The Lord of the Rings and Beyond
J.R.R. Tolkien is best-known as author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but he wrote several other books as well. Want to know more about the man behind the myth? Read on to learn all about Tolkien and where he got his ideas from. This article will also highlight some of his lesser-known works. For further information, refer to the J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook by Colin Duriez, a comprehensive guide to Tolkien’s life, writings, friends, themes, characters, and more.
Tolkien’s Early Days
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in South Africa. His memories of Africa, though limited, were vivid (especially a scary encounter with a large hairy spider!) and influenced his later writing to some extent. Following his father's death from rheumatic fever in 1896, he and his younger brother were taken to England by their mother. They made their home in the country outside of Birmingham, just across the border from Wales.
Ronald’s love of nature and the rural landscape can be clearly seen in both his writings and in his drawings. Likewise, young Ronald's linguistic imagination was engaged by the sight of coal trucks going to and from destinations like "Nantyglo", "Penrhiwceiber" and "Senghenydd." After his mother died when Ronald was twelve, he and his brother became wards of a kind priest. Ronald mastered Latin and Greek, and became competent in a number of other ancient and modern languages. He even made up his own “fairy” and “elvish” languages, purely for fun.
Tolkien’s College Days
Tolkien studied the Classics, Language and Literature at Exeter College, Oxford, where he specialized in Old and Middle English. After graduating, Tolkien married Edith Bratt, whom he had known when they both lived in Birmingham. Still a newlywed, Tolkien enlisted in the World War. As soon as the war was over, Tolkien was hired as Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary), which was then in preparation.
Tolkien also began to write mythological and legendary tales in which his elves appeared in their first form. Originally called The Book of Lost Tales, it eventually became known as The Silmarillion. Tolkien’s writings were influenced by Old English poems, ballads, fairy tales and folklore, medieval poems and tales, Celtic and Irish myths and legends, Icelandic sagas, Scandinavian folktales, Norse and Germanic mythology and poems, and other mythologies. Tolkien's other scholarly hobbies included calligraphy, drawing, and theatrical performances.
In 1920, Tolkien became Associate Professor in English at the University of Leeds. In 1925, he became Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford. Besides being an expert linguist, Tolkien’s career was further distinguished by his enthusiastic and lively teaching. Tolkien also founded a literary club called "The Inklings." The group was composed of Oxford men who shared a common interest in reading Old Norse and the dead northern languages. A member of “The Inklings” who became one of Tolkien's closest friends was C.S. Lewis, another recently appointed English teacher.
Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, was a major influence on C.S. Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity. On the evening of September 27, 1931, Lewis had a long talk on Christianity with J.R.R. Tolkien. The following day, C.S. Lewis and his brother Warren took a motorcycle ride to the Whipsnade Zoo. Lewis recalled in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did." This conversion spurred C.S. Lewis to write. In doing so, Lewis became the most popular Christian writer of the century and beloved author of the Chronicles of Narnia children’s fantasy series. Lewis dedicated his book, The Screwtape Letters (uniquely written from a devil’s point of view), to Tolkien.
Tolkien’s Later Years
Tolkien’s family, now consisting of three sons and a daughter, encouraged his imagination. But the making of The Hobbit came about quite by accident. According to Tolkien, one day when he was grading essay exams, he discovered that a student had left one page of an answer-book blank. On this page, for no particular reason, Tolkien wrote "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." From this sentence grew a tale that he developed and told to his children.
First published in 1937, The Hobbit has been on children's recommended reading lists ever since. It was such an immediate success that the publisher asked Tolkien to write a sequel. He did, but it took twelve years to complete. Over 1,000 pages in length, Lord of the Rings was finally published in three installments during 1954-55. Literary critics downgraded it as “a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand.” Nevertheless, Tolkien’s enormous public appeal popularized fantasy literature among both adults and children.
Did You Know…? Christopher Lee (the actor who plays Saruman in The Lord of the Rings movie) met and spoke with J.R.R. Tolkien at an Oxford pub in the 1950’s.
During the 1960’s, Tolkien became well-liked by the "counter-culture" mainly due to his concern with environmental issues. By 1968, Lord of the Rings had become a cult-like fantasy favorite. After Tolkien died in 1973, his original mythological legend, The Silmarillion, was edited and published in 1977 by his son Christopher. In the late 1990’s, Tolkien came to the top of several polls which asked readers to vote for the greatest book of the 20th century. The master language scholar would be pleased to know his books have been translated into many different languages. The Lord of the Rings is now regarded as the world's most popular work of fiction.
Tolkien’s Other Works
In addition to his Middle Earth fantasies, Tolkien wrote short fiction, essays, verse, and literary translations.
The Tolkien Reader - This treasury includes Tolkien's most beloved short fiction (Farmer Giles of Ham), poetry (“The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” and other poems) plus his essay “On Fairy Stories.” (What fairy tales are, how they are made, and why people want to read and write them).
