J.R.R. Tolkien

By Brian Compton

 

 

Introduction

John Ronald Reul (J.R.R.) Tolkien has been called various things by various critics. Some have called him "the father of modern fantasy," "creator of England’s mythology," and great post-modern expressionist. Others see his work as childish, sexist, and silly. However, there is more to his work than both his fans and detractors see in it.

The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion are works of modern fantasy; but within them are roots which trace back to classical and Germanic cultures of Europe. Tolkien did base his Middle Earth on the ideal of England; however, his myth has gone far beyond his homeland and encompasses all of humanity. One could classify his environmentalism and disdain for modern industry and technology as post-modern; yet, his feelings come more from a yearning for an unreachable past than from any hope for the present.

Childish is not so much the barb his worst critics hoped it would be, but an accurate depiction; a childlike sense of wonder and adventure constituted half of his creative process. He may be called sexist, and it would not be hard to imagine as he enjoyed male company more so than female throughout his life, and many of his characters develop without the presence of strong women in their lives. But some of the most heroic deeds of his tales are accomplished by women, and he in no way downplays their accomplishments in light of the men in their lives. As for silly, Tolkien’s creativity sprung not only from childlike wonder but also a serious love of language and mythology. Linguistics and myth were driving forces behind why he wanted to write the lore of Middle Earth in the first place, and the scholarly nature of his study in these areas appear in his writing.

In order to fully understand such an individual as J.R.R. Tolkien, we must first ask, who was he? Where did his influence come from? Why did he create what he did? These are necessary if anyone is to look at his body of work.

Tolkien the Child

John Ronald Reul Tolkien was born in 1892 to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, in the city of Bloemfontein, South Africa. Arthur’s father was a banker for the British Bank of Africa; his mother had met Arthur in Birmingham, England, where they had grown up. Mabel came from the Suffield family, who prided themselves on their English heritage. The Tolkiens, on the other hand, were English only by a few generations; originally they were a Germanic family.

Ronald, as his parents and family would call him, did not stay in Bloemfontein very long; the climate was not agreeable either to his health or to his mother. Also, Ronald now had a younger brother named Hilary, born in 1894. Mabel, not thinking the frontier of South Africa a fit place to raise her children, returned to Birmingham in 1895 with Ronald and Hilary. Arthur staid behind, but in 1896 he died due to complications from rheumatic fever. The impact on Tolkien was negligible, as he really did not remember his father well.

In the summer of that year, Mabel and the children moved out of her parents’ home in Birmingham to the small hamlet of Sarehole. For the next four years, Ronald and Hilary would grow up here, and Tolkien would later say that his attachment to this place had a great impact on both himself and his writing. Sarehole was traditional English countryside; there was a red brick mill with a working waterwheel on the River Cole, open meadows and farmland, and the nearby village of Hall Green. This would become the idyllic landscape that Tolkien wanted to return to in his writing; it would also bitterly remind him of the home he could never return to.

Ronald and Hilary had a number of adventures here. They would travel to see the working mill and its operator, whom they named "The White Ogre." They cautiously picked mushrooms from the farm of "The Black Ogre," until he chased them off his property. They would walk to Hall Green, where the boys there said words like "chawl," for "pork," and "pikelet," for "crumpets". "Gamgee," was another word; it stood for cotton surgical dressing, invented by nearby Birmingham’s Dr. Gamgee. For the first time, Tolkien was introduced to a language different from his own, the Warwickshire dialect. This was a subset of the West Midland dialect, which he studied in his scholarly life as a result of his time in Sarehole.

The happiness of Sarehole was not to last, however. Soon, Ronald was old enough to begin attending regular school, and he was accepted to Birmingham’s King Edward’s School. The commute was too expensive for Mabel, who was on tight expenses despite aid from the Suffields, Tolkiens, and her in-laws the Incledons. Therefore, the family packed up their bags and returned to Birmingham.

Tolkien the Student: Sarehole and King Edward’s

Ronald’s first instruction came from his mother Mabel, who taught him English grammar and handwriting, Latin, and French. Immediately, Ronald latched on to these languages. The beauty of the sight and sound of Latin intrigued him, and it was the first language after his own that he knew fluently. He was able to learn French, though it did not seem to him as beautiful as Latin; this may have been the root of the francophobia that he felt throughout his life. His handwriting was excellent, as odd in it’s own way as his mother’s was. He also learned botany at this time; he became very knowledgeable, especially about trees. Like language, he was not so much interested in the technical aspect of plants as he was in their aesthetics, the feel and shape of leaves and the scent of flowers. His first drawings (another area where he was good) were of landscapes and trees, and it would be his joy to draw either existing landscapes or ones from his own inventions.

As Tolkien was reading by age 4, he had an early start on books. Alice in Wonderland he enjoyed, but he did not wish to imitate Alice’s travels. Realistic fiction such as R. L. Stevenson and Hans Christian Andersen were not to his liking. He did, though, like stories about American Indians; maybe he felt their fierce warrior nature and connection to the land were traits to be admired and emulated. He also read books by George Macdonald, who wrote of a land plagued by subterranean goblins. His favorite, though, was Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book; the last story in it is a retelling of the Norse myth of the hero Sigurd questing to slay the dragon Fafnir. Macdonald and Lang were, therefore, some of his early literary influences.

Mabel also instructed both her sons in the Catholic faith. Originally, they had been christened as Anglicans, and the Anglican Church became a very important part of all their lives. However, in 1900 Mabel and her sister May took instruction and were received into the Catholic Church (Tolkien’s biographer Carpenter does not give any explanation of why this happened, only that it had been thought out for some time). The division this caused between Mabel, the Suffields, and the Tolkiens was extensive; financial aid ended, and Mabel had to work even harder to raise her two sons. Eventually, she was diagnosed with diabetes, and her health deteriorated until she died in 1904. For this reason, Tolkien saw her as a martyr for her faith, and it cemented his own Catholicism as an important factor in his life.

As said before, Tolkien began instruction at King Edward’s School in 1900. It was at this that he really began the study of languages, especially after the death of his mother. The curriculum of King Edward’s relied heavily on Latin and Greek for its instruction, and this environment encouraged Tolkien’s already burgeoning love of language. Also, he discovered Welsh from the names on the train cars running past his house in Birmingham. He did not formally study Welsh until his Oxford days; but it was in Birmingham that he was introduced to what he considered the most beautiful language in the world.

After a brief interlude at the Catholic parish school of the Birmingham Oratory, he returned to King Edward’s. He began reading Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, his first introduction to a native language other than New English. It was around this time that his mother died, and the boys passed to the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a parish priest at the Birmingham Oratory. Father Francis had been a great comfort to Mabel, reaffirming her Catholic faith many times. He also provided her use of the parish cottage at Rednal for convalescing from her illness, and it was at this cottage where she died. It was also here that Tolkien saw Father Francis smoking a pipe, and he attributed this later to his own enjoyment of the pipe and to his characters’.

