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J.R.R. Tolkien the Man

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places;
but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief,
it grows perhaps the greater.”

Haldir ~ The Fellowship of the Ring


John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa on January 3, 1892 to Mabel and Arthur Tolkien. His early years were spent between the city and a farm in the country. His father, an English banker, was making efforts to establish a branch in Bloemfontein. One of Tolkien’s early memories of South Africa involved an incident when he was bitten by a large Baboon Spider and the frighting experience likely became a source for his writing.

ronaldhilarytolkienAt the age of 3 Tolkien’s mother left South Africa taking he and his younger brother Hilary to England for a lengthy family visit. His father, who was to arrive later died of rheumatic fever in South Africa, leaving the grieving family in relatively dire straights financially. Tolkien’s mother took him to live with her parents in Birmingham, but soon after moved to Sarehole, which was then a Worcestershire village. Tolkien was inspired by the rural setting, exploring the Sarehole Mill, the Moseley Bog and climbing across Lickey and Malvern Hills, all of which would later inspire his writing.

Tolkien attended King Edward VI school. His mother, Mabel, converted to Catholicism, which would become a central theme in his own life. The Parish Priest, Father Francis Morgan became a mentor to the boys and he helped Tolkien as he struggled through difficult times. At the tender age of 12, Tolkien’s mother succumbed to diabetes, leaving he and his brother orphaned. Tolkien delved into the world of books to sooth his great sorrow, reading the works of H. G. Wells and G. K. Chesterton.

Father Morgan became the boys legal guardian, placing them first with an aunt and then at a boarding house for orphans. It was at this boarding house, at the age of 16 that he would meet and fall in love with Edith Bratt. It is said that Tolkien first saw Edith dancing under the trees, which of course inspired his telling of the first meeting of Lúthien & Beren. Tolkien became infatuated with Edith, to the detriment of his schooling. Naturally, their relationship was frowned upon at such a young age and Father Morgan took great pains to separate the young couple until Tolkien completed his studies at Oxford.

Tolkien who held a deep love of languages, majored in philology, the study of words and language. He studied Icelandic, Norse and Gothic mythology and  the seeds of Middle-earth were planted, with many of the characters and places drawn from these ancient writings.

tolkien1Having reached the age of maturity in 1914, he searched out and found his lost love, Edith Bratt. On discovering that spark of love was still kindled in her, he proposed marriage. She had accepted a proposal from another suitor, but was persuaded to take Tolkien’s hand instead. They were married in 1916 and would not part again until Edith’s death 55 years later in the fall of 1971.

World War I came in July of 1914 and would unleash death across most of the European Continent on a scale never before seen. Tolkien, who suffered in the trenches lost most of his friends in the War and it’s terrible carnage would mark him for the rest of his life. Tolkien was sent to the front lines as an officer during the Battle of the Somme, where more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. He caught trench fever in 1917 and was sent back to England to recuperate and would not enter battle again. Tolkien stated over the course of his life that he felt honor bound to live a full life in homage to those friends lost in the war.

During his days in school, he had been a determined poet and scholar. His interest in language was such that he had even developed his own languages based loosely on Finnish and Welsh. It was while recuperating in Birmingham, with his wife at his side, that he began to create a mythology behind his languages. This work would of course eventually lead to the creation of his beloved Middle-earth.

tolkien2After the War was over and peace declared, he was offered a professorship at the University of Leeds. While teaching and lecturing, Tolkien still found time to continue his work on building his mythology, which he thought of as England’s lost mythology. It was during this time, that Tolkien was blessed with the first of his four children.

In 1925 Tolkien with a colleague published a translation and analysis of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” It was a turning point in his career, because it brought him to the notice of Oxford, where he was offered the professorship of Anglo-Saxon, through a fellowship at Pembroke College. In the early 1930s, he and C. S. Lewis founded the literary society known as the Inklings and they invited other writers to join them for informal meetings to read and discuss their works in progress.

One day while grading papers, Tolkien opened up an exam booklet to find the first page blank and wrote the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This surprising line of written words opened a door in Professor Tolkien’s imagination. Using elements of his mythological world, Tolkien embarked on the creation of a quest story. By late 1932 he had finished and shared it with a few friends, including C. S. Lewis. One of Tolkien’s students, Elaine Griffiths lent a copy to Susan Dagnall, a staff member of the publisher George Allen & Unwin. Dagnall was so impressed by it, that she brought it to the attention Stanley Unwin, who then asked his 10-year-old son Rayner to review it. As the story goes, Rayner’s favorable comments settled Allen & Unwin’s decision to publish Tolkien’s book.

tolkien3The Hobbit was published in 1936. The book soon became a best seller and gave Professor Tolkien his first brush with fame. He was already a well-respected scholar among academic circles for his work in Philology and for his published poems and short stories, however The Hobbit would bring him a level notoriety he had not known before.

