This internationally renowned fantasy writer might also potentially be the best linguist the world has ever seen!
Believed to be of German origin, “Tolkien” (pron.: Tol-keen; equal stress on both syllables), means foolishly brave, or stupidly clever. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892 and died on 2 September 1973 at the age of 81.
JRR, then called Ronald was the son of Arthur Tolkien and Mabel Tolkien. Arthur was a bank clerk who went to South Africa in the 1890s for better prospects of promotion and met Mabel Suffield. The Tolkien family life was generally lived on the genteel side of poverty. However, the situation worsened when Arthur Tolkien died from complications of rheumatic fever, Mabel settled with 4-year-old J.R.R. and his younger brother, Hilary, in the country hamlet of Sarehole, in Birmingham, England.
In 1904, Mabel died leaving the Tolkien brothers to a relative and in boarding homes, with a Catholic priest, Father Francis who assumed guardianship in Birmingham. He enlisted in military during World War I, and had fought in the Battle of the Somme and was eventually released from duty due to illness.
Ronald went on to get his first-class degree at Exeter College, specializing in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic languages and classic literature. At a very young age, he was already showing remarkable linguistic gifts, mastering the Latin and Greek which was the staple fare of an arts education at that time, and was becoming more than competent in a number of other languages, both modern and ancient, notably Gothic, and later Finnish; and was already busy making up his own languages purely for fun.
TCBS and The Inklings
Tolkien’s social life was far from unremarkable. He made a number of close friends at King Edward’s; in his later years at school. They met regularly after hours at the “T. C. B. S.” (Tea Club, Barrovian Society, named after their meeting place at the Barrow Stores). They continued to correspond closely and exchange and criticize each other’s literary work until 1916, the same time he married Edith Bratt in Warwick.
He became a professor at Oxford University and soon became one of the founder members of a loose grouping of Oxford friends with similar interests, known as “The Inklings” whose prominent members included Messrs Coghill and Dyson,Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and above all C. S. Lewis, who became one of his closest friends, and for whose return to Christianity, Tolkien was at least partly responsible. The Inklings regularly met for conversation, drink, and frequent reading from their work-in-progress.
Tolkien had developed mythology and languages. Some of which he developed into those published posthumously as Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, etc. However, one day, while engaged in marking the examination papers, he discovered that one candidate had left one page of an answer-book blank. On this page, moved by who knows what anarchic daemon, he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.
In typical Tolkien fashion, he decided to find out what a Hobbit was, what sort of a hole it lived in, why it lived in a hole, and any other things. This investigation then grew into a tale that he told to his younger children, and even passed round. In 1936 its incomplete typescript came into the hands of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishing firm of George Allen and Unwin (merged in 1990 with HarperCollins). Dagnall asked Tolkien to present the complete story to Stanley Unwin, the then Chairman of the firm who tried the story out on his 10-year old son Rayner. After being approved, it was eventually published as The Hobbit in 1937 which immediately scored a success. It was so successful that Stanley Unwin asked Tolkien if he had any more similar material available for publication.
Tolkien did have one—the Quenta Silmarillion, or Silmarillion for short. However, after Unwin sent the work to the readers, it was decided not to be published as it was said to be not commercially publishable. Unwin asked Tolkien again to write a sequel to The Hobbit. Despite the disappointment at the apparent failure of The Silmarillion, he agreed to take up the challenge of “The New Hobbit”.
The Lord of the Rings
“The New Hobbit” was the highly complex 16-year history of what became The Lord of the Rings which rapidly came to public notice, that in 1968, it had almost become the Bible of the “Alternative Society”. It had mixed reviews, ranging from the ecstatic (W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis) to the damning (E. Wilson, E. Muir, P. Toynbee) and just about everything in between. The BBC put on a drastically condensed radio adaptation in 12 episodes on the Third Programme. In 1956 radio was still a dominant medium in Britain, and the Third Programme was the “intellectual” channel.
The really amazing moment was when it went into a pirated paperback version in 1965. This put the book into the impulse-buying category; and its publicity generated by the copyright dispute alerted millions of American readers to the existence of something outside their previous experience, but which appeared to speak to their condition. Tolkien not only was extremely flattered but to his amazement, became rather rich.
The immense and enduring popularity of The Lord of the Rings has led to numerous references in popular culture. It has inspired and continues to inspire short stories, video games, artworks and musical works. Numerous adaptations of Tolkien’s works have been made for a wide range of media. Adaptations of The Lord of the Rings in particular have been made for the radio, for the theatre, and for film. The 2001–2003 release of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy saw a surge of interest in The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other works.
Tolkien claimed to have been strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon literature, Germanic, Finnish, Greek and Norse mythologies and the Bible. He himself humbly acknowledged Homer, Oedipus, and the Kalevala as influences or sources for some of his stories and ideas and the numerous Middle English works and poems. Another major philosophical influence on his writing is King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon version of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy known as the Lays of Boethius. So it was not at all surprising that characters such as Frodo, Treebeard and Elrond make noticeably Boethian remarks. Other influences on this earlier work, including The Lord of the Rings, include philology, mythology and religion, as well as earlier fantasy works and Tolkien’s experiences in World War I.
The Lord of the Rings, along with his other writings, has been subjected to extensive analysis of its literary themes and origins. It is considered to have had a great impact on modern fantasy, and the impact of Tolkien’s works is such that the use of the words “Tolkienian” and “Tolkienesque” have been recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.