January 3rd is J. R. R. Tolkien’s 121st birthday, a man who blazed a path for high fantasy literature around the world.
Tolkien’s work has affected almost everyone on the planet with his hobbits, elves, dwarves, and wizards. Tolkien’s characters are forever etched in our minds: Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck, Pippin Took, Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, Gandalf, poor Gollum, and let’s not forget, the Dark Lord Sauron.
On January 3rd, 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, better known as J. R. R. Tolkien (now you know why the initials), was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, (now the Free State Province) in South Africa. His father was an English bank manager and their family roots were craftsmen of Lower Saxony and England.
Tolkien’s name is long and has quite a history itself. Tolkien derived his surname from the German Word tolkühn (which means “foolhardy”). According to an article in the 1969 #35 issue of Der Spiegel, Germany’s oldest news magazine, Tolkien jokingly inserted himself as a "cameo" into The Notion Club Papers under the name Rashbold, a literal translation of tollkühn.
Der Spiegal then called Tolkien’s series a “prehistoric science fiction novel.” It said that Hobbits were not to be confused with rabbits, who are cave dwellers
“... in the land of the Shire river Brandywine. He is quick, good-natured, all without ambition and without erotic tendencies. He has a good ear and sharp eyes, he laughs and likes to drink and eat, if possible, six times a day and is low fat.
Whereas Hobbits love “peace, comfort, a well appointed ground, the Genealogy and detests “machines, which are more complicated than a forge-bellows.” He does not need shoes – his feet are leathery and densely hairy.”
Tolkien’s childhood was a continuous play with language, often inventing his own. He ended up in England, first on a lengthy visit, then his father died in South Africa of rheumatic fever, and so the family, after several moves, ended up in Sarehole, then a Worcestershire village.
Tolkien’s explorations of Srehole Mill, Moseley Bog, the Clent, Lickey, and Malvern Hills, and towns and villages such as Bromsgrove, Alcester, Alvechurch, and his aunt Jane’s farm of Bag End, greatly influenced his writings.
Tolkien’s mother taught him to read by age four and as he grew, Tolkien enjoyed stories about the “red Indians” and the fantasy works by George MacDonald. The “Fairy Books” of Andrew Lang were major influences to his later writings.
After his mother’s death when Tolkien was twelve, he lived with a friar in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham, in the shadow of the Victorian tower of Edgbaston Waterworks, which just might be some influence on the dark towers in his books.
Tolkien loved language and languages. He studied Latin and Anglo-Saxon and constructed several languages, some with his cousins like Animalic and Nevbosh and later, invented a new language himself called “Naffarin.”
What we do as writers greatly affects our writing and none more so than Tolkien’s summer holiday in Switzerland where, in a 1968 letter, he noted that Bilbo’s journey across the Misty Mountains is directly based on his own adventures of hiking and camping there.
After being invalided in World War I with trench fever, Tolkien’s first civilian job was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. He went on to Pembroke College where he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings.
"For publication, due largely to post-war paper shortages, but also to keep the price of the first volume down, the book was divided into three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring: Books I and II; The Two Towers: Books III and IV; and The Return of the King: Books V and VI, 6 appendices)." ~ Tolkiengateway.net
In 1936, Tolkien’s lecture on Beowulf changed how the epic poem was viewed by academia. Then, the consensus was that Beowulf dealt with childish battles with monsters rather than, as Tolkien explained, as realistic tribal warfare, addressing human destiny in general.
“He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon, commencing with a great cry of Hwæt! (The first word of this and several other Old English poems), which some undergraduates took to be 'Quiet!' It was not so much a recitation as a dramatic performance, an impersonation of an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall, and it impressed generations of students because it brought home to them that Beowulf was not just a set text to be read for the purposes of examination, but a powerful piece of dramatic poetry.”
Tolkien’s 2000 page handwritten translation of and commentary on Beowulf was discovered in 2003 in the archives of the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford, one of the oldest libraries in Europe.
Tolkien moved to Merton College, Oxford, in 1945, toward the end of World War II, to become the Merton Professor of English language and Literature. He retired in 1959 then serving as an external examiner for the University College in Dublin and in 1954, received an honorary degree from the national University of Ireland. He translated The Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible published in 1966.
Tolkien kept translating, researching, and writing. The Lord of the Rings was completed in 1948, almost a decade after his first sketches.
In March 1968, Tolkien talked with BBC about his idea for The Hobbit:
"[I remember] the actual flashpoint," Tolkien told the BBC in March 1968. "I can still see the corner in my house in 20 Northmoor Road where it happened.
"I'd got an enormous pile of exam papers there and was marking school examinations in the summer time, which was very laborious, and unfortunately also boring.
"I remember picking up a paper and nearly gave it an extra mark, or extra five marks actually, because one page on this particular paper was left blank. Glorious! Nothing to read.
"So I scribbled on it, I can't think why, 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit'."
In 1972 was a busy year for Tolkien. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours by Queen Elizabeth II, received the insignia of the Order at Buckingham Palace on March 28, 1972, and became an honorary Doctorate of Letters at Oxford University.
J. R. R. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973.
Tolkien’s influence on readers, writers, and today’s fantasy genre cannot be over-emphasized. Tolkien is identified as the “father of modern fantasy literature” and The Times, a British daily newspaper, ranked him sixth on the list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.” According to Forbes in 2009, Tolkien is the fifth top-earning dead celebrity and according to the Toronto Star in 2007, is the best-selling novel ever written.
You can find out more about J. R. R. Tolkien at his website: The Tolkien Society.