J. R. R. Tolkien

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J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) gained a reputation during the 1960s and 1970s as a cult figure among youths disillusioned with war and the technological age; his continuing popularity evidences his ability to evoke the oppressive realities of modern life while drawing audiences into a fantasy world.

Tolkien was born on Jan. 3, 1892, the son of English-born parents in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State of South Africa, where his father worked as a bank manager. To escape the heat and dust of southern Africa and to better guard the delicate health of Ronald (as he was called), Tolkien's mother moved back to England with him and his younger brother when they were very young boys. Within a year of this move their father, Arthur Tolkien, died in Bloemfontein, and a few years later the boys' mother died as well. The boys lodged at several homes from 1905 until 1911, when Ronald entered Exeter College, Oxford. Tolkien received his B.A. from Oxford in 1915 and an M.A. in 1919. During the interim he married his longtime sweetheart, Edith Bratt, and served for a short time on the Western Front with the Lancashire Fusiliers. While in England recovering from "trench fever" in 1917, Tolkien began writing "The Book of Lost Tales, " which eventually became The Silmarillion (1977) and laid the groundwork for his stories about Middle-earth. After the Armistice he returned to Oxford, where he joined the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary and began work as a free-lance tutor. In 1920 he was appointed Reader in English Language at Leeds University, where he collaborated with E. V. Gordon on an acclaimed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was completed and published in 1925. (Some years later, Tolkien completed a second translation of this poem, which was published posthumously.) The following year, having returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien became friends with a fellow of Magdalen College, C. S. Lewis. They shared an intense enthusiasm for the myths, sagas, and languages of northern Europe; and to better enhance those interests, both attended meetings of "The Coalbiters, " an Oxford club, founded by Tolkien, at which Icelandic sagas were read aloud.

During the rest of his years at Oxford—twenty as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, fourteen as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature—Tolkien published several esteemed short studies and translations. Notable among these are his essays "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (1936), " Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve's Tale" (1934), and "On Fairy-Stories" (1947); his scholarly edition of Ancrene Wisse (1962); and his translations of three medieval poems: "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, " "Pearl, " and "Sir Orfeo" (1975). As a writer of imaginative literature, though, Tolkien is best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, tales which were formed during his years attending meetings of "The Inklings, " an informal gathering of like-minded friends and fellow dons, initiated after the demise of The Coalbiters. The Inklings, which was formed during the late 1930s and lasted until the late 1940s, was a weekly meeting held in Lewis's sitting-room at Magdalen, at which works-in-progress were read aloud and discussed and critiqued by the attendees, all interspersed with free-flowing conversation about literature and other topics. The nucleus of the group was Tolkien, Lewis, and Lewis's friend, novelist Charles Williams; other participants, who attended irregularly, included Lewis's brother Warren, Nevill Coghill, H. V. D. Dyson, Owen Barfield, and others. The common thread which bound them was that they were all adherents of Christianity and all had a love of story. Having heard Tolkien's first hobbit story read aloud at a meeting of the Inklings, Lewis urged Tolkien to publish The Hobbit, which appeared in 1937. A major portion of The Fellowship of the Ring was also read to The Inklings before the group disbanded in the late 1940's.

Tolkien retired from his professorship in 1959. While the unauthorized publication of an American edition of The Lord of the Rings in 1965 angered him, it also made him a widely admired cult figure in the United States, especially among high school and college students. Uncomfortable with this status, he and his wife lived quietly in Bournemouth for several years, until Edith's death in 1971. In the remaining two years of his life, Tolkien returned to Oxford, where he was made an honorary fellow of Merton College and awarded a doctorate of letters. He was at the height of his fame as a scholarly and imaginative writer when he died in 1973, though critical study of his fiction continues and has increased in the years since.

