Monday, June 11, 2007

Tolkien - Chapter Two

The Man That Was Tolkien

by Michael I. Colwill

What is a legend? According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, a legend is “1 a story handed down for generations among a people and popularly believed to have historical basis, although not verifiable; 2 a) a notable person whose deeds or exploits are much talked about in his or her own time b) the stories of his or her exploits” (771). This can help us to understand who Tolkien was and how he came to be a legend in the hearts and minds of children and adults alike.

Tolkien is a name that will live on in the world of literary fantasy. He is a man that will long be remembered by scholars in the areas of philology and medieval studies. What causes a man to stand out in his field as Tolkien did? Possibly it was the childhood and life that he lived. But, as Kathryn Crabbe put it, “Tolkien could have found abundant material in his own life to provide plots and incidents for novels in the mold of Oliver Twist, or, in a more modern vein, for ironic little stories of men who lead lives of quiet desperation” (1). I like to think that it was the fanciful nature in Tolkien that always had him looking towards that dreamy world of escapism.

Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien by his parents, the young boy was the first son of Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. Tolkien’s dreamlike nature seemed to stem from his mother who didn’t like South Africa as a home for her family. She disliked “the oppressively hot summer and cold, dry, dusty winter” (Carpenter, 12) which seemed to try her nerves far more than she cared to admit to Arthur. The oppressive weather that Mabel disliked also seemed to get the best of Ronald at a young age. So it was that in April 1895, Mabel, Ronald, and the youngest child, Hilary, born on February 17, 1894, left South Africa to spend some time in Birmingham. The change in climate did wonders for Ronald’s health and Arthur longed to join them. Unfortunately, after a bout with rheumatic fever, Arthur suffered a severe hemorrhage and died on February 15, 1896, in Bloemfontein.

It was at this point that Mabel knew she would have to be strong in order to give her children the very best. Being knowledgeable in several areas of literature, she tutored the boys in Latin, French, and German. Mabel hoped that she could prepare them enough so that they would be able to pass the entrance exam to King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Mabel wanted them to attend this school for two important reasons: it was the school that Arthur had attended, and it was the best grammar school in the city. Ronald’s mother seemed to instill in him the good study habits that would carry him through school, and eventually help him in the creation of Middle-Earth.

During this time of study, Mabel decided to find lodging for the boys in the country. She moved them to the hamlet of Sarehole, a mile or two south of Birmingham. This would give them a chance to enjoy the fresh air and countryside. The boys would have something to make them happy despite the family’s poor financial situation. This was probably one of the greatest things to happen for Tolkien’s imaginative mind. Ronald and Hilary spent much of their time running around the countryside playing games of pretending. It is this landscape that is reflected in many of Tolkien’s countryside descriptions in his novels.

During his education from his mother it seemed that Tolkien’s favorite times were those spent on languages. Even though he learned several languages, the sounds of Latin and English seemed to appeal to him the greatest. It was also during this time that Ronald became talented in drawing, which later helped him when he decided to illustrate his own novels.

Mabel gave Ronald all kinds of books to read when he wasn’t studying. He read such books as Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and many others. He never seemed to enjoy them as much as the stories about Red Indians. And even more than these stories he was pleased by the ‘Curdie’ stories of George MacDonald. Although he would be less pleased with the moral allegorical content of these book later in life, it was in these stories that Tolkien discovered remote kingdoms and goblins that lurked in the shadows. Best of all the books that he read, though, was the Red Fairy Book of Andrew Lang. Lang was best known for his collections of fairy tales for children, named for various colors. He was also an important force in the folklore that came out in the nineteenth century. It was in Lang’s Red Fairy Book that he read the tale of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir. It was this tale that introduced him to the Norse mythology, which would later have an enormous effect on his studies and writing. It also brought him closer to the fantasy stories that would appear in his own books. Tolkien wrote in his essay On Fairy Stories, from his collected works entitled The Tolkien Reader, “I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood…But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost” (64).

It was shortly after reading these stories, in fact, that Tolkien began to compose a story of a dragon himself. The most significant thing that Tolkien can recall about this story was a philological error that his mother had pointed out to him after reading it. Although he couldn’t recall the error made, Tolkien thought that this may have been a significant occurrence, for it sparked his interest in the structure and mystery of languages.

Tolkien’s interest in languages was only encouraged after becoming a student at King Edward’s in September of 1900. The family was forced to move closer to the school and took up residence in a small house in Moseley. The view was not an improvement over Sarehole. One sight caught Tolkien’s eye right away. He was caught up by the roar of the nearby railway line and the trucks that rushed past from the coal-yard not far away. He was also interested in the strange names that he read on the side of the coal-trucks as they drove by. It was through the study of these new words that Tolkien discovered the Welsh language. For Tolkien this was very exciting. He had stumbled across a language that he had never encountered before, “a language that was old and yet alive” (Carpenter, 26). During his schooling Tolkien also discovered Greek and Middle English, both of which were great contributors to his own philological pursuits.

