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by Bamber Gascoigne

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John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973)


Professor of literature and English, who became famous with his novel The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). From the mid-1960s Tolkien's work started its world-wide triumph. At first his books appealed to young readers, but soon became popular among adults as well. Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis at University of Oxford also achieved fame as fantasy writer with his Narnia series.

"Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
--Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
--One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadow lie.
--One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
--One Ring to bring the all in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadow lie."

(from The Lord of the Rings)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born of British parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa. At the age of three he returned with his mother, Mabel Tolkien (née Suffield ) and his brother Hilary to England; his father, Arthur Reuel died of severe brain haemorrhage in 1896 in Bloemfontein. His early education Tolkien received from his mother. Tolkien could read by the time he was four, his favorite lessons were those that concerned languages. Mabel Tolkien died of acute diabetes in 1904, and the young John Ronald Reuel settled with his brother to their aunt's home in Birmingham. From 1908 Tolkien studied at Oxford, where he was awarded First Class Honours degree in English Language and Literature. In 1916 Tolkien married Edith Bratt, whom he had met in 1908. Like Tolkien, she was an orphan. Musically talented she hoped to become a piano teacher or to perform in concert halls someday.

During WW I Tolkien served in the army as a second lieutenent in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He saw action on the Somme, where most of his battalion was killed and he caught a disease the soldiers called "trench fever", which was transmitted by the body lice. Because his symptoms did not ease, he was sent to a military hospital in Birmingham. While convalescing he began to study early forms of language and work on Silmarillion (published 1977). Its setting was the Middle-earth, the name comes from the Norse legend of Midgard. For the rest of his life, Tolkien expanded the mythology of his fantasy worlds.

In 1918 Tolkien joined the staff of New English Dictionary and in 1919 he was a freelance tutor in Oxford. Tolkien then worked as a teacher and professor at the University of Leeds. In 1925 he became Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. He was appointed Merton Professor of English at Oxford in 1945, retiring in 1959. His scholarly works included studies on Chaucher (1934) and an edition of Beowulf (1937). He was also interested in the Finnish national epos Kalevala, from which he found ideas for his imaginary language Quenya and which influenced several of his stories. The tragic figure of Kullervo from Kalevala partly inspired Tolkien's posthumously published work, Children of Húrin (2007), in which Túrin Turambar, like Kullervo and Roland, speaks to his own sword. Most of the inhabitants of Tolkien's imaginary Middle-Earth were derived from English folklore and mythology, or from an idealized Anglo-Saxon past.

With C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and other friends, Tolkien formed in the 1930s an informal literary group called The Inklings. They all had an interest in storytelling and their Tuesday lunchtime sessions in the Bird and Baby pub became well known part of Oxford social life. At their meetings the Inklings read aloud drafts of fiction and other work. Williams died in 1945 and the meetings faded out in 1949. Other members of the club included Christopher Tolkien, JRRT's son, and Owen Barfield.

In the mid-1960s American paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings started to gain cult fame. The Tolkiens moved in 1968 to Poole near Bournemouth but after the death of his wife in 1971, Tolkien returned to Oxford. In 1972 he received CBE from the Queen. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973.

While The Hobbit (1937) is said to be a work of fantasy for children – originally it was written to the author's children – the epic The Lord of the Rings has a depth that fascinate adult readers. The title of the book refers to the evil Sauron, servant of the Morgoth. Sauron created the Rings of Power, and the One Ring, which rules the other rings and thus makes him the Lord of the Rings. Actually the story depicts different reactions of its characters, from men to hobbits, elves and other beings, to forces of darkness. This is why the work is not an fantasy version of WW II, the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but more related to Milton's Paradise Lost. Sauron manifests himself in the form of a lidless Eye, which sees nearly everything.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort." (in The Hobbit, 1937) The plot is simple: in order to save the world from the Dark Lord, Sauron, a young hobbit called Frodo must return the mythical ring, a kind of wedding ring between world and evil, to the Mount Doom, where it was forged. A coalition is formed among the races of Middle-Earth to help him and to battle the armies of Sauron. What becomes of sexual relationships between the characters of different races, Tolkien's world is nearly Victorian, which also is typical for fantasy literature in general. Sometimes, like through the history of Ents, Tolkien dealt with gender roles. Ents are half men, half trees. Entwives loved the open lands where they might tend the fruit trees, flowers and grasses; the male Ents loved the trees of the forests. After the departure of Entwives, no new Entings were born.

