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This Day In History: Happy Birthday Tolkien

On January 3, 1892 J. R. R. Tolkien, author of some of the most beloved fantasy books in history, was born. To celebrate his birthday I decided to learn a bit more about him. Oxford Reference Online led me to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature which contained this great biography. Check it out below. And no, I am not yet counting the days until The Hobbit movie is released!

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1892–1973), British scholar of Anglo- Saxon and medieval literature and writer of fantasy fiction, most notably The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The enormous success of the latter novel has been decisive in establishing fantasy fiction as a popular literary genre that straddles the boundary between children’s and adults’ literature. Although few of his works were written expressly for children, most are accessible to teenagers and young adults, undoubtedly the largest group among his readers.

Life and Scholarship

Although born in South Africa, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien grew up in and around Birmingham, England. His father died when he was four; other formative events in Tolkien’s childhood were his mother’s conversion to Catholicism in 1900 and her sudden death in 1904. Equally important when considering his writing are Tolkien’s early interest in languages and his membership in various literary clubs: the importance of male bonding and the scarcity of creditable female characters in his fiction may be seen as a reflection of his growing up in a nearly all-male environment.

Tolkien received a first-class honors degree in English language and literature from Exeter College, Oxford, in 1915. The next year he married Edith Bratt; the couple had four children. Shortly after his marriage Tolkien was drafted to fight in World War I, but protracted illnesses saved him from seeing more than a few months’ action. In 1918 the family settled in Oxford, where Tolkien contributed to the famous Oxford English Dictionary project. His appointment as reader in English language at Leeds University in 1920 marked the beginning of an academic career that took him back to Oxford in 1925 as professor of Anglo-Saxon and later of English language and literature. Most noteworthy among his scholarly publications are an edition of the Middle English epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1925) and an essay on the Old English epic poem Beowulf (“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” 1937).

Early Writings
From the beginning, Tolkien’s creative urge was coupled with his love of languages and Germanic mythology, heroic epic poetry, medieval romance, sagas, legends, and fairy tales. Arguably, all of his early poems and stories are derivative in that they try to recreate the idealized heroic past depicted in these archaic texts. As a location for the stories that he had been composing since 1917, Tolkien invented the imaginary world “Middle-earth,” which also became the setting of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Middle- earth (derived from Old Norse midgard, the world between the realms of the gods and the dead) is, as Tolkien insisted, “our world … in a purely imaginary (though not wholly impossible) period of antiquity” (quoted in Carpenter). It is peopled not only by men but also by many more or less humanlike races and fabulous creatures. The great number of outlandish names and long genealogies, and the lofty, archaic style, are the most likely reasons for Tolkien’s failure to get his “Lost Tales” (as he came to call them) printed in his lifetime. (The central stories were published in 1977 by his son Christopher under the title The Silmarillion, the rest in twelve volumes between 1983 and 1995 as The History of Middle-earth.) It was only when he began to write for children that Tolkien found a narrative style that was not derivative and artificial but fresh and pliable.

Like many before him, Tolkien began his career as a writer of children’s books by telling stories to his own children. The majority of those he wrote down were published only after his death, and are rarely read by children, but they provide fascinating insights into his development as a writer. Roverandom (completed 1925, published 1998) is about a little dog that, after being transformed into a toy dog by a malicious sorcerer, goes on a quest to regain his former shape and identity, which takes him as far as the moon and the bottom of the sea. Adult readers will find influences of other children’s writers, including Lewis Carroll, Carlo Collodi, and E. Nesbit, in the rambling series of bizarre adventures, as well as humorous allusions to topical events and scholarly disputes; some motifs reappear in later stories, for example, the bearding of a dragon in his den.

Mr. Bliss (completed 1932, published 1982) is a picture book that consists of forty-nine pages of handwritten text interspersed with some forty-five colored illustrations. Again, foreshadowings of The Hobbit are evident: the eponymous hero is a bachelor who lives on (not yet in) a hill, together with a bizarre creature called the Girabbit; the story involves a number of (teddy) bears that appear hostile but turn out to be friendly, and ends with a great banquet.

Every Christmas Tolkien composed for his children a letter, adorned with illustrations, that purported to be from Father Christmas; those made between 1925 and 1939 were published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters. Over time Father Christmas’s reports of the year’s events become increasingly complex. At first, he and his friend and servant, Polar Bear, live a comparatively peaceful and eventless life in a fantastic North Pole world of cliffs and icicles; in later letters, however, this peaceful world is peopled by polar cubs, dwarfs, and red and green elves. As the situation of the real world worsened in the 1930s, the idyllic polar community becomes threatened by evil goblins. Apparently the world of The Hobbit had begun to infiltrate Tolkien’s North Pole. Traces of The Hobbit can also be found in another story, written during the 1930s. Part of the humor of Farmer Giles of Ham (1949) requires some knowledge of Latin and Greek, but the basic situation can be appreciated by children and adults alike. Set in a post-Arthurian but still legendary England, the short book tells the story of a simple farmer who inadvertently becomes a hero by chasing a giant out of the country and forcing a dragon to give up his treasure.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