When Tolkien entered the First Class at King Edward’s in 1908, he made his first discoveries in the Anglo-Saxon language. The reason for this was that he had begun to undertake personal reading in philology, which is the study of words. He wanted to know how words got their forms, where they came from, who spoke them and when. Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was his first true attempt to discern such information about a language. He then returned to Middle English through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In reading this, and a companion poem titled The Pearl, he began to see connections between West Midland and Middle English. This fascinated him even more because of the local connection; his Suffield ancestors were West Midlanders. Finally, he started reading the tale of Sigurd and Fafnir in the original Old Norse. There was academic interest in this, because he wanted to familiarize himself with this language for further research; on a personal level, this was his favorite story as he was meant to read it.

The greatest experience Tolkien had this year, though, was when he bought a copy of the Primer of the Gothic Language from a friend. Joseph Wright, the author of the book, was a self-educated Yorkshire man who knew Latin, French, German, Sanskrit, Old Saxon, Old and Middle English, Gothic, Lithuanian, Russian, Old Norse and Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and Old Bulgarian. Wright would become Tolkien’s philology mentor at Oxford, and Tolkien was glad to work with him. The Primer to him was an epiphany of how wonderful language could be analyzed, and in reaction he invented Gothic words from his knowledge of the language in order to fill in vocabulary gaps.

Spurred by his pure research into philology, Tolkien began to create his own languages. The first was Animalic, which consisted of animal names given new meaning. The second was Nevbosh, or New Nonsense; this was an amalgamation of different languages to form a new language. Neither was very complicated, as Tolkien had not essayed into creating syntax and grammar for these languages. He felt, though, that that was the next logical step. The result of this was Naffarin, influenced by Spanish but with sounds and grammatical structures completely invented by Tolkien. After learning Gothic, he decided to try and learn the history of his made-up languages. He began to invent backwards, building language from an earlier base of his own imagination.

Also in 1908, after moving twice and coming to live with a friend of the Oratory, Tolkien met Edith Bratt. She was a 19 year-old illegitimate orphan, and that alone created a connection between her and Tolkien. Soon their casual friendship blossomed into the romance of chivlaric days. However, Tolkien’s guardian disapproved, believing that Edith was too old and a distraction to Tolkien in his work. Despite various attempts at subterfuge, Tolkien had to give up or lose all financial support from Father Francis. Two years later, in 1910, Edith moved away. This relationship had a profound effect on his later writing; the trials and tribulations of love was a theme seen in many of his stories.

In the next years, Tolkien’s academic life was spent in preparation for his Oxford scholarship exams. He had already failed once, and he needed a scholarship if he had any hope of attending University. There were distractions of course. One was rugby, and Tolkien was a rather good player, eventually making the school team. Also, he joined the debating society, where he had a chance on various occasions to show off his language skills. During an all-Latin debate, he took the role of a Greek representative and spoke entirely in Greek. When he took the role of a barbarian, he would speak in Anglo-Saxon or in Gothic, depending on what was fitting.

Probably the biggest distraction to Tolkien, though, was the two societies he formed. The first was the Tea Club, made up of he and his friends on the library staff. When meeting quarters were forced during the summer to move to Barrow’s Stores in Birmingham, the name Barrovian Society was appended, giving the group the initials T.C.B.S. This was the first of many all-male societies Tolkien would join or form during his lifetime. The members of the group each brought different things to the table. Robert Gilson enjoyed the physical sciences, technical drawing, and Renaissance art; Christopher Wiseman brought natural science, mathematics, and music to the group; and Tolkien had expertise in philology and Germanic tongues. Later, they were joined by Geoffrey Bache (G. B.) Smith, who introduced the group to modern English literature. Tolkien attributed Smith’s inclusion into the group as the reason why he began composing verses. These he read to the group, along with readings from Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry. His original works were not very good, though he wrote one called "Wood-sunshine," about fairies dancing in the woods, which was an indication of talent and future bent.

He also began delivering lectures to the school on language study. He read one, "The Modern Languages of Europe- Derivations and Capabilities," to the entire First Class of King Edward’s; it was too long, and he took three one-hour classes simply to complete half the lecture. Later, he read a paper to the school Literary Society on Norse saga; he supported the claims of the paper with readings of Norse poetry in Norse.

Toward the end of his career at King Edward’s, he discovered a translation of the Finnish saga Kalevala. These hero tales thoroughly intrigued Tolkien; he felt very comfortable with these humanistic characters full of faults and quirks, but who still achieved great deeds. A desire to read this in the original language pushed him to eventually learn enough Finnish to complete the task. In doing so, he found the second-most beautiful language in the world. That would have to wait though, for now he was to begin his time at Oxford.

Tolkien the scholar: Oxford, Leeds, Oxford Revisited

Tolkien passed the scholarship examination sufficiently enough to earn him scholarship to Oxford’s Exeter College, the classical school. With this and some other assistance (including help from Father Francis, which stalled any reunion with Edith), he was able to attend University and began in the fall of 1911.

Immediately, he entered into the social and extra-curricular life of the student populace. He continued to play rugby, and also joined the Debate Society, the Essay Society, and the Dialectic Society. His need for companionship still unsatiated, Tolkien created the Apolaustiks, a Greek word meaning "those devoted to self-indulgence." Though scholarly ventures were undertaken in the form of papers and discussions, the main purpose was social, and there were many dinners held by the organization. This helped fill the gap left by leaving King Edward’s and the T.C.B.S., but he would always look on his three companions from that club as his first and best critics and the inspiration to write the mythology of Middle Earth.

His studies began to suffer, though, as he was losing interest in the classical studies of Exeter and began to look more into philology. His special subject was, in fact, comparative philology, where his mentor was the aforementioned Joseph Wright. Wright not only provided Tolkien direction and encouragement in his study, but much needed discipline as well. Wright’s enthusiasm for language was infectious, something that Tolkien would benefit from. His vast knowledge of language was of great help to Tolkien, both as a source of information and humility.

Wright never discouraged Tolkien’s research though, and it was under his tutelage that Tolkien began his formal study of Welsh.

Concurrently, he found a book on Finnish language, and he studied it so that he could read the Kalevala. He never got a full grasp of the language, but what he did learn was inspirational. From his studies, he began again a new language based on Finnish but with his own grammar. This was a very important beginning, though he did not realize it at the time.

By this point, it was 1913, and on January 3 he turned 21. This meant that he was out from under the legal guardianship of Father Francis and could do as he pleased. His first action was to write a letter to Edith, basically asking her to marry him. She replied that she was engaged to the brother of a friend from her school days. However, the tone of her response seemed subtlely inviting of a declaration of marriage from Tolkien, and he went to her and much a statement. She accepted and politely informed her other fiance of the disengagement. Ronald and Edith had reaffirmed their love for each other and would now be inseparable after the five previous years apart.

In the fall of 1913, Tolkien’s friend G. B. Smith began schooling at Oxford’s Corpus Christi College; with Wiseman and Gilson at Cambridge, the T.C.B.S. was now firmly entrenched in England’s academic life. This also came after Tolkien and Edith made their formal betrothal following her conversion to Catholicism. Prior to this time, his King Edward’s friends did not know of Edith; now he told them, and they gave due congratulations. Gilson added, with obvious foresight, that Tolkien would always belong to the T.C.B.S. This was true; in one form or another, Tolkien kept the T.C.B.S. alive, but all its incarnations were separate from his life with Edith and family.

