample is? It looks like a letter. If it is, do you have the earlier pages to know who it is to and when Tolkien wrote it? Thanks

  4. Thomas Hart says:

    I’m one of the few people I know that still writes in cursive exclusively and everyone from my friends to my teachers to complete strangers always compliment me on my handwriting and how “strange”, “old”, or “nice” it looks and how “they’ve never seen handwriting like it.” I’d never seen comparable handwriting either until one day I was looking through a large book on Tolkien and found a few pages with photographs of letters he wrote and I was amazed to discover that Tolkien and myself had extremely similar handwriting. I’m not trying to sound arrogant and act like I’m in any way similar to Tolkien, I’ve just been intrigued ever since that discovery.

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