Soon after The Hobbit's unexpectedly successful publication in 1937, publisher Allen and Unwin asked Tolkien for a sequel. Then they eagerly waited. And waited. And waited for years, until the early 1950s. The Lord of the Rings, of course, would turn out to be even more successful than The Hobbit, so Allen and Unwin once more pressed Tolkien for another book.
Tolkien already had a draft version of a mythology of MiddleEarth. He had started working on it during World War I and had continued to develop it over the years. This was to be his fundamental work, his national mythology for the English people, of which the LOTR and The Hobbit were only offshoots. But, like the LOTR, it was written during the hours that were left after fulfilling the responsibilities of work and family. When Tolkien retired in 1959 (at the age of 67), he was suddenly free to focus on his great mythology. When the popularity of the LOTR exploded in the 1960s, sudden wealth was added to leisure. Yet despite repeated assurances to his publisher, he never finished the book. What happened?
It is a cautionary tale for anyone who writes or would someday like to write.
He moved away from Oxford to the resort town of Bournemouth, replacing his academic duties with social ones. His letters catalog the constant interruptions from neighbors, relations, and his growing number of fans. Not surprisingly, he missed the familar and erudite company of his peers and complained about the dearth of intelligent conversation. Free at last from deadlines and lectures and paperwork, he seemed to lose his focus; he lamented that he was easily distracted from his writing.
As he and his wife grew older, their health began to fail. Illness and accident robbed him of energy and time. He was saddened by the deaths of friends and the signs of his own decline. When he did work on his mythology, it was more to analyse and rework his ideas rather than to organize them into a whole. After his wife's death, he returned to Oxford, where the university provided comfortable living arrangements including caretakers for his apartment. Though the familiar surroundings provided some solace, his loneliness and depression are evident in his correspondence, and he lived only a few years longer.
His great mythology--as far as he was concerned, his most important work--was left unfinished. Based on notes and the draft version, his son would attempt to complete it.