Nineteen fourteen saw the first of many approbations Tolkien would receive throughout life. He was awarded the Skeat Prize in English for his school, which included a financial reward of 5 pounds. This money he put toward medieval Welsh books and William Morris stories. Morris was a former Exeter undergraduate, and many of his works were translations of other works. However, he also did some imaginative writing, using a combination of prose and verse to tell his stories. The House of the Wolfings, Tolkien’s favorite Morris novel, uses this method to tell the story of a land under threat of Roman invasion; the title comes from the Wolfing tribe that lived near Mirkwood forest and was the focus of Morris’ book. The use of archaic verbiage and constructions to give the feel of ancient epic writing heavily affected Tolkien; at one point, he attempted to adapt a story from the Kalevala using Morris’ writing method, though he never finished it. It was, however, an important step toward the creation of Middle Earth.

In 1915, Tolkien began his final year, and already things were moving to a head in his life and in the world. The previous summer, the conflict that would be known as The Great Conflict began between the Allies and Central Powers of Europe. Tolkien enlisted in the Lancaster Fusiliers, a regiment drilling in Oxford. Thus, his final year at Oxford was divided between social life, academics, and drill. This period was marked by a return to writing verses, inspired by a reunion of the T.C.B.S. The verses were marked by little economy of words, as his T.C.B.S. mates informed him. However, he did write two poems in the period which were eventually published. "The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon," was published in his anthology The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and "Goblin Feet" was published in the annual text Oxford Poetry in 1915. He sent copies of these works to G. B. Smith, who did not totally dislike them but did have some critical comments for Tolkien. As he would do to so many that he asked for constrictive criticism, he ignored Smith’s comments and kept the poems as they were.

He also finished his schooling in this year, graduating with First Class Honors from his exit examination. He knew that the life of an academic awaited for him following the war, which was now looming ahead now that he was out of University. He would enter the Fusiliers with the rank of second lieutenant, though his battalion assignment was different from G. B. Smith’s (he had joined this particular regiment in the hope of fighting alongside Smith). He was set to embark for the front in 1916, and prior to leaving he married Edith; the death tolls were mounting, and he was unsure he would return to marry her.

World War I had profound impact on Tolkien for a number reasons. In the trenches, he found heroes in the most unlikely places. He later said that some of his characters were inspired by the practicality and courage of the privates and functionaries he had seen in France. Also, this was his first introduction to full scale warfare. The carnage and the inhumanity of man deeply disturbed him, and it added to a sense of pessimism about the fate of the world that had been growing since the death of his mother. All good things, even peace and beauty, would eventually come crashing down in destruction. What frightened him the most was the mechanization of warfare; planes, machine guns, and mustard gas were all evils designed solely to increase man’s ability to slaughter his fellow man and scar the natural world. These ideas would come forth again in World War II, especially as his idyllic English countryside was replaced with technological necessities of war.

The biggest hit to Tolkien was the death of Robert Gilson and G. B. Smith. Gilson died first, on July 1st 1916, the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. Smith died of gas-gangrene in late 1916. The death of these two made Tolkien feel as if the T.C.B.S., and indeed his connection to his youthful life, was over. Although Wiseman still lived, and would survive the war to remain a stalwart friend of Tolkien, there was a deep sense of loss in his life that he would try desperately to fill through the new incarnations of the T.C.B.S. But, it was their memory and some final encouragement from Smith that resulted in the beginnings of something wonderful in Tolkien’s life.

Tolkien returned to England early, suffering a bad case of what was termed trench fever. He would remain here until the end of the war, doing signaling duty in Yorkshire between recurring bouts of illness. At the end of the war, following his discharge, Tolkien returned to Oxford as an editor of the New English Dictionary. His job was to research the etymologies of certain words, and he dove into this with relish. He was able to find forms of any given word in multiple Indo-European language, as far back as Latin to as recently as Modern Dutch, as far west as Old Icelandic to as far east as Lithuanian and Russian. His zest for language study was recognized by his colleagues, and this helped him receive an assistantship at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, England. Tolkien moved north, while Edith and their son John remained in Oxford; Edith was heavy with child, and she gave birth to her second son Michael not long after the school year began. Tolkien made many weekend trips to see his family before Edith was ready to join him.

At Leeds, Tolkien worked alongside E. V. Gordon, a Canadian who joined the English language faculty in 1922. The two had met in Oxford, where Gordon was on a Rhodes Scholarship and Tolkien had been his tutor. The two collaborated well together, compiling a new edition of Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English for University students of English language. This was the first of many scholarly works done by Tolkien in the area of philology.

They also formed the Viking Club; they ran this essentially student group with the purpose of drinking, reading Germanic epics, and singing drinking songs that were either originals of the instructors or actual drinking songs from Old Norse. Many of these were printed in a later work called Songs for the Philologists. This made the two very popular with their pupils, while at the same time fulfilling Tolkien’s need for male companionship.

Promotions and another move came one upon another. In 1924 Tolkien received a full professorship in English at Leeds, one created especially for him after he was denied an opening.

This was short-lived though, for in early 1925 the Oxford Professorship of Anglo-Saxon became vacant. Tolkien applied for this seat, and through some politics and influence of friends on the review board got the nod from the university. Thus, he returned to Oxford.

This had both good and bad effects on Tolkien. The bad was that it was harder for he and Gordon to work together on scholarship; indeed, there were plans to give The Pearl (a translation of which he had completed in 1926) the same treatment as Gawain, along with some Anglo-Saxon poetry. This meant that much of the work in philology Tolkien turned out was on his own. The best writing from him on this period was an article in 1929 on the Ancrene Wisse, a Middle English text of his favored West Midland dialect. He also gave a paper on dialects in The Reeve’s Tale of Chaucer, and a lecture on Beowulf to the British Academy. These three things, all of which are currently published, are considered essential pieces to study for anyone interested in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English philology. Gordon’s death in 1938 ended any hope of the collaborations on The Pearl and other poetry, and by this point he was well into his creative stage.

He contributed to Simonne d’Ardenne’s work on The Life and Passion of St. Juliene, another work of West Midland dialect. He also had translations of Gawain and another Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo. These were later published posthumously through the editing of Tolkien’s third son Christopher, who was to edit a number of other works by his father for publication purposes.

His scholarship following Leeds was excellent, but of small quantity.

The upside of coming back to Oxford was that he met a new member of the English literature department named Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis. Lewis filled for him a number of the roles previously performed by G. B. Smith. Their friendship was expansive, and it was the inspiration for Lewis’ essay on friendship in his book The Four Loves. Lewis also took up the job of critic. He playfully suggested changes to a number of Tolkien’s works, and Tolkien refused to listen to him just as he refused to listen to Smith. However, Tolkien would vigorously rewrite every section Lewis commented on (without adding Lewis' corrections), and they would appear as almost completely new pieces. It was Lewis, said Tolkien, that made him feel as if his work was any good at all and decent for public consumption.