The Hobbit introduces Gandalf, a wandering wizard, Bilbo, a brave hobit, Gollum, a small slimy creature, who likes goblin meat, and other characters whom Tolkien developed further in The Lord of the Rings, story of obsession, of power and knowledge. Gandalf has "a tall pointed blue hat, a long cloak, a silver scarf over which his long white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots." With his wisdom and advices, he comes and goes, travels like an apostle. Gollum represents instincts, unconscious desires, he loves material things excessively, not knowledge like Gandalf. "S-s-s-s-s," said Gollum more upset than ever. He thought of all the things he kept in his own pockets: fish-bones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on, and other nasty things. He tried to think what other people kept in their pockets." (from The Hobbit) Tolkien was explicit that hobbits are not like rabbits, although the eagle carrying Bilbo says: "You need not be frightened like a rabbit, even if you look rather like one." In a letter to the Observer, he said that "my bobbit... was not furry, except about the feet. Nor indeed was he like a rabbit ... Calling him 'a nassty little rabbit' was a piece of vulgar trollery, just as 'descendant of rats' was a piece of dwarfish malice." The physical size of his character as other concrete details were important to Tolkien. The author himself was slightly less than the average height.

Although critics have seen in The Lord of the Rings allegoric allusions to World War II, Tolkien repeatedly rejected all this kind of explanations. "'The Lord of the Rings' is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision," Tolkien wrote in a letter in 1953 to Robert Murray, a Jesuit priest. "That is why I have not put in, or have cut out practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism." (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981) Tolkien's Catholicism does not appear overtly in the book; the Hobbits do not pray to God. Biblical use of language, on the other hand, gives the work archaic flavor. In his forword to the work Tolkien expressed his dislike of allegory: "As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical... It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted."

The Hobbit was published when the author was 45 years old. He developed further the history of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings. It was published when Tolkien was over 60. His motivation for creating a new mythical world arose from his fascination in myths and folklore: "I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish, but nothing English, save impoverished chapbook stuff." Another motivation was his rejection of modern England. He rarely watched a film, busied himself with the early English dialects of the West Midlands, and enjoyed the company of other professors. Tolkien also loved to draw, although he was never good at drawing realistic figures. He admired the portraits of Frans Hals and Van Dyck, and was moved by the paintings of such Italian artists as Fra Filippo Lippi, Giotto, and Botticelli. Tolkien's mother was a capable artist, and taught her son to draw and paint.

Tolkien's epic world is populated by elves, dwarves, magicians, and evil monsters. He saw himself as a Hobbit: "I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food...." Tolkien made up languages for the races that inhabit his Middle-earth. For the background of his fiction he created a complex history, geography, and society. But he also wished, that the stories leave scope for other minds to develop his ideas further. Since the publication of The Lord of the Rings, a whole industry of fantasy literature, computer games, and other by-products, have been created by a worldwide community of Tolkien's fans to continue his work.

For further reading: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter (1977); The Tolkien Companion, by J.E.A. Tyler (1976); The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter (1979); The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (1981); The Road to Middle-Earth by T.A. Shippey (1982); J.R.R. Tolkien: This Far Land, ed. Robert Giddings (1983); J.R.R. Tolkien's Themes, Symbols, and Myths by David Harvey (1985); A Tolkien Thesaurus by Richard E. Blackwelder (1990); Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, by David Day (1991); J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography by Wayne G. Hammond (1993); The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth by Daniel Grotta (1996); Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry (1997); Tolkien: Man and Myth by Joseph Pearce (1998); J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (2000); Finding God in the Lord of the Rings by Kurt D. Bruner, Jim Ware (2001); J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey (2001); J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth by Bradley J. Birzer, Joseph Pearce (2002); J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Leslie Ellen Jones (2003); J. R. R. Tolkien by David R. Collins (2004) - See also other fantasy worlds: Tove Jansson (The Moomintrolls), C.S. Lewis (Narnia). Tolkien´s influence is seen in the works of Isaac Asimov, who considered The Ring Trilogy as an allegory of WWII. According to Asimov, the magical ring in the story is a symbol of the modern technology.