A devout Roman Catholic throughout his life, Tolkien began creating his own languages and mythologies at an early age and later wrote Christian-inspired stories and poems to provide them with a narrative framework. Based on bedtime stories Tolkien had created for his children, The Hobbit concerns the reluctant efforts of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to recover a treasure stolen by a dragon. During the course of his mission, the hobbit discovers a magical ring which, among other powers, can render its bearer invisible. The ability to disappear helps Bilbo fulfill his quest; however, the ring's less obvious faculties prompt the malevolent Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, to seek it. The hobbits' attempt to destroy the ring, thereby denying Sauron unlimited power, is the focal point of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which consists of the novels The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). In these books Tolkien rejects such traditional heroic attributes as strength and size, stressing instead the capacity of even the humblest creatures to prevail against evil.

The initial critical reception to The Lord of the Rings varied. While some reviewers expressed dissatisfaction with the story's great length and one-dimensional characters, the majority enjoyed Tolkien's enchanting descriptions and lively sense of adventure. Religious, Freudian, allegorical, and political interpretations of the trilogy soon appeared, but Tolkien generally rejected such explications. He maintained that The Lord of the Rings was conceived with "no allegorical intentions …, moral, religious, or political, " but he also denied that the trilogy is a work of escapism: "Middle-earth is not an imaginary world…. The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live." Tolkien contended that his story was "fundamentally linguistic in inspiration," a "religious and Catholic work" whose spiritual aspects were "absorbed into the story and symbolism." Tolkien concluded, "The stories were made … to provide a world for the languages rather than the reverse."

Throughout his career Tolkien composed histories, genealogies, maps, glossaries, poems, and songs to supplement his vision of Middle-earth. Among the many works published during his lifetime were a volume of poems, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (1962), and a fantasy novel, Smith of Wootton Major (1967). Though many of his stories about Middle-earth remained incomplete at the time of Tolkien's death, his son, Christopher, rescued the manuscripts from his father's collections, edited them, and published them. One of these works, The Silmarillion, takes place before the time of The Hobbit and, in a heroic manner which recalls the Christian myths of Creation and the Fall, tells the tale of the first age of Holy Ones and their offspring. Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth (1980) is a similar collection of incomplete stories and fragments written during World War I. The Book of Lost Tales, Part I (1984) and The Book of Lost Tales, Part II (1984) deal respectively with the beginnings of Middle-earth and the point at which humans enter the saga. In addition to these posthumous works, Christopher Tolkien also collected his father's correspondence to friends, family, and colleagues in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981).

It is as a writer of timeless fantasy that Tolkien is most highly regarded today. From 1914 until his death in 1973, he drew on his familiarity with Northern and other ancient literatures and his own invented languages to create not just his own story, but his own world: Middle-earth, complete with its own history, myths, legends, epics, and heroes. "His life's work, " Augustus M. Kolich has written, "… encompasses a reality that rivals Western man's own attempt at recording the composite, knowable history of his species. Not since Milton has any Englishman worked so successfully at creating a secondary world, derived from our own, yet complete in its own terms with encyclopedic mythology; an imagined world that includes a vast gallery of strange beings: hobbits, elves, dwarfs, orcs, and, finally, the men of Westernesse." His works—especially The Lord of the Rings—have pleased countless readers and fascinated critics who recognize their literary depth.

Further Reading

Newsweek, September 17, 1973.

New York Times, September 3, 1973.

Publishers Weekly, September 17, 1973.

Time, September 17, 1973.

Washington Post, September 3, 1973.

Anderson, Douglas A., author of introduction and notes, The Annotated Hobbit, Houghton, 1988.

Authors in the News, Volume 1, Gale, 1976.

Carpenter, Humphrey, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, Allen & Unwin, 1977, published as Tolkien: A Biography, Houghton, 1978.

Carpenter, Humphrey, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, Allen & Unwin, 1978, Houghton, 1979.

Carter, Lin, Tolkien: A Look behind The Lord of the Rings, Houghton, 1969.

Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973; Volume 2, 1974; Volume 3, 1975; Volume 8, 1978; Volume 12, 1980; Volume 38, 1986. □

Tolkien, J. R. R.

