Sunday, 17 February 2013

J. R. R. Tolkien: the man

(See also my earlier post on Tolkien's moral ideas)

The first point to note about Tolkien is that he was an orphan. He can hardly have known anything of his father, who died when he was only three years old, and his mother died when he was twelve. Secondly, he was a dedicated Roman Catholic. His mother had been converted to Catholicism when he was eight; but this alienated her from many of her family, so when she died Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary were placed under the guardianship of a local priest, Father Francis Morgan, and lived in lodgings in Birmingham. Here Tolkien met another orphan, Edith Bratt, and fell in love with her; but Father Francis ordered him to break off all contact with her, fearing the affair would interfere with Tolkien’s studies.
     The third point is that Tolkien was a “scholarship boy”; first at King Edward’s School, Birmingham (still the best school in the city!), and then at Exeter College, Oxford. Here he came under the tutelage of Joseph Wright, a most remarkable man who had begun work in a Yorkshire woollen mill at the age of six, taught himself to read and write, saved enough to travel to Germany to study, and was now Professor of Comparative Philology. Tolkien graduated with a First Class degree in English, and never forgot his debt to Joseph Wright.
    By the time of Tolkien’s graduation, the First World War had broken out, and, as with so many of his generation, he volunteered for service. But first he married Edith, whom he had contacted again as soon as he reached his 21st birthday. They did not seem ideally suited to each other, since Edith shared none of Tolkien’s academic interests. They came to have four children. Tolkien survived the Battle of the Somme, when so many young officers were slaughtered, and was then invalided back to England with typhus; a stroke of good fortune which he shared with an older writer: A. A. Milne. Thereafter he was able to pursue an academic career; first at Leeds University, and then as a Professor back in Oxford, where he spent the rest of his working life. His speciality was philology: the structure and development of languages; particularly Anglo-Saxon and Early and Middle English; in which field he was a world-renowned expert.

Even at school Tolkien had liked inventing languages, and the scripts to go with them. He loved the sounds of words, especially of names (The two Elvish languages in “The Lord of the Rings” were based on the languages whose sounds he liked best: Finnish and Welsh). He also wrote and illustrated stories; some to be told to his children (the most famous being, of course, “The Hobbit”, begun around 1930), but others principally for himself. During the war he began to write a series of independent but interconnected stories which came to be known as the “Silmarillion”. The underlying theme of these was the three great magical jewels, the Silmarils, which had been stolen by Morgoth, the original “Dark Lord”, and which Elves, Men and Dwarves fought to recover (though, fatally, they also fought among themselves). The story which was always closest to Tolkien’s heart was that of Beren and Luthien. Beren, a mortal man, falls in love with Luthien, an immortal Elvish princess, but her father refuses his consent to their union unless Beren can bring him a Silmaril taken from Morgoth as a bride-price. This Beren eventually achieves, though the Silmaril brings disaster with it. Tolkien kept revising and rewriting this story, and its emotional importance to him can be seen on his gravestone in Oxford: wording puzzling to anyone unfamiliar with his stories: “Edith Mary Tolkien, Luthien, 1889-1971: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973”. (Many readers surely noticed how the story of Beren and Luthien is echoed in that of Aragorn, who cannot marry Arwen, the daughter of Elrond, until he has become king)

For intellectual stimulus, Tolkien always relied on exclusively male company: the “TCBS” when he was at school, and in Oxford with a group of like-minded friends who came to be known as the “Inklings”. They met in a masculine atmosphere of beer and pipe-smoking; their leading light being the man more responsible than any for Tolkien becoming a published fantasy-writer: C. S. Lewis. They found they had similar tastes, and Lewis maintained that it was Tolkien who persuaded him of the truth of Christianity.  Lewis was shown a version of the Beren story, which he read with enthusiasm, and urged Tolkien to write more. Some time around 1937, Lewis said to Tolkien, “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves”. Both men set out to do this, but it was Lewis who was more immediately productive. Tolkien was probably a little jealous of the ease with which Lewis churned out large numbers of books: Tolkien found it difficult to complete anything, and was forever rewriting and starting again. Later, he would probably never have completed “The Lord of the Rings” without Lewis urging him on.

“The Hobbit” was published in 1937, andwas an immediate success. The publishers, Allen & Unwin, naturally asked for a sequel, and Tolkien began to write “the second Hobbit”. It was only after a while that he realised what the setting was: the world of the “Silmarillion”, but several thousand years later, so that the “Silmarillion” stories would form the ancient history and mythology of the Hobbit-world - though no hobbits had appeared in the "Silmarillion". The work now took on an altogether grander aspect. Also present was Tolkien’s version of the Atlantis myth: Numenor; the great island which sank beneath the waves, from which a few survivors escaped to bring civilisation to Middle Earth. Thus “The Lord of the Rings” emerged, after sixteen years, and many revisions and rewritings.

By the time the great epic was published in 1954-55, the Inklings had ceased to exist, and Tolkien and Lewis were no longer as close as they had been before the war. Several factors were at work here. Charles Williams, an author largely forgotten today, had joined the Inklings when he came to Oxford. He lectured on Milton and Dante and wrote several “spiritual thrillers” (“War in Heaven” etc). Tolkien liked Williams as a person, but strongly disliked his books, and thought he had a very bad influence on Lewis’s writings. Tolkien did not like Lewis’s “Narnia” stories. Being himself a perfectionist, he thought Lewis’s imaginary world was a “rushed job”: poorly thought out and not credible. Then Tolkien was to be further estranged from Lewis by the latter’s marriage, which he found incomprehensible. But Lewis loved “The Lord of the Rings”, praised it fulsomely in public, and lobbied all his literary contacts to ensure its success.