From Tolkien, he received a new appreciation for the Christian faith. He had been raised protestant, and moved from that toward love of pagan myth rather than Christian. When he met Tolkien, he had gone through a phase of rationalizing Christianity as a myth, and that his search for Joy in pagan myths had been a search for God. Finally, a long late-night discussion between Lewis, Tolkien, and Tolkien’s old friend Hugo Dyson, enlightened Lewis enough that he began to see Christianity as true myth. He was now once again a Christian. He later would become a great Christian apologist; for some reason, this bothered Tolkien. It probably did not help that this came at a time of cooling between the two men. Tolkien probably resented the fact that, had it not been for him, Lewis would never have become Christian in the first place. Also, he would come to look at a number of Lewis’ creative writing as mere responses to his own work, and in fact one can see variations of Tolkien’s names popping up in some of Lewis’ books. This furthered the rift between them.

Early on, though, Tolkien and Lewis, along with Dyson and some others, formed the backbone of two important organizations, the last that Tolkien would create. The first was the Coalbiters, a group formed for the reading of Icelandic poetry and epics. This was a stem of Tolkien’s enjoyment, and an attempt to return to the days of the T.C.B.S. when he would read such tales to them. They got through both the Elder (Poetic) Edda and the Younger (Prose) Edda in the span of about four to five years. Thus, the group needed something else to do. Born from this need, and Tolkien’s lasting desire for male companions, was the Inklings. Essentially, it was a literary society, where members could come and read manuscripts and receive friendly criticism. This was important for Tolkien, who was now fully engaged in Middle Earth. The Inklings became the proving grounds for his writings, and he read from the unpublished Hobbit and later from The Lord of the Rings. Also, the spirit of the T.C.B.S. lived in the Inklings, because both Tolkien and Lewis introduced many of their own friends to the group, and in doing so made it that much stronger.

Now that we have seen Tolkien as a scholarly writer, let us move to his creative writing. We have seen the base of his knowledge, a love of language. Now let us see the application of it.

Tolkien the Storyteller: Children’s Stories and Minor Works

Storytelling was almost a necessary step in Tolkien’s life. He had grown up on storybooks, and most of his linguistic study came through reading the stories of various ancient cultures. It came naturally to him, and for his inspiration to tell stories he looked to his children.

The first stories were about a red headed boy named Carrots, who entered a cuckoo clock and went on odd journeys. These he told his son John when the boy could not sleep. When his son Michael began having nightmares, he created stories involving the evil "Bill Stickers," and the protagonist "Major Road Ahead." The names came from signs he had seen in Oxford; "Bill Stickers," came from one that said, "bill stickers will be prosecuted." This use of elements from his surroundings was a common trait in his stories, which we will see when we look at his progress on The Silmarillion.

He would continue to tell stories in such ways, but now he began to write them as well as tell them. The first one to get this treatment was Roverandom; this stemmed from his son Michael losing his toy dog on the beach. Tolkien devised an entire set of stories set around the dog, saying that he originally was a real dog that was turned into a plastic toy by an angry wizard. After being lost, another wizard made him alive again, and he was off on a number of adventures. This story never was published in his lifetime, though he offered it to his publisher as a follow-up to The Hobbit. It has not been until recently that the book has been published as a children’s picture book.

The next one to reach completion was The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. This was inspired by a doll Michael owned. Tom was famous in two stories. One was his own poem, which Tolkien wrote after John tried stuffing the doll down the toilet. It was a reformatting of an earlier poem; the new one contained elements of the old, such as Tom’s dress and long life, but it was not the same setting as before. The reason was that Tolkien wanted Tom to become a part of Middle Earth, and he did so by showing up in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien liked Tom both as a character for children to enjoy and as a symbol. For him, Tom represents the natural world of rural England, and Tom’s power is such that he constantly renews the earth and the waters of his land. But everyone in Middle Earth sees Bombadil’s territory as one of the last holdouts against the Shadow of Sauron the Ringlord. For Tolkien, he related this to the wooded areas of Oxford and Buckingham; these were the last holdouts of the old English countryside that stood against the encroachment of industrialization.

After this came Mr. Bliss. Bliss is described as a tall thin man that lives in a tall thin house and owns a yellow automobile. His stories of collisions and wild driving are reminiscent of Tolkien’s own driving skills, and the book takes much from its author. Tolkien described the narration as being influenced by Beatrix Potter’s style of ironic humor, and this was enhanced by his drawings for the book. Tolkien enjoyed illustrating his stories, though he was overly modest concerning his skills. Many of his works, both his minor stories and his Middle Earth books, include maps and drawings done by his own hand. The best of these are landscapes, which he admits he enjoyed drawing more than people or buildings.

Farmer Giles of Ham was next. This is set in Worminghall of the Little Kingdom, another metaphor for his beloved rural England. He admits that this was as much for his children as it was for himself, again because of the symbolic nature of the setting. The events of the story are its chief source of amusement, whereas in other stories the main source is the style of storytelling. This was published in 1949, and with the success of The Lord of the Rings it was also successful. Tolkien wanted to write a sequel in which he introduced Giles’ son George and brought back the dragon Chrysophylax (a Greek word meaning "lizard" or "dragon," one of Tolkien’s many play on words in a name). However, the inspiration of rural Oxford was gone, for it was quickly being replaced with developments and military sites. Thus, for Tolkien the Little Kingdom was another victim of World War II.

The next short story was completely for Tolkien, for it was venting of his self-frustration over his perfectionism. Leaf by Niggle tells of Niggle, a painter who worries over minor details. His favorite subject was leaves, but he was so caught up in the details of each leaf that they eventually turned into full standing trees. One day, he sees a leaf blowing in the wind, and he begins to paint it. It, too, becomes a tree, but this tree takes on a life of its own. It grew of its own accord, sending out great numbers of roots with odd branches growing from the trunk. It attracted strange birds, and finally around the tree formed a country. Niggle then learns that the reason his painted tree becomes so real was that it was real; he had stumbled onto the truth of the tree through his painting.

The same was true for Tolkien. In writing about Middle Earth, he felt he had stumbled upon a glimpse of the truth. He was not so much creating as he was revealing Middle Earth to himself and the world, and this was an essential facet in all parts of the world. When he was confronted with a name he felt meaningless, sometimes he would discard it and sometimes he would thoroughly research its origins to find out why that name had come about. When details of landscape and geography contradicted themselves in the slightest ways, he would painstakingly correct and revise all relevant information to insure absolute correctness. This story, written during the "revelation" of The Lord of the Rings, expressed his fear that he would not see the story in its fullest. Niggle did not realize the completeness of his tree until the end of his life; Tolkien did not want to suffer a similar fate.

After The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went through a long phase where he did scholarship and revised his earlier works. Soon, he felt the creeping of old age and inactivity coming upon him, and these fears set him writing again. The result was Smith of Wooton Major. It is the story of Smith, a boy who swallows a magic star. By swallowing the star, he is taken to the land of Faery, where he undergoes a series of adventures. The origin actually came from a request for Tolkien to write the introduction to a book by one of his favorite authors from childhood, George Macdonald. For his introduction, he decided to try to define what the word "fairy" meant in relation to storytelling. In trying to show his point, he began telling a story. It eventually grew beyond the confines of an introduction and became a story in its own right, Smith. It was the last original work Tolkien published. From this point forward, he would almost all of his creative works in public print, either standing alone or as parts of anthologies of his work.