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Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa on January 3, fantasist, philologist, and critic John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) served in France during World War I and saw action at the Battle of the Somme. He completed his undergraduate studies at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1915, and from 1920 until 1924 was Reader and Professor of English Language at Leeds University. In 1925 Tolkien was elected Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and Fellow of Pembroke College. In 1945 he was elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. He published The Lord of the Rings in three volumes from 1954 to 1955 and retired from his professorship in 1959.

Man and Nature vs. Technology

In a 1951 letter to an editor, Tolkien commented that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (1977) were primarily concerned with "the Fall, Mortality, and the Machine." He explained that the Machine (or magia, magic) were plans or devices that dominated, either by destroying the environment or by controlling the wills of people (Carpenter 2000, pp. 145, 146). His Middle-earth writings (The Hobbit [1937], The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, the posthumously published Unfinished Tales [1980], and the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth [1982–1996]), can be understood as at least a partial response to a modern world that was embracing industry and technology. Tolkien believed the Machine (technology) was destroying his beautiful, rural, Edwardian countryside (represented in The Hobbit by the peaceful Shire) with wars, factories, cars, railroads, and pollution, and he saw no end in sight. He passed on his distaste for mechanization to his hobbits in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings: "They [hobbits] do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom ..." (Tolkien 1994, p. 1). His two major villains in the story, Saruman and Sauron, are dependent on machines and use them to dominate and destroy the countryside. His descriptions of the realm of Mordor, with its desolate, scarred plains and history of being a stronghold of evil, were taken from his experiences on the battlefield.

Tolkien was not opposed to technology in itself, but he despaired of the motives behind it, which he saw as primarily concerned with speed, immediacy, and the desire for power and control. He compared the Machine with art, which created new worlds of the mind and imagination, and complained that labor-saving machines only added more and less effective work. He lamented that the infernal combustion engine had ever been invented, and expressed doubts that it could ever be put to rational use. He also disliked the fact that the Machine was increasingly associated with English daily life. He once owned a car, but found it difficult to drive in Oxford's traffic congestion, and commented that the spirit of Isengard (the evil Saruman's fortress) had led planners to destroy the city in order to accommodate more cars and traffic. Near the end of World War II he sarcastically suggested the war had been conducted by bureaucrats (the big Folk) who viewed most of it in large motor-cars.

Some critics suggested that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory and protest of atomic power and the dangers inherent in nuclear warfare. Tolkien emphatically denied this, saying that the story (which predated the nuclear age) was not about atomic power, but power exerted for domination. In his view nuclear physics could be used for domination, but it should not be used at all, and he further emphasized that the story was really about Death and Immortality. But he was stunned and outraged when he learned of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He called the scientists who developed the bomb lunatic physicists and raged that it was idiocy to "consent to do such work for war-purposes, calmly plotting the destruction of the world!" (Carpenter 2000b, p. 116).

Tolkien's conservative Christian (Roman Catholic) beliefs contributed substantially to his attitudes about technology. In his seminal essay "On Fairy Stories" (1939, originally a lecture at the University of St. Andrews), he stated that human beings were subcreators who were created by God in his image to use their gifts wisely and in accordance with his wishes. The inclination of modern society toward domineering technology was, for Tolkien, a denial of God as creator. He called The Lord of the Rings a "fundamentally Christian and Catholic work" (Carpenter 2000b, p. 172), and his view of Christianity saw the universe as a place of conflict between good and evil.

Translation of The Lord of the Rings Into Film

In late 1957 Tolkien was approached by a group of American businessmen who gave him drawings and a story-line for a proposed animated film version of The Lord of the Rings. He wrote a member of the group a scathing letter of denunciation, explaining that the proposal and script, in whole and detail, was totally unacceptable, and that he did not want his story garbled. The early twenty-first century film versions of The Lord of the Rings have received generally favorable notices, particularly on the Internet and from young people. But several Tolkien scholars have written of their displeasure at the crass commercialization of the films, and the many liberties taken with characters and events. The films have been marketed by deploying the latest technology to sell to younger fans, and Tolkien's complex fantasy has been simplified into a visually stunning, character-driven action story with emphasis on spectacle rather than content.

