Today In History: J.R.R. Tolkien Born 120 Years Ago On January 3, 1892
One hundred and twenty years ago today, in a quiet village in South Africa, one of the modern era’s most beloved authors was born. January 3, 1892 marks the date of birth of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, adored by readers and film lovers the world over as the creator of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, two of the most successful and widely read books in history.
According to recently updated figures, The Lord Of The Rings is the best selling work of fiction of all time with 300 million copies in print. The Hobbit follows close behind in second place on the all time best seller list with 250 million copies in print. One author, who lived far from the hustle and bustle of modern life, working quietly in long hand or on a manual typewriter in the dark hours of the night, wrote two novels that sold more than 550 million copies. His work has been translated into almost every known language and well read copies are found on the bookshelves of almost every library on the planet.
The Tolkien Classics:
Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s story, originally intended to amuse his own growing brood, who were treated to exciting readings of each new chapter by a doting father. Tolkien was always somewhat mystified by the book’s popularity and the tale certainly takes a less profound tone than his later works. It is wonderful to imagine a smiling Father Tolkien reading The Hobbit to his four attentive children, speaking in the voice of Gandalf, Bilbo, Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield or Gollum.
The Lord Of The Rings grew out of Tolkien’s immense imagined world, which he referred to as his Legendarium, a word Tolkien created from slightly obscure Latin roots to describe the universe in which his characters existed. The foundation of his legendarium goes back to the earliest days of Tolkien’s career, covering a span of 60 years of work and many thousands of pages. His body of fiction includes The Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and more than a dozen other books that explore the high fantasy world of Middle Earth.
The Life Of An Oxford Don:
While writing popular best sellers is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment and writing the most popular work of fiction in human history is astounding, the achievements of J.R.R. Tolkien are made all the more amazing by the sum of his life and his work. Tolkien was much more than the author of successful books that were made into Academy Award winning movies grossing more than three billion dollars. He was a young patriot who fought for his country in World War One and he was a devoted husband and a loving father. Tolkien was the favorite, pipe smoking professor of several generations of young English university students and one of the world’s great teachers of ancient Anglo Saxon literature.
Academics the world over considered J.R.R Tolkien one of the greatest philologists and experts on myth and legend who ever lived. Tolkien was a renowned university professor who held the two most important chairs in Anglo Saxon Studies; 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 Merton College, Oxford from 1945 to 1959.
Although he is far better known for the high fantasy world of Middle Earth, Tolkien’s work on the heroic epic poem Beowulf is considered one of the crowing achievements in the study of Old English legend and mythology. Tolkien’s ground breaking 1936 lecture, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, famously discounted the historical roots of Beowulf. Tolkien insisted the poem “is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content.” Recently, more than 2000 precious pages of Tolkien’s handwritten translation of Beowulf and his commentary were found in the archives of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Lovers of Anglo Saxon literature the world over are anxiously awaiting the day this newly discovered treasure is available in print.
The Love Of Language:
The simple love of language inspired Tolkien’s fiction and his academic writing. While growing up in South Africa, and then in England after the death of his father, Tolkien learned to speak English, Latin, French, and German from his mother. During the course of his education, he learned Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh. He was familiar with Danish, Dutch, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Swedish and older forms of modern Germanic and Slavonic languages.
Tolkien created two functional languages of his own, complete with vocabularies and grammar, that are spoken today by devotees of Middle Earth. He also created 10 partial languages and for many years he was the editor of the letter W in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Behind Every Great Man, A Devoted Companion:
Above everything he accomplished, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien adored his wife Edith. He often spoke about the day they went walking in the woods of the English countryside, and a young Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock. He based one of his of most beloved characters, Lúthien Tinúviel, on his image of his wife, and Tolkien referred to Edith as “my Lúthien.”
Tolkien died in September 2, 1973, just months after the passing of Edith. Many of the gentle professor’s friends and family believe he died of a broken heart. The devoted couple share a common grave and the single headstone is inscribed with the names of Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889-1971, the immortal elf maiden who gave up eternal life for love and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973, the human hero who won the heart of the beautiful Lúthien Tinúviel.
A Fond Wish For The Uninitiated:
One of the tragic aspects of modern life is that reading books has fallen out of favor. So many people, especially among the young, have given up the joy of words on the printed page for the movie version of a novel, a comic book or a quick summary on the Internet.
I will admit to having a slight prejudice in favor of the written works of Tolkien. I have read The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit at least once a year for the past 47 years. As a lover of all things Tolkien, I invite you to join us in a visit to the delightful and sometimes dangerous land of Middle Earth. Take a moment to say hello to Hobbits, Elves, Orcs, Ents, Dwarves and Wizards, while you enter a world of genius and great imagination. Before you are done turning the pages, don’t be surprised if you find yourself writing FRODO LIVES on a subway wall, just like I did in 1967 at the Astor Place Subway Station in New York City.
If you have never read any of Tolkien’s wonderful books, consider the words of author Peter S. Beagle, who wrote the forward for the American Edition of The Lord Of The Rings:
“I have read the tale of the Ring and some other books many times, and I envy my children, who have not yet read any of them, and I envy you if you have not, and wish you joy.”