Once again, the publishers demanded more; and Tolkien attempted to reduce  the multiple drafts of the “Silmarillion” stories to a single coherent book. But he was an old man now, and was unable to complete the task. The last book he managed to write was “Smith of Wooton Major”, published in 1967. This tells of Smith, who as a boy is given a magic token which allows him to visit the land of Faery, where he sees many strange and wonderful things, most of which he fails to understand. But eventually he is told he must give the token back, and he is unable to visit Faery any more. It is the only one of Tolkien’s stories which is clearly an allegory: the autobiographical story of an old man who realises his creative powers are failing. Tolkien died leaving the “Silmarillion” incomplete, and it was left to his son, Christopher, to reduce the mass of manuscripts to publishable form.


Tolkien was always a great letter-writer. After he became famous, fans would write to him asking him to clear up and explain aspects of “The Lord of the Rings”, and he would reply with letters running to seven or more printed pages. A Jesuit who asked him about the origin of certain “holy” words, such as “God”, was rewarded with a long discourse on the philology. But best of all is a letter he wrote in 1938. “The Hobbit” was being translated into German, and, this being the Nazi era, the German publishers wrote to ask whether he was an Aryan. Tolkien knew that, properly speaking, “Aryan” was a word indicating a language-group, and had nothing to do with race. He therefore replied as follows:-
    “I regret that I am not clear as to what you mean. As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, or any related dialect. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people”.
    I think this is magnificent  
(The extract is taken from “The letters of J. R. R. Tolkien”, edited by Humphrey Carpenter)

Tolkien dates

1892   John Ronald Reuel Tolkien born in Blomfontein, South Africa; son of  Arthur, a bank manager and his wife Mabel; both from England
1894   Brother Hilary born
1895   Mabel takes the boys back to England; Arthur stays in S. Africa
1896   Arthur dies. Mabel settles in Sarehole, a village near Birmingham
1900   Mabel converted to Catholicism. They move to Edgbaston
1903   Tolkien enters King Edward’s School, Birmingham, on a scholarship
1904   Mabel dies of diabetes. The Tolkien brothers are placed under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan, and move into lodgings
1908   Tolkien meets Edith Bratt
1910   Morgan forbids Tolkien to contact Edith until he is 21
1911   Tolkien gains an Exhibition scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford
1913   On his 21st birthday he immediately contacts Edith again
1914   Edith becomes a Catholic; she & Tolkien become engaged
1915   Tolkien graduates with a First Class degree in English. He is commissioned in the Lancashire Fusiliers
1916   Tolkien and Edith are married. Battle of the Somme: Tolkien’s battalion is held in reserve on the first day. In November he catches typhus & is invalided back to England
1917   Whilst convalescing at Great Haywood, Staffordshire, Tolkien begins to write a series of linked fantasy stories which come to be known as the “Silmarillion”. He spends much of the year in hospital, and is   never fit enough to return to the front line. His eldest son, John, is born in November
1918   With the Armistice, the Tolkiens return to Oxford. He joins the team researching for the new Oxford English Dictionary
1919   He begins to work as a freelance tutor of undergraduates
1920   Tolkien is appointed Reader in English Language at Leeds University
1925   Publication of his edition of “Sir Gawain & the Green Knight”. He is appointed Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford
1926   C. S. Lewis appointed a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He & Tolkien become friends, and come to form a social & intellectual group known as the “Inklings”. Tolkien continues to write, and  rewrite, “Silmarillion” stories, with encouragement from Lewis
1930   Around this time, Tolkien begins to write “The Hobbit”, but does not finish it
1931   Around this time, Lewis becomes a Christian, & begins to write a series of books on Christian issues
1936   Tolkien’s lecture on “Beowulf”. The unfinished “Hobbit” is seen by a former student who now works for the publishers Allen and Unwin
1937   “The Hobbit” published: an immediate success. The publishers suggest a sequel, which Tolkien begins to write; eventually becoming “The Lord of the Rings”
1938-45   Lewis writes the “Perelandra” trilogy; admired by Tolkien
1939   Tolkien’s lecture “On Fairy Stories”. Charles Williams joins Inklings
1945   Tolkien appointed Professor of English Language and Literature
1949   “Lord of the Rings” completed. Disputes with publishers. Around this time the Inklings decline and eventually stop meeting
1950-56   Lewis writes the seven “Narnia” books; Tolkien does not like them!
1954   First 2 volumes of “LOTR” published. Lewis is appointed Professor of English at Cambridge University, but continues to live in Oxford
1955   Volume 3 of “LOTR” published
1956    Lewis secretly marries Joy Gresham
1959   Tolkien retires from professorship
1960    Joy Lewis dies
1963   C. S. Lewis dies
1967   “Smith of Wootton Major”; Tolkien’s last published work
1968   The Tolkiens move to Bournemouth
1971   Edith Tolkien dies
1972   Tolkien returns to Oxford. He is awarded the CBE
1973   Tolkien dies, leaving the “Silmarillion” stories incomplete
1977   “The Silmarillion” edited and published by his son, Christopher Tolkien

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