The last minor work to be published was The Father Christmas Letters. Like Mr. Bliss, this work allowed Tolkien the opportunity to both write and draw. This work was in fact a collection of letters from Father Christmas (i.e. himself) to his children. The letters see a number of things that carried over from his Middle Earth writings. One is that he populates the North Pole with beneficent elves that were styled more on the elves of Middle Earth than the diminutive creatures normally associated with Father Christmas. He also has goblins living under the ground that occasionally harass Father Christmas and his friend Polar Bear. Finally, different characters have different methods of script for their portions of the letters, much like the different races of Middle Earth. These were annual letters that arrived at the Tolkien household from the North Pole, with Father Christmas and other inhabitants telling the events of the previous year. In 1976, these letters were compiled and published, with editing done by Christopher Tolkien.

So ends our look at the minor works. Onto Middle Earth.

Tolkien the Revealer: Middle Earth

The elements of Middle Earth had been present in Tolkien’s life since childhood. Middle Earth consisted of his keen sense of language, love of epic storytelling, strong Catholic faith combined with pagan influences, childish wonder, and despair for the fate of all things good and wonderful. The beauty of Middle Earth, in fact, is that Tolkien takes all of these and synthesizes them in an act that he called "sub-creation." He felt that the greatest faculty God passed to man was the ability to create anything in the realm of imagination that God could create in the realm of reality. Sub-creation was a sacred act, bringing people closer to understanding God and his power and grace.

The beginnings of this sub-creation flow all the way back to childhood. Tolkien grew up enjoying tales of heroic adventure where men slay great monsters. He was also taking in small things that would subconsciously find their way into his books. His love of language, writing, and artistry began at a young age, so they had a long time to fully develop. The setting of his childhood deeply impacted him, and leaving behind rural Sarehole for industrialized Birmingham made him see for the first time England’s dualism of mechanization and naturalism. The death of his mother made him realize the temporality of the world, and seeing her go from being well to deteriorating into fatal illness told him that no victory lasted forever.

His stories tell of male companions going off to do great deeds, much like the T.C.B.S. did in World War I. There were roots in his works that stretched all the way back to the beginning of his world, just as many of his favorite languages could be traced back to the beginnings of their spawning cultures. Words and language were as important to the peoples of Middle Earth as they were to him. Thus, we see that he could not truly begin the work of Middle Earth until later in his life, for if any of this were missing it would detract from the rich whole that was his world.

The first step towards the revelation of Middle Earth came in 1912 when he began his formal studies of Welsh and Finnish. As said before, he began to create a language based on Finnish, but like his earlier Spanish derivative of Naffarin it would have an original grammatical structure and history of development. This language would eventually be called Quenya, or High Elven. It was the first language that we know of to be used in Middle Earth. Also at this time, he began commenting on the mythology of the Kalevala, saying it was steeped in the ancient lore of Europe in a way that was not present in modern works. He became wistful, saying that he wished there was more literature in the world today like the Kalevala and others of its type.

The next year, when Tolkien began the English language curriculum at Oxford upon transferring from Exeter, he began reading Anglo-Saxon works that were new to him. One of these was the Crist of Cynewulf, a collection of sacred poetry. It was an important step in the creative process of Tolkien, for he found two lines which really set his mind rolling: "Hail Earendel, brightest of angels/ above the middle-earth sent unto men." After reading these, he felt something stir inside of him, as if it was waking up from sleep.

Also at this time he began reading the Elder Edda, the poetic rendering of Norse myth. The whole thing was striking to him, but one poem in particular stuck in his memory. This was the Prophecy of the Seeress, which told of the creation and fate of the world. This poem has been attributed to the last days of Norse paganism when Christianity was taking root, and the inclusion of Christian ideas may have been what attracted Tolkien to this poem. For whatever reason, we know that its impact on his later writing was profound.

In 1914, Tolkien took a holiday to Nottinghamshire where his brother Hilary ran a farm with some relatives. While there, he began composing a poem inspired by the two lines from the Crist. In it, Earendel is a mariner whose ship leaps from the ocean into the sky. From then it talks of the ships journey across the nighttime firmament until the sun rises. Though he took his cue from the Crist, the rest was completely his own, and it was this poem which would provide the framework for his first collection of verses from Middle Earth.

Soon after this he had his reunion with the T.C.B.S. and underwent a spurt of verse writings. Afterwards, he felt a need to write connected poems rather than occasional separate ones, and he started the task with his Earendel poem. G. B. Smith took a look at it and enjoyed his writing, but when he asked Tolkien what it meant, Tolkien’s response was that he would find out. Thus his poetry was taking on the same life as his languages. It would have a history that was his to discover instead of to invent.

Speaking of his languages, another development occurred at the same time in his work on Quenya. The language itself had reached a high level of intricacy, with a large vocabulary and rules on phonology and syntax. For Tolkien, though, the language was empty without someone to speak it. But now with Earendel firmly in mind, Tolkien decided that Quenya was the language of the fairy elves that the mariner would encounter in his journey. Using this is a springboard, he wrote another poem describing an adventure Earendel had before he traveled to the heavens. He included the elves, along with their homeland of Valinor where two trees of light grew. He would eventually discard this poem, but it is important for the introduction of elements that would survive into the final stories of Middle Earth.

The ideas sat dormant in Tolkien’s mind during the war years, though he was absorbing images and memories at this time that he would later incorporate. While he was recuperating in England from trench fever, he received a letter from Smith written not long before his friend was killed. In it, Smith told him to "say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them." This was the Viking horn call that sent Tolkien into action. In his work he would achieve three things. One was that he would finally have a history for his languages and that he could convey that history through myths, much like his favorite Germanic works had done. Also, though he would later deny it, he was able to convey his emotions through writing. It was something he had tried to do in the poetry he wrote for the T.C.B.S., but now he felt his artistry had matured enough that he could express himself in a more refined manner. Finally, it fulfilled his desire to return to the world the old myths, but in a method of his devising. He would not use the cold and dreary lands of Germany and Scandinavia for his poetry, but the English country that for him meant the idealized villages such as Sarehole.

Christopher Wiseman said it best when he told Tolkien, "You ought to start the epic."

And so The Book of Lost Tales was begun. Tolkien would revise the book and change its format later on; when he did so, he changed the name to The Silmarillion. After his father’s death, Christopher found these early notes and edited them, publishing them under their original title. If anyone wants to see work in progress, the comparison of these two books is an excellent example of such an evolution.

There are two major differences between The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. The Silmarillion is done in prose, with bits of verse included as if from an earlier source; that earlier source was Lost Tales, which Tolkien wrote in verse. He truly wanted to have that connection between the old style and his own work, and he did not feel he could accomplish that without writing in poetic form. Also, in Lost Tales, the stories are related to a traveler named Eriol, whose name was to mean "one who dreams alone." He may have borrowed this idea from William Morris, who used a similar concept in one of his books. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien does away with this convention; he instead frames the book as an elven collection of stories that they either witnessed personally or had related to them.