Tolkien's son Christopher, the literary executor of his father's estate, did not disapprove of the film, but voiced doubts about the transformation of The Lord of the Rings into dramatic form. Tolkien, no doubt, would voice his displeasure over the films, and contend that technology has been used to reproduce and garble his narrative. He was resigned to the use of the Machine as a self-destructive tool of the modern world, which desired, in his view, to eliminate tradition and the past. He expressed his resignation in 1956, just a year or so after the publication of the final volume of The Lord of the Rings: "If there is any contemporary reference in my story at all it is to what seems to me the most widespread assumption of our time: that if a thing can be done, it must be done" (Carpenter 2000b, p. 246).


SEE ALSO Anglo-Catholic Cultural Criticism;Christian Perspectives;Science Fiction;Science, Technology, and Literature.


Carpenter, Humphrey. (2000a). J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. The standard biography of Tolkien. The author was given unrestricted access to all Tolkien's papers and interviewed his friends and family.

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (2000b). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Curry, Patrick. (1998). Defending Middle-Earth—Tolkien: Myth & Modernity. London: HarperCollins. Defends Tolkien's work from escapist and reactionary charges and maintains that The Lord of the Rings addresses the global realities and problems associated with the misuse of technology and destruction of the environment.

Purtill, Richard L. (1984). J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality and Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row. Examines the religious and ethical ideas in Tolkien's work, with particularly trenchant chapters on the nature and role of myth and the art of storytelling.

Schick, Theodore. (2003). "The Cracks of Doom: The Threat of Emerging Technologies and Tolkien's Rings of Power." In The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, ed. Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


J. R. R. T.—A Film Portrait of J. R. R. Tolkien. (1992). Produced by Helen Dickinson. Directed by Derek Bailey. 110 minutes. Visual Corporation Limited. Videocassette. This is a video, the first made on Tolkien, with valuable contributions from Tolkien himself, his son Christopher, and noted Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey.

Tolkien, J. R. R.

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Novelist; b. England, Jan. 3, 1892; d. Bournemouth, England, Sept. 2, 1972. Tolkien's father died when the boy was very young but his mother, a former missionary to Africa, raised him to love both adventure and words. These two interests form the basis of his extremely popular works of fiction. When John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was 12 his mother died, and since the parents had converted to Catholicism, Tolkien became a ward of a priest in Birmingham.

He graduated from Oxford in 1915 and served in World War I, where he was wounded. Having married, he returned to Oxford for an M.A. and worked on the Oxford Dictionary. In 1921 he began teaching at the University of Leeds. His reputation as a teacher developed and he published several scholarly pieces. In 1925 he joined the faculty at Oxford. He continued to write learned articles, among them "Beowulf, the Monster and the Critics," and "Chaucer as a Philologist."

He is known best as the author of The Hobbit and a half-million word trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King ). These books sold enormously well in the United Kingdom and the U.S. (250,000 copies of the trilogy were sold in less than a year in the U.S.). Filled with men, dwarfs, hobbits, elves, wizards, and goblins (Orcs), the trilogy is essentially the story of a war pitting ultimate good against ultimate evil. Tolkien vigorously denied that his books were allegories and also insisted that his were not children's bookseven after The Hobbit won a Herald Tribune prize in the U.S. as the best children's book of the year.

Other Tolkien works include Tree and Leaf (which incorporates an essay on the fairy-story genre); Farmer Giles of Ham, the fortunes of an unheroic farmer who attempts to capture a dragon; and the verse of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

Bibliography: r. j. reilly, "J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, " in Romantic Religion (Athens, Ga. 1971). r. c. west, Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist (Kent, Ohio 1970).

[h. j. cargas]

Tolkien, J.R.R.

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Tolkien, J.R.R. ( John Ronald Reuel) (1892–1973) British novelist and academic, b. South Africa. He was professor of Anglo-Saxon (1925–45) and English language and literature (1945–59) at Oxford University. Tolkien is chiefly celebrated for his novel The Hobbit (1937), the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954–55), and The Silmarillion (1977). These popular adventure stories are set in the fantasy world of Middle Earth.