Tolkien, J. R. R. (1892-1973)

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Tolkien, J. R. R. (1892-1973)

Born in South Africa in 1892 to English parents and resident of the United Kingdom from 1895 until his death in 1973, J. R. R. Tolkien is the most prominent fantasy writer of the twentieth century. He is beloved for his epic fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), and its prequel, The Hobbit (1937). Although exactitude is impossible, Patrick Curry estimates worldwide sales of The Lord of the Rings at approximately 50 million copies—"probably the biggest-selling single work of fiction this century." The Hobbit has sold an estimated 35 to 40 million copies, and Tolkien's books have been translated into more than 30 languages. A 1997 survey of some 25,000 readers in England found The Lord of the Rings to be the runaway winner as the most important book of the past 100 years.

Tolkien was also a prominent philologist. His academic career encompassed 39 years, dating from his appointment in 1920 as Reader in English Language at Leeds University. He became the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University in 1925, and held the prestigious Merton Professor of English position at Oxford from 1945 until his retirement in 1959. His essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (1936), is regarded as a landmark scholarly work, as is his examination of regional dialect in the Canterbury Tales, "Chaucer as a Philologist" (1949). His critical edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1925), developed in collaboration with E. V. Gordon, is still taught today.

"There were not two Tolkiens, one an academic and the other a writer," asserts T. A. Shippey, "They were the same man, and the two sides of him overlapped so that they were indistinguishable—or rather they were not two sides at all, but different expressions of the same mind, the same imagination." Tolkien's academic research delved deeply into ancient Northern literatures, and led him to learn such languages as Finnish, Gothic, Middle English, Old English, Old Norse, and Welsh. This research in turn shaped his fiction. In the United States foreword to the Ballantine edition of The Lord of the Rings (1966), Tolkien avers that his trilogy is "primarily linguistic in inspiration."

The blurring of Tolkien as an academic and a fantasy writer is no more apparent than in his essay "On Fairy-Stories," first presented as the 1938 Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St. Andrews and later expanded for the collection, Tree and Leaf, in 1964. Here, Tolkien demarcates a territory for fantasy that is distinct from stories that are framed—that is, normalized—as travellers' tales, dreams, or beast fables. Fantasy entails an act of sub-creation, namely, a "Secondary World" that is separate from the "Primary World" of everyday life. Secondary worlds must be internally consistent, thereby structuring a sense of "credible, commanding Secondary Belief." Central to fantasy are the elements of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Tolkien coined the term "Eucatastrophe," which denotes the "sudden joyous 'turn"' that is the hallmark of fairy-tale happy endings.

Tolkien applied the precepts of "On Fairy-Stories" to the secondary world that occupied much of his life: Middle-earth. The genesis of Middle-earth was a poem written by Tolkien during his student days, based on a line from the Old English Advent poem "Crist," by Cynewulf. "Hail, Earendel, brightest of angels, over middle-earth sent to men," sparked the imagination of Tolkien and established the basis for a cosmology that began to emerge during World War I. As a lieutenant with the Lancashire Fusiliers, Tolkien was posted to France and fought in the battle of the Somme. He later explained in a letter to his son, Christopher, that many of the early writings about Middle-earth were composed "in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle lights in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire." These writings bore the title The Book of Lost Tales.

Tolkien returned to Oxford after a bout with trench fever and found sustenance in the English countryside. He was seized with the desire to create a mythology for England. Humphrey Carpenter quotes Tolkien on this point in his definitive biography, where the Oxford professor recollects how he "had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendor from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country."

A small literary circle of Christian academics—The Inklings—acted as midwife for Tolkien's mythology. At Oxford, Tolkien regularly met with Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia would later adorn the lists of fantasy literature. The Inklings read aloud passages of their work, including a "children's" novel that Tolkien had been writing since one fateful day in the late 1920s, when he scribbled on the page of a blank exam book, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

The Hobbit was published in 1937 to popular and critical acclaim. Set in Middle-earth, it narrates the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, a staid halfling who embarks on a quest with the wizard Gandalf and a party of dwarves to reclaim treasure stolen by the dragon, Smaug. Along the way, Bilbo finagles a magic ring away from a twisted hobbit named Gollum. "Prediction is dangerous," ventured the Times Literary Supplement, "but The Hobbit may well prove a classic."

Bilbo's inheritance is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, which approached completion in 1950. Frodo Baggins undertakes a perilous journey to Mount Doom in the land of Mordor, ruled by the dark lord, Sauron. There he must cast away Bilbo's ring, revealed by Gandalf to be the One Ring of Power lost by Sauron in the distant past. Humans, dwarves, and elves aid Frodo in his quest, while the War of the Ring ignites across Middle-earth. Tolkien unsuccessfully negotiated with Collins publishing house for the joint issuing of his epic with The Silmarillion, a revised version of The Book of Lost Tales. Allen and Unwin, publishers of The Hobbit, eventually agreed to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes—The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955).

Reaction to The Lord of the Rings varied. If some critics waxed rhapsodic, others derided Tolkien's work as medievalist pablum. The trilogy was received as an independent work, since The Silmarillion languished unpublished for over 20 years. The trilogy did not achieve widespread attention until 1966, following its publication in the United States by Ballantine Books in the wake of an unauthorized Ace Books paperback edition in 1965. It quickly vaulted to the top of the bestseller ranks and mushroomed into a full-blown cult phenomenon on college campuses during the 1960s and early 1970s.

The Silmarillion was finally published posthumously in 1977. Fans were perplexed by the lofty creation myth, biblical language, detailed genealogies, and the almost complete lack of characterization. Critics were equally baffled until the scope of Tolkien's mythology was communicated via the editorship of his son, Christopher. Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth appeared in 1980, followed by the 12-volume opus of textual criticism, The History of Middle-earth (1983-1996). Christopher Tolkien combed his father's papers for seemingly every story fragment and draft pertaining to Middle-earth; the scale of his findings will likely occupy scholars for years.

Tolkien's influence on fantasy and science fiction has been profound. His example of a consistent, detailed secondary world is now the norm for imaginative writing. He is furthermore credited with the rekindling of fantasy as a narrative art. Among his descendants one might include such contemporary novelists as Peter S. Beagle, Stephen R. Donaldson, Robert Jordan, and Tad Williams. Tolkien has inspired a legion of lesser imitators as well, with the result being derivative, multi-volume series boasting faux medieval Europe settings and fit to bursting with cookie-cutter elves, inns, wizards, and megalomanic dark lords. If Tolkienesque fantasy seems hackneyed today, few of his successors come close to rivaling the width and depth of the Middle-earth cosmos.

—Neal Baker

Further Reading:

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

Carpenter, Humphrey and Christopher Tolkien, editors. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth, and Modernity. New York, St. Martin's, 1997.

"Review of The Hobbit." Times Literary Supplement. October 2,1937, 714.

Shippey, T. A. The Road to Middle-Earth. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy-Stories." Tree and Leaf. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1965.