As any good mythology should begin, the first story Eriol hears is about the creation of the world. For Tolkien, things begin with Eru, the One, and his servants the Valar and Maiar. The world is created from their song, and it is a beautiful song. However, Melko the Valar and some others introduce a discordant tone into the song that creates a battle between euphony and cacophony. From this battle comes the creation of the world, with Valinor the Blessed Realm and Middle Earth two separate land masses. Eru then gives the Valar, including Melko, dominion over certain portions of the world, and the Maiar are instructed to be their servants just as the Valar serve Him.

In this we can definitely see a dualism of Tolkien’s Christian upbringing and pagan studies. This is a cosmology very similar to that of the Prophecy of the Seeress in the Elder Edda, which also was a combination of Christian and pagan. In that story, Tolkien saw the Norse religion come alive, and he wanted to capture the same sense in his creation story. But he also wanted his works to be true. In his role as revealer, as opposed to creator, he could not unveil something that was not the truth, and for him the truth was a monotheistic universe. For the elves, who would live with the Valar, the Valar were not gods because they served a higher being; Tolkien related this to Man before the biblical fall, who literally knew God and his angels and the place of them in the universe. But the Men of Middle Earth never come to know the nature of the Valar, and so they treat them as gods in their own right with no mention of Eru. This was post-Fall man, who knew God’s servants better than they knew Him and so worshipped those servants as gods (pagan rites).

The next story was "The Fall of Gondolin," which actually took place centuries after the creation of the world. The scale of the battle at Gondolin could easily remind anyone familiar with history of the battles of World War I; indeed, this may have been Tolkien’s way of including a more heroic Battle of the Somme in his mythos. But for this story, he introduces (or should say, re-introduces) the elves of Middle Earth. As said before, they symbolize pre-Fall man, an enlightened race removed from the stream of Time. Elves live forever unless killed by violence, and in their long life spans they create magnificent works of art, architecture, and song. They also are not tiny fairy folk, such as English lore normally depicts them. They are as tall as any human, though more graceful and slender, again adding to their perfection over man.

As almost all the heroes are elves (except for Earendel, who was living in Gondolin at the time of its demise), they would need names. For these, Tolkien turned to his language of Quenya. But his language theory forced him to have a basic tongue from which Quenya could spring. This he called Primitive Eldarin, the language of an earlier age. From this base, another language formed that was spoken by different elves; this was called Sindarin. Just as Quenya was derived from Finnish, Sindarin came from Tolkien’s other favorite language, Welsh. By this time, both were equally developed, and many of his characters would have names in both languages; for example, Eru was a Sindarin name, and in Quenya he was called Iluvatar.

In 1917, returned to the hospital on account of a relapse of his fever, Tolkien wrote the third of his lost tales. This was "The Children of Hurin," which centers on the hero Turin.

In the span of Turin’s adventures, he slays a great black wyrm who had invaded an elven kingdom. Again, Tolkien was dipping into the font of personal experience; though totally his own, there were echoes of his favorite Norse tale of Sigurd and Fafnir. Also, Turin kills himself upon learning he has unwittingly committed incest with his sister, much like the hero Kullervo from the Kalevala. This was significant because Kullervo’s tale was the one that Tolkien adapted to Morris’ prose-verse style during undergrad at Oxford. Turin was also an orphan, a trait that Tolkien shared with him. This story rises above simple influences, though, because it was the first of the Lost Tales to follow around one particular character. The depth to which Tolkien takes his hero’s development, with variations of moods and motivations throughout, shows that his people will not be the one-sided men of yore, but complex individuals with whom readers could identify.

The last tale Tolkien wrote for some time in its entirety was that of Beren and Luthien. This was prompted from seeing his wife walking and singing near an undergrowth of hemlock, and he commented on her raven hair, bright eyes and singing voice. It was in this way that the romance of Beren and Luthien began; Beren stumbles upon Luthien in the woods, dancing among an undergrowth of hemlock, and he describes her as having raven hair, bright eyes and a beautiful singing voice. Thus also began one of the greatest adventures of the Lost Tales.

The story of Beren and Luthien is significant for a number of reasons. It was an epic romance, and so it was full of more emotions than any other story so far. Hope and despair, fear and courage, joy and sadness all bound together by love find their way into this tale. Also, it was Tolkien’s first quest tale, and thus his baptism into the motif that would guide both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In order for Beren, a human, to marry Luthien, he must return to her father one of the three lost Silmarils, jewels of fascinating color and creation. His search takes him into the dungeons of Morgoth’s general Sauron and right to the throne room of Morgoth in Angband. The ever-present sense of impossibility is tempered by the necessity of the mission, something else that would characterize later quests.

Most importantly, the story of Beren and Luthien was for Tolkien almost like a love poem for his wife. Indeed, many who know his life see it as a romanticization of his and Edith’s early relationship, with all the trials caused by their forced separation. He was known to call her his Luthien, for it was her image that inspired him to create the character. If one visits their graves today, the names Beren and Luthien are each on the respective tombstones. Always, this story reminded him that no matter what happened between the two of them, their love for each other never weakened or grew shallow.

This tale was written in 1918, before his return to Oxford. During his brief time in Oxford, he read "The Fall of Gondolin" to Exeter’s Essay Club, of which he was a former member. It received judicious praise, and in the audience were undergraduates such as Hugo Dyson that would still be around to hear the rest of the lore of Tolkien’s world. When he reached Leeds, he worked on The Silmarillion some more (which was now its official name), and it was almost complete. What stories he hadn’t fully written he had down in a synopsis form, which meant all he had to do was figure a proper ending into the book. He didn’t though; instead he began the lengthy task of revisions and rewrites. Part of this was his picky perfectionism, which meant every detail had to work together correctly. Part of the problem was doubt; he was not sure that anyone would want to pick up this collection. Lastly, he was afraid for Middle Earth. He never wanted the writing of these tales to end because he thought they would become the first, last, and only acts of creation in his world. Things staid alive for him only so long as they were changing, and to stop writing meant for him an end to change.

With this mentality, Tolkien spent a good deal of the time in Middle Earth making changes.

Details did not change so much as form. He wanted the story of Turin to be written in a poetic style similar to that of Beowulf, and he felt that the story of Beren and Luthien would be better served as rhyming couplets. As a poem, it was named "The Lay of Leithian," and was eventually published as a separate work. It does not appear in The Silmarillion in poetic form, though references are made to the poem.

He continued work on both poems, and their development show a definite growth in Tolkien’s skill as a poet and a master of the old forms. C. S. Lewis gave him encouraging remarks on the Beren and Luthien poem, and this spurred him on to complete it. His work in alliterative verse for Turin’s poem is some of the best verse he wrote during his life; unfortunately he didn’t do very much more with the style. He also continued with his invented languages, the newest innovation being Feanorian, the alphabet in which Quenya would be written. He told his tales to his son, Christopher, and the boy later commented that he felt he was in the story because of the enthusiasm and artistry of his father. Still, despite recommendations from Lewis to go public with the now-complete work, it sat in his study collecting dust.