Farmer Giles of Ham - First published in 1949, this work is set in England of long ago, when giants and dragons roamed free. Farmer Giles of Ham tells of “the rise and wonderful adventures of farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall and king of the Little Kingdom.” Farmer Giles, his mare, and his talking dog go into the valley of the Thames to slay the dragon Chrysophylax. Unfortunately, the dragon doesn't want to fight. A witty, light-hearted satire for readers of all ages that tells the tale of a reluctant hero.
Smith of Wootton Major - Once again we travel to an ancient England that has much in common with Middle Earth. In this tale, Tolkien tells of a blacksmith who receives a magical gift, and how his life and character is enriched and enlightened by his experiences. This story reflects Tolkien's own love of fantasy, as well as the faith and grace that were such an integral part of who he was as a person. Children and adults alike will enjoy this story, which is entertaining while teaching that rewards come to those who choose to live life on a deeper level.
Roverandom- Although not published until 1998, Tolkien originally created this enchanting tale in 1925 for his son, Michael, after the child lost his toy dog while on vacation. It is the story is of a real dog, Rover, who is turned into a toy by a wizard and goes on many fantasy adventures. Tolkien believed in challenging young readers, and the vocabulary in this book is occasionally a little advanced for children. So this book would make a great read aloud book for kids and adults to read together, as adults will also enjoy the whimsical humor and beautiful writing.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - One of the masterpieces of the English language, this Arthurian legend tells of a young knight who must prove his valor, piety and courtesy after a mysterious knight allows Gawain to behead him – then picks up his head and rides off. The most accessible of his academic works, Tolkien's translation of this anonymous 14th-century narrative poem effectively preserves the alliterative verse of the Medieval English original. Middle English is quite difficult to work with. Among the many translations, most sacrifice either readability or meaning. However, Tolkien’s version sacrificed neither. Beautifully written, the words actually sound better read aloud, as they were originally meant to be heard. The work reflects a rich oral tradition of storytelling and minstrelsy, from the age of chivalry and wizards, knights and holy quests. A good way to read it would be to read each stanza/couplet twice, once silently and once aloud. Highly recommended for students, teachers, classic literature enthusiasts, and fans of Tolkien's fantasy writings as an introduction to the exciting world of medieval English literature.
Tolkien was an acknowledged expert on the Anglo-Saxon heroic poem “Beowulf”, the longest alliterative work in Old English. “Beowulf” survives in a single manuscript in the British Museum, probably written down around the year 1000 in the Wessex kingdom of Alfred and Ethelred. Scholars believe the poem originated somewhere north of the Thames in 8th-century England. But the events in the poem take place in Denmark and Sweden in the 5th or 6th century. Tolkien’s best-known commentary on the poem is Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.
Beowulf is a great adventure story, the classic epic of a hero's triumphs. It follows Beowulf from youth to old age as he saves a neighboring people from a monster, becomes the king of his own people, and dies defending them from a dragon. For fans of Lord of the Rings, the Beowulf story contains a dragon (less conversational than Smaug), passing references to ylfe (elves, referring to otherworld people, are mentioned in various Old English sources), orc-neas (evil spirits or monsters of an uncertain kind; "orc" by itself simply refers to a large drinking vessel), and ent, an Old English word for "giant" (Tolkien cast his own "ents" as walking tree-people). In addition, Tolkien gave the Old English language to the heroic Rohirrim people. The version spoken by the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings is said to be very similar to the Wessex dialect of Beowulf.
Dr. Michael Drout, a lifelong Tolkien enthusiast and assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, was researching Anglo-Saxon scholarship at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England in April 2003. He was delighted to find the original manuscripts of Tolkien's Beowulf translation in a library storage box. Dr. Drout immediately approached the Tolkien Estate for permission to prepare and publish an edition of the work. He had previously edited a collection of Tolkien's notes and lectures on Beowulf criticism, Beowulf and the Critics, in 2002 with the assistance of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at ASU. It is not known how long it will take to prepare the rediscovered Beowulf work for publication. As one authority put it: “Inevitably, given the difficulty of the material – and the handwriting!”
www.tolkiensociety.org (Tolkien Society website.)
www.ipl.org/div/litcrit/bin/litcrit.out.pl?au=tol-52 (The Internet Public Library’s J.R.R. Tolkien Literary Criticism Collection.)
www.literature-web.net/anonymous/beowulf (An online searchable version of Beowulf.)
http://lnstar.com/literature/beowulf/ (Adventures of Beowulf: a serialized adaptation from the Old English version.)
www.nationalgeographic.com/ngbeyond (The history, myth, and culture that inspired Tolkien.)
www.thetolkienwiki.org/wiki.cgi?Mythology/TolkiensSources (Tolkien's Sources and Influences.)
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