On November 14, 1904, Ronald and Hilary were struck a blow that scarred them deeply: the death of their mother. A dear friend of the family, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, took it upon himself to help care for the children and find them lodging. He became like a father to them in the following years. Ronald was hurt greatly by the loss of his mother, whom he had loved dearly. The recipient of this love seemed to become the Catholic church after his mother died. She had always been a very devout follower of the church. Ronald himself had grown to be a devoted Christian because of his mother. This is a love that Tolkien kept for the rest of his life, and indirectly reflected in a lot of his writing.

As his studies continued, Tolkien dove deeper into the languages that he was learning. Instead of just knowing the Latin, Greek, and other languages, he wanted to understand why they were what they were. It was at this time that one of his professors, George Brewerton, introduced him to Anglo-Saxon. Tolkien immediately jumped into the history of where his own language had come from. From here he looked once again at Middle English and further researched why his language had come to be.

Two of Tolkien’s younger cousins had some influence on his love of creating languages. They had come up with a ‘private language’ with which they could talk to each other and adults would not understand them. When the older of the two cousins lost interest in this game, the younger cousin and Ronald, now in his late teens, came up with a more sophisticated language for them to use called Nevbosh, or the new Nonsense. As he grew older, Tolkien found himself making up many Greek-style words. It occurred to Tolkien that he would like to attempt a language much more organized and serious than the childish Nevbosh. Through the discovery of several new languages, Tolkien worked on a number of different languages, some of which he never finished. He would often find another language to study that intrigued him more than the one that was influencing his current work.

Later when Tolkien stumbled across a language that would have an enormous effect on him, Finnish. Tolkien was already familiar with many of the tales told in the Kalevala, a Finnish heroic epic. But he had never heard what they sounded like in their original language. He learned enough of the language to start working his way through the Kalevala. “The effect was exhilarating: ‘It was like discovering a wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before.’ Later, he [Tolkien] invented a new language based on Finnish, which eventually appeared in The Lord of the Rings as High-Elven” (Crabbe, 12).

Tolkien soon found another interest that intrigued him more than his languages, Edith Bratt. Edith was a roomer who lived directly below Ronald and Hilary when they resided at Mrs. Faulkners, a lady who had small musical gatherings for several of the Fathers in Birmingham. Father Francis thought that this was the perfect place for the boys to concentrate on their studies. He didn’t count on a romance blossoming between the 19-year old roomer and the 16-year old Ronald. During this time “Ronald was supposed to be working for an Oxford scholarship, but it was hard to concentrate on classical texts when one half of his mind was occupied with language-inventing and the other with Edith” (Carpenter, 40).

Although Father Francis did not approve of this relationship, and even went so far as to send Edith away so that Ronald could concentrate on his studies, he could not prevent the love that had taken root in the hearts of Ronald and Edith. At midnight on January 3rd , 1913, Ronald celebrated his 21st birthday by writing a love letter to Edith. In this letter he explained that he was 21, the age of majority, and could now legally marry. In their separation, Edith thought that there was little hope of them being allowed to get back together, and so she had accepted a marriage proposal from a man named George Field. Tolkien’s love for Edith was strong then, as it would be all his life, and so he was determined to win her back. He caught a train and traveled the 50 miles to where she was in order to spend the day with her. As David Collins said, “By the end of the day, her [Edith] engagement to George Field was broken. Ronald Tolkien had won her back” (50). And although Father Francis disapproved of Ronald’s decision, he did nothing to alter that which Tolkien pursued with his heart and soul. And it was a good thing, too. For Edith’s love would prove a great support for Tolkien’s literary and scholarly work in the future.

In 1914 England declared war on Germany, and Ronald Tolkien signed up to join the British war effort. He would go through the military training while finishing his education at Oxford University. After he graduated from Oxford with first class honors he became a second lieutenant in a British regiment called the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was assigned to train and drill incoming soldiers. This work always seemed to bore Tolkien. He was never a great fan of war. “There was nothing enjoyable about activities focused on ‘the art of killing’” (Collins, 58).

Tolkien enjoyed his work when he began to learn signals for the military. Being a lover of languages he found this especially intriguing. He would often spend hours improving his ability with light signals and flag signals. He even worked with carrier pigeons as a form of communicating his messages. It was shortly after all this that Tolkien knew he was going to be sent to France. The continuing news of those that had been killed in action frightened Tolkien. Ronald and Edith decided to be wed before his departure. And so it was that on March 22, 1916, at the age of 27, Edith Bratt became Edith Tolkien.