Tolkien at this stage had wanted to bring to publication his work on what would one day become The Silmarillion and expand on his Middle-earth Mythology. However, his publishers wanted another ‘hobbit story’ and so in the late 1930s he picked up the story of Bilbo and decided ultimately to focus on the Ring he found in Gollum’s cave, as the central theme of the story. Tolkien also began weaving in elements of his Middle-earth mythology. This of course would become his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien worked on the story for over ten years, through the second World War, with the demands of his profession and the raising of his four children, finding time to write was not easy. However, Tolkien persevered.

With his manuscript complete, he went first to Allen & Unwin, the publishers of The Hobbit, but it was rejected by a staff editor while Unwin was away on business in France. His son who had recommend his father publish The Hobbit when he was a boy, was now in the family business. When he discovered  the rejected manuscript, he immediately wrote to his father in France, requesting permission to take on the project himself. The publishers were skeptical about a “hobbit book” written for adults, but  Unwin acquiesced to his son’s request.

Tolkien wanted to publish The Silmarillion along with The Lord of the Rings, though much work was still need on the unfinished manuscript. Allen & Unwin were not interested in doing this and so Tolkien took his manuscript to Collins, a competing publisher. Collins not only wanted to jettison the The Silmarillion, but they also wanted to cut The Lord of the Rings down by half. Tolkien returned to A&U and they came to an agreement to hold off on the  publication of The Silmarillion and publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, an unusual decision at that time and one that would itself change the publishing industry.

tolkien4The Lord of the Rings was published in three parts between 1954 and 1955 and as we all know, became a huge publishing success. During the early 1960’s Tolkien made several sets of revisions to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to set right the many publishing errors and story inconsistencies that existed in the two stories, Though Tolkien was not a fan of the paperback, he understood it’s place in the new publishing landscape and consented to an authorized edition for publications.

Becoming a famous author was both a blessing and a bane for Tolkien. He enjoyed the popularity of his work, yet, he was burdened with the work of responding to admirers of his writing. With many the changes taking place in society. his work was embraced by a new generation, who saw in his writing a love of the natural world, which was in conflict with industry and power. The Lord of the Rings reached a much larger audience in the US when an unauthorized paperback edition was published without permission. Though Tolkien and his publisher may have lost this initial revenue, the paperback edition brought his work to a massive new audience, that otherwise might have never read his works. In the mid to late 1960’s, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was thrust into the worldwide limelight and was embraced by the burgeoning counter-culture moment taking hold across the globe.

The Lord of the Rings was eventually translated into 38 different languages, Tolkien participated in the translations making changes that reflected both the translation process and his work. He was unhappy with choices made by early translators, and so wrote a Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings, which was published in 1967. This of course brought him even greater global recognition.

In 1969, Tolkien sold the merchandising and film rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings to United Artists under an agreement stipulating a lump sum payment of £10,000 plus a 7.5% royalty after costs,  payable to Allen & Unwin and the author. At the time this was seen as a profitable deal, however at this stage the Tolkien Estate, which is the steward of J. R. R. Tolkien’s legacy  must surly regret this decision, which has placed much of the properties branding into the hands of others. In 1976, three years after the author’s death, United Artists sold the rights to Saul Zaentz Company, who’s Tolkien division now trades as Middle-earth Enterprises. Since then all “authorized” merchandise has been signed-off by Middle-earth Enterprises, although the intellectual property rights of the specific likenesses of characters and other imagery from various adaptations is generally held by the adaptors, such as artists and filmmakers. As a result of this decision on the part of Professor Tolkien, a legal quagmire was created that is still in dispute today.

Edith died in 1971. The loss of his great love & life’s companion of 55 years was a difficult blow to Tolkien and some two years after her death, he followed from complications of Pneumonia on September 2, 1973. The are buried together in the quiet of Wolvercote Cemetery. So ended a full life, that has affected the world over.

Christopher Tolkien has carried on his father legacy, by posthumously editing and publishing many of his father written works, that other wise would never have seen the light of day and have given us all a much better understanding of Middle-earth, thee we would otherwise have had.


 Posted by at 9:56 am