Of all the many imaginary species that people Tolkien’s Middle-earth, hobbits (three- to four-foot-high humanlike creatures who live in lavishly furnished burrows) are probably the most popular. As a species, the easygoing, commonsensical hobbits lack heroic stature, but The Hobbit is the story of a specific hobbit—Bilbo Baggins—who does become a hero of sorts. To his own surprise, middle-aged Bilbo agrees to accompany a group of dwarfs who hire him as a “master thief” to help them regain their ancestral treasure from a dragon. Many of the ensuing adventures are inspired by Germanic myths, legends, and fairy tales; they include encounters with trolls, goblins, elves, wolves, eagles, giant spiders, humans, and a dragon. A mysterious wizard named Gandalf threads in and out of the action, coming to the rescue at several critical moments. In one central episode Bilbo is trapped in a system of goblin caves where he meets a slimy creature called Gollum, who engages him in a riddling contest and inadvertently reveals that the ring Bilbo has found in the cave renders its bearer invisible. With the help of the ring, Bilbo manages to help his companions steal the treasure from the den of Smaug the dragon. In the resulting quarrel between the dwarfs and the humans, whose town the dragon has destroyed, Bilbo succeeds in mediating by renouncing his share of the loot; when he returns home he is richer in experience but not in worldly goods.

Apparently The Hobbit grew out of stories Tolkien told his children during the early 1930s. It was published in 1937 and became an immediate—and enduring—success. Nevertheless, opinions of modern critics have been divided; although some find the presence of an avuncular narrator intrusive and the humor heavy-handed, others prefer its lightness of tone to the ponderous seriousness of its weightier sequel, The Lord of the Rings. The story owes a great deal to traditional fairy tales, but it deviates from their structure in important ways. Bilbo is not a typical fairy tale hero: he has no quest of his own and is only partly successful. But he is an Everyman with whom it is easy to identify, and his story is a Bildungsroman: after being lured from his comfortable womblike underground home, he is subjected to hardships and dangers that eventually transform him into a brave and self-confident person who is able to make moral decisions based on a sense of responsibility.

The Lord of the Rings was begun as a sequel to The Hobbit, but by the time of its completion in 1949 it had grown into a highly complex novel (published in 1954–1955 in three individually titled volumes). Set in Middle-earth, it tells the story of a negative quest. It is revealed that Bilbo’s ring of invisibility is really an instrument of potentially infinite power forged in ancient times by Sauron, an evil demigod who wants to use it to enslave all Middle-earth. The task of carrying it to the only place where it can be destroyed, under Sauron’s very eye, falls on Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew. Frodo is initially supported by a group of friends, the Fellowship of the Ring, but must cover much of the dangerous way alone—accompanied only by a faithful servant and companion, Sam Gamgee—while vast battles are being fought elsewhere that distract Sauron’s attention, ending in the reestablishment of the glorious king of the human realms, Aragorn.

The Lord of the Rings became a cult book among college students during the 1960s and has been immensely popular ever since. It was voted “greatest book of the century” in 1997, and the three-part film version directed by Peter Jackson (2001–2003) has added to its fame. Without being crudely allegorical it deals with serious political and moral concerns of the 20TH century, most notably totalitarianism, ecological exploitation, and individual resistance against these evils, but it can also be enjoyed as simply a rich adventure story set in a fantastic world.

Theory and Late Writings
In addition to supplying the model of modern fantasy fiction, Tolkien has also deeply influenced theoretical thinking about the genre. In his essay “On Fairy Stories” (1947), based on a 1939 lecture, Tolkien contended that a taste for fairy tales (and, by implication, fantasy fiction, a term not yet in use) is as legitimate in adults as it is in children since such fiction provides elements that adults need as much as (or more than) children: “Fantasy” (the ability to create a “secondary world” in one’s mind), “Recovery” (the regaining of a clear view of the basic elements of life), “Escape” from the fetters of drab reality, and the “Consolation” derived from the happy ending (“eucatastrophe”), which Tolkien regards as a foreshadowing of heavenly bliss. Equally important as a key to what Tolkien thought and felt about his own art are two stories of his: “Leaf by Niggle” (1945) and “Smith of Wootton Major” (1967). The former, an allegorical tale of a painter’s postmortem existence in Purgatory, is really a meditation on what art means for the artist and for society. The latter is more likely to appeal to children because it tells the story of a boy who is given a magic star that allows him to make excursions into “Faery.” The emphasis is not on the adventures he has in that strange country, however, but on what the experience means to him. The story is a parable about artistic talent, shown as a gift that entails privileges and responsibilities—and must be renounced in the end. Significantly, Tolkien did not give up his star: he has certainly passed it on, for since the Mid 20TH century nearly all writers of fantasy, both for children and for adults, have been indebted to him in one way or another.

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