Tolkien was lucky in that he came down with the dreaded “trench fever.” This fever caused high temperature and dizziness in the troops. When treated a soldier could normally return to his post in two weeks. However, Tolkien’s illness persisted beyond two weeks and he was transferred to a Hospital back in England. Tolkien’s fever seemed to come and go a lot. He would just seem to be recovering from it when he would be hit hard by dizziness again. This lasted long enough to keep Tolkien away from further fighting in France. But even so, the pictures that scarred his mind stuck with him and seemed to have some influence on his war descriptions throughout his novels.

After he finally recovered, Tolkien searched for a teaching job. He began by returning to Oxford and attempting to find a position there. Unfortunately, all of the departments seemed to be doing fine for staff. However, Tolkien’s old teacher of Icelandic, William Craigie, offered a small position. Craigie was working with the staff of The New English Dictionary. Tolkien readily accepted the position that Craigie offered him and began work seeking out the history of several words. Tolkien found it to be fascinating work. His love of languages and their histories grew even more during this period. He also earned money to feed his wife and newborn son by tutoring some of the students of Oxford.

Tolkien took the position of Reader of English at the University of Leeds for about 4 years before he was accepted as the Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He served this position for twenty years and was then elected Professor of English Language and Literature.

It was here that Tolkien established many of the lasting relationships that would be most meaningful to him during his life. One of these relationships was with a newcomer who had recently been elected Fellow Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College, Clives Staples Lewis. Although C. S. Lewis could be considered a rival of Tolkien’s, the two soon became good friends and spent many hours talking and drinking beer together.

Tolkien and Lewis had a profound effect on each other. Theirs was a friendship that was built out of a longing for the company of others and common interests that they both held to be important. Some of these interests included the importance of Christianity, myth, and literary study. Lewis was very humble when describing the effect of his life on Tolkien’s. We find a quote of his in Crabbe’s J.R.R. Tolkien:

In 1959 Lewis wrote to an American scholar who had proposed to study his influence on Tolkien, saying, ”No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.” And Tolkien agreed: “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.” (19)

This ‘stuff’ that Tolkien refers to is his work on giving his invented languages an origin in myth and story. Tolkien decided to give his new mythology a home in England. He had a great love for his homeland and felt bad that it did not possess its own rich history of myth and folklore. Tolkien knew that it would not be an easy task, but he was longing for the opportunity to create new words, characters, places, and events. And so began Tolkien’s work on “The Book of Lost Tales,” which would later be known as The Silmarillion.

Twelve years after that moment, in 1929, Tolkien gave birth to a new character that was to become known and loved world-wide: the hobbit. The hobbit came about one Summer’s day when Tolkien was sitting by a window marking School Certificate exam papers. One of the candidates had left a page blank. Tolkien saw the blank page and decided that something belonged on that page. As Carpenter quoted him, “I wrote on it ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that’s only the beginning” (172).

And so it was that the foundation had been laid to tie together the fascinating stories that Tolkien often told to his children before bed. He had begun what would become the world’s introduction to hobbits, and to a form of fantasy unlike any they’ve ever been exposed to. Allen & Unwin published The Hobbit in September of 1937. It was instantly recognized by the public as a wondrous story to be read by children and adults alike. A reviewer in The Times wrote that everyone “should take note that a new star has appeared in this constellation. To the trained eye some characters will seem almost mythopoeic” (182).

After the popularity of The Hobbit, Allen & Unwin requested another story about hobbits. And even though Tolkien longed to publish his mythological work, he agreed to begin work on another hobbit story. However this one took on a much darker and serious tone. Tolkien found the opportunity to include much more of his mythology in this creation.

Sadly enough, one of Tolkien’s greatest loves, The Silmarillion, never saw publication during his lifetime. It was only after his death on September 2, 1973, that his son, Christopher, finished putting together all of his father’s notes and stories so that his mythology might be read by the country to which it was dedicated as well as the world.

This man, this legend, that was J.R.R. Tolkien has truly proven himself as a contributor to the structure of the fantasy genre. He has shown us the wonders of being able to create your own world and mythology. He has given us wonderful contributions through his great scholarly work that he did throughout his lifetime. He is remembered for the creation of a being that easily comes to mind whenever his name is mentioned, the Hobbit.

His contributions can perhaps be summed up in a segment from his short story Leaf by Niggle. A segment that was read at a memorial service held by some of his American Admirers.

“Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

‘It’s a gift’ he said.” (Tolkien, 113)


Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Collins, David R.. J.R.R. Tolkien: Master of Fantasy. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1992.

Crabbe, Katharyn W.. J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Continuum, 1988.

“Legend.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Third Edition. 1996.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

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