Selected works:

  • A Middle English Vocabulary, 1922
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ed., with E.V. Gordon), 1925
  • Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 1936
  • Songs for the Philologist, 1936 (collection, with E.V. Gordon and others)
  • The Hobbit, or there and Back Again, 1937
    - Lohikäärmevuori (suom. Risto Pitkänen, 1973) / Hobitti eli sinne ja takaisin (suom. Kersti Juva, Panu Pekkanen, 1985; tark.laitos, 2003)
    - Animation film (1977), prod. ABC Video Enterprises, Rankin/Bass Productions, Topcraft, dir. Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012); The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013); The Hobbit: There and Back Again (2014), dir. Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
  • Farmer Gill of Ham, 1949
    - Maamies ja lohikäärme (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1978)
  • The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, 1954 (radio play)
  • The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings, 1954
    - Taru sormusten herrasta 1: Sormuksen ritarit (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1973)
    Lord of the Rings (1978), prod. Fantasy Films, Saul Zaentz Production Company, dir. Ralph Bakshi, starring Christopher Guard, William Squire and Michael Scholes; Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001); The Two Towers (2002); The Return of the King (2003), dir. Peter Jackson, screenplay by Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh, music by Howard Shore, Enya, starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Dominic Monaghan, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, John Noble, Andy Serkis. "This is a violent movie too violent for little ones – and there are moments more "Matrix" than medieval. Yet it transcends cheap thrills; we root for the survival of our heroes with a depth of feeling that may come as a surprise. The movie keeps drawing you in deeper. Unlike so many overcooked action movies these days, "Fellowship" doesn't entertain you into a stupor. It leaves you with your wits intact, hungry for more." (David Ansen in Newsweek, December 10, 2001)
  • The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of the Lord of the Rings, 1954
    - Taru sormusten herrasta 2: Kaksi tornia (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1974)
    - Film (2002), prod. New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company, dir. Peter Jackson, starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen. "Darker, more focused, more deeply emotional, and exciting than the first installment, with a stunning array of technical wizardry and an ideal cast." (Leonard Maltin's 2011 Movie Guide, 2010)
  • The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings, 1955
    - Taru sormusten herrasta 3: Kuninkaan paluu (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1975)
    - Film (2003), prod. New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company, dir. Peter Jackson, starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen. "This is the best of the three, redeems the earlier meandering, and certifies the "Ring" trilogy as a work of bold ambition at a time of cinematic timidity." (Roger Ebert, December 17, 2003)
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombardil and Other Verses from the Red Book, 1962
  • Ancrene Wisse, 1962 (ed.)
  • Tree and Leaf, 1964
    - Puu ja lehti (suom. Vesa Sisättö, Kersti Juva, Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo, 2002)
  • The Tolkien Reader, 1966
  • The Road Goes Ever On, 1967
  • Smith of Wootton Major, 1967
    - Seppä ja Satumaa (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1993)
  • Bilbo's Last Song, 1974
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, 1975 (translator, ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Major, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, 1975
  • The Father Christmas Letters, 1976 (rev. ed.; Letters from Father Christmas, ed. Baillie Tolkien, 2004)
    - Kirjeitä Joulupukilta (suom. Kersti Juva, Alice Martin, 2004)
  • Bilbo's Last Song, 1977
    - Bilbon viimeinen laulu (suom. Jukka Virtanen, 2005)
  • Silmarillion, 1977
    - Silmarillion (suom. Kersti Juva, Panu Pekkanen, 1979)
  • Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1979
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, 1980 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
    - Keskeneräisten tarujen kirja (suom. Kersti Juva, Panu Pekkanen, 1986)
  • Poems and Stories, 1980
  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tokien, 1981 (ed. Humphrey Carpenter)
    - Kirjeet (suom. Tero Valkonen, 2009)
  • The Old English Exodus, 1981 (translator)
  • Mr Bliss, 1982
    - Herra Bliss (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1983)
  • Finn and Hengest, 1983
  • The History of Middle-Earth, 1983 (ed. Christopher Tolkien; publication of posthumous works continues)
  • The Book of Lost Tales 1-2, 1983-84 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays, 1984
  • Lays of Beleriand, 1985 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • The Shaping of Middle-Earth, 1986 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • The Lost Road and Other Writings, 1987 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • The Return of the Shadow, 1988 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • The Treason of Isengard, 1989 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • The War of the Ring, 1990 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • Sauron Defeated, 1991 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • Morgoth's Ring: The Later Silmarillion Part 1, 1993 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • The War of the Jewels: The Later Silmarillion Part 2, 1994 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
  • Roverandom, 1998 (ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull)
    - Roverandom (suom. Kersti Juva, 2001)
  • Beowulf and the Critics, 2002 (edited by Michael D.C. Drout; rev., 2nd ed., 2011)
  • The Children of Húrin, 2007 (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
    - Húrinin lasten tarina (suom. Kersti Juva, 2007)
  • Tales from the Perilous Realm, 2008 (illustrated by Alan Lee)
    - Satujen valtakunta (suomentaneet Kersti Juva, Panu Pekkanen ja Vesa Sisättö, 2010)
  • The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 2009 (edited by Christopher Tolkien)
  • Oliphaunt, 2012 (illustrated by Dan McGeehan)
  • The Fall of Arthur, 2013 (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

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