Something else, though, was coming to the forefront. The first thoughts of this new story began at Leeds, where Tolkien wrote a set of poems under the collective title Tales and Songs of Bimble Bay. It was his first work consisting of a connecting theme, that being the setting of Bimble Bay. More importantly, Tolkien’s concepts and ideas in the poems would reach greater fame than the poems themselves. One told of the attack of a dragon and its encounter with a Mrs. Biggins. Another told of a character named Glip, a slime-covered creature who lives underground and has pale bright eyes. He did nothing more with them until the late 1930’s.

One day, sitting down to look at some examinations, a strange line came to him. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." He wasn’t sure where it came from, but he felt that it was another revelation of his world. He continued to explore, and in doing so found the old English countryside of his youth. Hobbits, he would say, were small people because they came from the small people of rural England; rural English were not small in stature like hobbits, but they had a small range of imagination and world-view. Their land the Shire was rural England, and the main burg of Hobbiton was almost exactly like Sarehole.

In the character of Bilbo he also found another facet: himself. Bilbo had a background similar to his own; Bilbo had a remarkable streak in his family from his Took mother, just as Tolkien did from his Suffield heritage. Both were simple folk who liked plain, comfortable living. They liked walks over the countryside and simple food. Bilbo’s home was called Bag End, just as the farm of Tolkien’s aunt was called. Both, also, had a call to adventure. It was Bilbo’s call that now began Tolkien’s story called The Hobbit.

He began to write this story, now that he knew more about the main character, and also to tell it to his children. The hobbit Bilbo is hired by a party of 12 dwarves and one wizard as a burglar to go along in their quest to rid their home of the dragon Smaug. Through a series of adventures, the dragon dies, the dwarves recover their home, and Bilbo distinguishes himself as a hero in his own right. As it was written for them, it took on the tone of children’s literature. Tolkien emphasized the point through the addition of asides to help young people understand the significance of certain points; he later tried to edit all of them out of the story, thinking the concept patronizing and speaking down to children. Also, as he said, he wrote The Hobbit as a fairy story without really knowing what that term meant; thus, it was impossible to completely remove the patronizing tone he felt present.

The naming of certain characters allowed Tolkien to play with older languages, and very little of the elven tongues appears in the text. Instead, Tolkien borrowed from Germanic and Icelandic languages. The name of the dragon, Smaug, means, "to squeeze through a small hole," from the Germanic word smugan. Gandalf, the name of the wizard, means "sorcerer-elf" and "wizard," in Old Norse. The twelve dwarves in the party all have names deriving from the Elder Edda. Mirkwood Forest was an old Germanic location. Thus we can see that he never really thought it would go to publication; it was full of private humor for him in the form of language.

He also never thought it would be part of Middle Earth. But from the very first chapter there were connections growing between the two that eventually drew The Hobbit into Middle Earth mythology. The presence of dwarves was the first indication, as there had been dwarves present in many of his stories in The Silmarillion. Also, Gandalf mentions a journey to the tower of the Necromancer, which was what Tolkien called Sauron originally in "The Lay of Leithian." The connections between the early history of The Silmarillion and the present history of The Hobbit would be strengthened through additions to both works, but already there was a link that held the two together.

Tolkien almost did not finish writing the story. As said before, he started the story to tell to his children; when they grew too old for story time, he stopped thinking about it and only had a hastily constructed ending. However, a student of Tolkien’s, who knew of the work and was working for the publisher Allen & Unwin on another project, suggested that they might try to get a hold of it. He gave a representative a typed copy, which immediately found its way to the publisher. Stanley Unwin, in turn, gave the work to his grandson Rayner, who gave it wonderful praise and felt that all children would enjoy it. He took the boy’s word for it, and after requisitioning some illustrations from Tolkien had the book published in 1937.

The book received immediate critical laudation. C. S. Lewis, writing for The London Times, called Tolkien a rising star in the area of children’s literature, but that his work would also appeal to adults. The work was sold out by Christmas, and a reprint began with new illustrations from Tolkien. It reached America late in 1937, and the New York Herald Tribune gave it the prize for best juvenile book of the season. The world was now entering Middle Earth.

Allen & Unwin immediately needed something to succeed The Hobbit. Tolkien offered them many of his children’s works and short stories, but none of them really worked as a sequel. He also gave them The Silmarillion, which he hoped would appeal to them on the grounds that it was in the same setting. Again, they rejected it as a sequel to The Hobbit, but did not critically have a problem with printing it at a later date. So, Tolkien went back to the drawing board.

Things started well enough. Bilbo returned as the main character, and in the first chapter he escapes his birthday party to begin his next adventure. But Bilbo was fleshed out as much as he could be, and so Tolkien needed a new character. He changed the name to "Bingo," a reference to a set of koala dolls in his home. He then decided that this quest should revolve around the ring that Bilbo found in Gollum’s cave (a monster quite like his early creature Glip) in The Hobbit. It was a concept Tolkien hadn’t really explored, and he decided that he would look into the origin of the ring and the ultimate power it held.

He had a first chapter, and soon had a second where he introduced the hobbits Odo and Frodo. In this chapter, we also meet a sinister Black Rider; Tolkien did not know what this turn in the story boded, but like always he intended to find out. A third chapter, later titled "A Short Cut to Mushrooms," was the last he wrote for a while. Rayner Unwin looked at all three and gave his approval, though he thought that Tolkien devoted too much time to the hobbits talking.

When he returned to the work, following E. V. Gordon’s death, he decided to return to the Ring. He created a dialogue between Bingo and Gildor the elf, where the elf tells him of the Ring’s origins and its connection to the Riders (now plural), whom Gildor refers to as Ring-wraiths. This fitted in with Tolkien’s belief that this story would take Bingo and friends on a journey to destroy the Ring, and he wrote a dialogue where Gandalf tells Bingo just that. With this new focus, the book progressed smoothly, taking the hobbits to the home of Tom Bombadil. While on holiday, Tolkien took the story from Bombadil’s land to the village of Bree, where a new hobbit named Trotter is introduced. Tolkien saw Trotter as another of those odd additions, and in future revisions he went from a hobbit to a human named Strider. In researching Strider, he found that he was in fact Aragorn, king of Gondor in disguise; this came later as he realized the work was deeply connected both to The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.

This realization brought with it a change from The Hobbit. The new book still had funny names such as Frodo (the new name of the main character) and Gamgee (recalled from his Sarehole days) for the hobbits, but the tone was much more serious than its predecessor’s. He realized that this was not a rollicking jaunt with a happy ending for all involved, but a story full of world-shattering events in which the death of the old world of Elves becomes complete and the new world of Men and Hobbits begins. Sauron the dark lord would fall, but the damage he causes through his corruption will be unrepairable. And the fate of the world is in the hands of the hobbits, who have the Ruling Ring of Sauron. They must travel to the dark land of Mordor and destroy the ring in the Cracks of Doom or all of the world will come under Sauron’s control. Already, it was a much more frightening story than The Hobbit, one that came closer in nature to the Anglo-Saxon sagas of old in its tone of helplessness and hope.

The Lord of the Rings (as he now called it) was also a summation. Just as languages started at a base and worked their way to a near-final form, so too did Middle Earth. In The Silmarillion, he began the world and saw it through two ages of struggle and hope. In The Hobbit, he introduced not only the Third Age but also the hope of the world for the future. Finally, in The Lord of the Rings, he would bring about the end of his world and the beginning of another, which he felt was our world.

