The release of Peter Jackson’s new film, The Hobbit, is just three weeks away, and millions of fans of Middle Earth are anxiously counting down the days. The previous Tolkien trilogy by Jackson, The Lord Of The Rings, was one of the most successful film series in Hollywood history. The third film, The Return Of The King, earned over one billion dollars at the box office and won 11 Academy Awards. Yet, despite all the success of the previous films and the huge amount of anticipation over The Hobbit, many movie goers are unfamiliar with the author of the books on which the films are based; J.R.R.Tolkien.
J.R.R. Tolkien or John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, if you prefer his full name, was much more than a quaint Professor of Anglo Saxon at a stuffy English university with three initials for a first name. Tolkien died in 1973, before many of the fans of the films were born. He was conceived in the closing decade of the 19th century in South Africa and he spent his formative years in the pastoral countryside of rural England.
Tolkien’s peaceful world came to a crashing halt when England joined her allies in World War One. The young student from Exeter College at Oxford University joined most of his classmates on the Western Front and before the war was finally over, all but one of Tolkien’s childhood friends were killed in the fighting.
Professor Tolkien wrote the first fragments of the mythology of the world shared by The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings in the trenches of France. Tolkien reintroduced an obscure Latin term, Legendarium, to describe the imagined collection of myths and legends that form the foundation of his high fantasy world.
The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, along with the many other volumes Tolkien created to bring Middle Earth to life, were written in the quiet evenings during his acclaimed career teaching English language and literature. He was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1945 and the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford from 1945 to 1959.
During his teaching years, Professor Tolkien became the world’s leading authority on the Old English poem, Beowulf; a name many readers will recognize due to the popular feature film of the same name. The poem is part of the very core of the written history of ancient England, yet due to its use of Old English, it is rarely read outside of graduate courses at universities. His lecture on the poem, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, was published in book form and it is considered the foundation of modern study of Beowulf and Old English literature.
Tolkien shared a friendship with many of the other great writers and academics of his era, including CS. Lewis, author of the much loved Chronicles of Narnia, Lord David Cecil, Tolkien’s son Christopher Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson. The aspiring authors and scholars formed a literary circle known as The Inklings and they met regularly to listen to new chapters of the member’s books and to offer each other suggestions to improve their work.
In addition to writing his famous books, and teaching, Tolkien had a keen interest in the creation of languages. He was the editor of the letter W for the Oxford English Dictionary and he created 10 to 12 languages of his own. Two of them, Quenya and Sindarin, are so well developed that they are usable languages with a comprehensive grammar and vocabulary. Known by Tolkien authorities as High Elvish, it is not unusual to hear participants at Tolkien conventions and gatherings actually conversing in Quenya or Sindarin. Many of the characters in the Lord Of The Rings film trilogy delivered their lines in Quenya, Sindarin, and Khuzdul, the vile language of the evil Lord of Mordor, Sauron.
The Hobbit, first published in 1936, was originally written to amuse Tolkien’s own children during their younger years and he often read new chapters to them at night. The Lord Of The Rings was the product of a lifetime’s imagining and planning by Tolkien and the book came together from thousands of notes, chapter outlines, and fragments. The writing was constantly interrupted by the bombing of England during World War Two, and the Lord Of The Rings was published between 1954-1955. Tolkien always considered the story to be one book, not a trilogy, and the Lord Of The Rings was published in three volumes due to the post World War Two paper shortage.
Although Tolkien fought in the trenches of World War One and he lived through the blitz during World War Two, it is important to note that his books are not intended to be allegorical tales based on his experiences in two terrible wars. While no person can be wholly unaffected by the experiences of their own life, Professor Tolkien had a strong dislike for allegory, in all it’s many forms.
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
“I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. 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.”
Today, J.R.R.Tolkien may be better known for the films, since we now live in a visual age and reading has fallen out of popularity. However, even with the shift in preference from book to film and video, The Lord Of The Rings books have sold over 150 million copies and The Hobbit has sold over 100 million copies in hard cover and paperback, making them the third and fourth most published works of fiction in human history. Considering the level of excitement over the upcoming Hobbit films, it is entirely possible that Tolkien’s works will pass Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince as history’s most popular books.
The life work of a gentle Oxford Don has touched the hearts of millions of readers and film goers. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have read his many books know the joy of Tolkien’s wonderful use of language and his highly developed characters. If you have not read his books, and you love the films, you have an entire new universe within the reach of your hands. Pick up a copy of The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Rings and rediscover the joy of words on the printed page.
The much admired Professor J.R.R.Toklien, CBE, passed away shorty after the death of his own beloved wife, Edith. In their youth, while he was waiting to be shipped out to war with his regiment, Tolkien and Edith “walked in a wood where hemlock was growing, a sea of white flowers.” There in the woods, young Edith danced for her husband and the character of Lúthien Tinúviel, the immortal elf maiden who forsakes eternal life for love, was born in Tolkien’s vivid imagination. On the gravestones of Edith and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, below their names are the names of Lúthien, the dancing elf maid and Beren, the human lord who won her heart.
Supassing all the words that Tolkien wrote for the hundreds of millions of us who have come to know and love his work, stand the words of devotion to the memory of his one and only true love, Edith, as a lonely author mourns the loss of his wife.
“I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire. In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.”