His progress was steady, and by the beginning of 1940 he was well into Book II. He knew that he would have to divide his work in some fashion, for he envisioned something too large and complex to fit together as a continuous series of chapters. Also, it allowed him to show evolution throughout the work; Book I was lighter in tone than the other five following it, which showed a change in his way of thinking about the work. In late 1940, work stopped for almost year, but he returned to it and finished Book II. He began Book III, and included the race of characters known as the Ents, who were essentially walking trees with personalities and voices. This stemmed from a love of trees and a desire for a redo on Shakespeare’s scene from Macbeth where the "trees" march to Dunsanine. For voices, their language was full of loud booming sounds, which he said came from C. S. Lewis’ own voice.

In 1942 he reached Chapter XXXI, the third to last of Book III. Then he stopped again. The reasons for this were many. One, his perfectionism set in again, and he kept revisiting and fixing details to make everything work. Also, he got tied down in the creation of names, because he felt that each character name should reflect the characters personality and place in the story. Also, at this point the story was taking place in three places: Rohan, Tolkien’s answer to Anglo-Saxon England; Gondor, home of King Aragorn and a more medieval setting; and Mordor, Frodo and Sam’s final destination. He just didn’t have the energy or desire to unravel the whole mess of events.

In 1944, he started again at XXXI. He wrote constantly to his son Christopher, stationed with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. In these letters, he details the long process leading to the end of the story. He starts in April of 1944 with Chapter XXXIV, returned to niggling over moon phases throughout the story, and finally in May ended Book IV. This hectic pace drained him, and nothing was done for almost two years. He returned to the work, and by the end of 1946 said he was almost done. Soon, Christopher returned home and began reading the work at Inklings’ meetings.

By 1947, the story was almost done. Rayner Unwin, now at Oxford, read what was done and thoroughly enjoyed every page of it. The only disconcerting aspect was that he wasn’t sure who the audience would be; children might be too afraid, and adults would only like it if they were into epic and mythology. In preparation for the end of Lord, Tolkien revised The Hobbit for reprint, making the scene with Gollum more in line with the creature’s attitude in the sequel. Then, in the fall of 1947, The Lord of the Rings was complete. It included a series of chapters in which the hobbits must rescue the Shire from industrialization, obviously an entry of his own feelings on the growing industrialization of England. It also had the principle heroes sailing West, which Tolkien hoped would provide enough foreshadowing for The Silmarillion. Revisions would take him into 1949, when he sent a copy to Lewis, now in Cambridge. Lewis gave him a wonderful criticism, saying that his was a romantic tale laden with enough melancholy for the serious reader of literature. He wanted to offer formative evaluations, but he knew Tolkien would merely ignore them; already his critiques of some of the poetry in the work had widened the division between him and Tolkien. To Tolkien, this was the end of the greatest creative action of his entire life.

He had a hard time getting the work into print, as he felt it should be bound with The Silmarillion. Indeed, he felt Lord took so much from the history put forth in The Silmarillion that it was meaningless without the latter work. But both were rather large by themselves, and together they were immense. Finally, after negotiation and compromise, Tolkien agreed to have only Lord printed at this time, with the additional concession that it would be printed in three volumes instead of one. In 1954, The Fellowship of the Ring, Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings, hit the shelves.

Allen & Unwin did not think this book would sell very well, and so only had 3,500 copies made of the first volume. Tolkien did not think so, either, and he feared the criticism of his life’s work. But, in August of 1954, C. S. Lewis published a review in the paper Time & Tide. He praised Tolkien for returning romanticism to an anti-romantic world, and said his was the work of the past leading us into a new future. He received other commendations as well; critics said everything from "undeniable fascination," to a storytelling method that raises the work above moralist babbling, to a new spark for the imagination. He also had critics, who accused him of having characters unmoving on the scale of morality, of childish writing, of having no spirit of the sacred or holy, and were disturbed that he had no female characters.

The praise was good enough to increase sales, and a reprint was ordered. Also, the second volume titled The Two Towers was published. It received a range of reviews very similar to the first volume as well as a call for the third to end the suspense of the story. In fact, when the third was slow in coming due to a delay in Tolkien’s additions, the publishers began receiving angry letters asking where the third book was. When it was released, critics began to look at the entire body. Lewis wrote again in Time & Tide that the no one could read this and not be changed in some way. Another critic wrote to the paper Truth that it was one of the most amazing works in the history of literature. His enemies attacked his use of archaisms and felt that his characters were all boys play acting as men with no knowledge of the other half of the species. Thus, camps were pretty evenly divided, but the public didn't care; the books were still selling, and already the publishers moved to put them out in translations.

In America, things were much the same. The poet W.H. Auden wrote a sterling review in The New York Times, calling the work the best he had seen in five years. Following similar praise, the books began to sell really well. A controversy with an American publisher over U.S. rights to the book brought the name of Tolkien and his works to the forefront. This sparked another selling frenzy, and brought it to the attention of the American college-scene. Tolkien’s love of nature got through to the ecologically aware students, and the romanticism of his work was a great attraction. Soon, students around the country began wearing buttons and pins with various slogans on it. Tolkien Societies were formed to study his works, and soon this expanded to Lewis’ writings as well. It sparked a world mania, and this again increased sales. Soon, fan letters began pouring in, and people came to Oxford to meet with him. His fame was complete.

Tolkien would live to see a number of reprints and revisions of his Middle Earth tales, though not long enough to see his first work, The Silmarillion, in print. He retired from Oxford in 1959 and moved with his wife to the seaside villa of Bournemouth nine years later, where she would die in 1971. He would follow her two years later, in 1973. But his impression has been lasting.

Today, the work of modern fantasy has come into its own, and much of this stems from the work of Tolkien and Lewis. Writers and creators of fantasy long to hear their work compared favorably to Tolkien’s, and such individuals as George Lucas and R. A. Salvatore site Tolkien’s work as major influences on theirs. His works have not only inspired writers, but creators in the fields of music and visual art use his depictions and languages as inspirations for their work. In fact, there are a number of collections of visual art inspired by Tolkien, with artists such as Alan Lee contributing to new readers beautiful renderings of Tolkien’s scenes. Music has been composed for many of his poems, something he had wished to occur. He always hoped his work would be a starting point for essays into art, music, and writing, especially poetry. And let us not forget his scholarship; many of his articles and writings on philology are today considered some of the best (and certainly the earliest) in the field, and his work is almost necessary for anyone studying Germanic and English languages. Thus, Tolkien’s wide-ranging work and the critical success he received makes him, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest creators of the twentieth century, if not of all time.

Bibliography

Texts

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. 1977

Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle Earth. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,

1974 (1980).

O’Neill, Timothy. The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien, and the Archetypes of Middle Earth.

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Rosebury, Brian. Tolkien: A Critical Assessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

 

World Wide Web

Lippert, Eric. The Tolkien Information Page. http://www.csclub.uwaterloo.ca/u/relipper/tolkien/rootpage.html

A good source to see multidisciplinary influences of Tolkien.