Tolkien had a number of major influences in his life that fed into his mythology. His imagination thrived on memories from his early years, and that further experience did not seem to be required, or wanted.
“One writes such a story not out of the leaves or trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.” (On the process of writing LotR)
Love of languages
Tolkien had an unusual sensitivity to the sound and appearance of words – just like other people have a particularly emotional response to works of art, or music. This response was particularly strong to Finnish, Welsh and Gothic, and also Anglo-Saxon when he realised that a lot of its poetry and prose was written in the dialect of his mothers ancestors – Middle English. He somehow believed that he had inherited some faint ancestral memory of the tongue spoken by distant generations of Suffields:
“I am a West-Midlander by blood, and I took to early West-Midland Middle English as a known tongue as soon as I set eyes on it.” (Letter to WH Auden)
Travel and environment
Travel never played a major part in Tolkien’s life. During his middle years, the only overseas trips he took were to Ireland – partly from necessity, but partly because his imagination didn’t need the stimulus of travel. His mind was fuelled by words, not images. He did not need to travel to Iceland to be thrilled by the old sagas, the old stories of bravery and courage and fate.
When Tolkien had a car – in the years from 1932 to the start of WW2 – he toured the Oxfordshire countryside, but rarely ventured further afield, not even to the sea that he loved. When he did visit the seaside, it was solely in the form of conventional family holidays to conventional British seaside resorts.
Tolkien’s main reaction to the environment was sadness. Nothing stayed the same. Progress marched on – even in his beloved Sarehole. When he visited relatives in Birmingham in 1933, he stopped by his old home, only to be horrified at what he saw:
“The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill; nut the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool … is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house … is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change.”
He was similarly sensitive to the damage that was being inflicted on the Oxfordshire countryside by the construction of war-time airfields and the ‘improvement’ and upgrading of roads. Later in life, environmental corruption would become an obsession, and Tolkien would maintain that there was not a single unspoilt wood or hillside left in the land – and that if he did hear of one, he would refuse to go there for fear of seeing it contaminated with litter.
This makes his choice of dwelling places slightly confusing. Almost always, he chose to live in built-up areas – Leeds, Oxford, Bournemouth – partly through necessity, but partly due to his belief that we live in a fallen world. He believed that in an unfallen world, one where man was not sinful, he would have spent an undisturbed childhood with his mother in a rural paradise such as his memories of Sarehole had become. But he also believed that his mother had died through the cruelty and neglect of her family and the wickedness of the world – and in such a world, where even Sarehole had been wantonly destroyed, and where perfection and true happiness were transitory and illusionary, did it matter where one lived? Habitat was merely a temporary imperfection.
Tolkien’s commitment to the Catholic Church was total, but the practice of his faith was not always the consolation that it could have been. He set himself a rigorous code of behaviour, especially in the need to make confession before receiving communion. When he could not bring himself to go to confession, he would deny himself communion, and live in a state of spiritual depression.
He also become unhappy later in life with the introduction of the vernacular mass. He loved the Latin service, and would often still declare his answers loudly in Latin.
However, through all this, he loved receiving communion, experiencing a fierce spiritual joy and a state of contentment that was not matched through any other way. Religion was one of the strongest, deepest and more durable parts of his life.
Tolkien’s religion was intimately bound up with the memory of his beloved mother. She had converted him to Catholicism, and he truly believed that she had died for her faith.
The memory of Mabel
The pain he felt from her loss, and the all-encompassing love he felt for her memory was a major theme throughout his life and his writings. Her death had made him a pessimist, and left him subject to intense shifts of emotion. Once his mother had gone, Tolkien had no stability, and his natural optimism was counter-balanced by a deep uncertainty in the outcome of life.
He became a man of extreme contrasts. He could swing from a good humour straight down into the blackest of depressions within minutes, and once low, he would feel that there was no hope – for him or the world. It was this mood that made itself felt in his diaries, as he generally wrote while questioning the nature of the world in his blackness.
He was strongly guided by his emotions, and cared too much to adopt a detached intellectual view about most things. He held no opinion half-heartedly, and could not be any less than 100% committed about any topic that interested him.
He was also, unsurprisingly given the above, a perfectionist. He cared too much about everything to shrug off criticism, to let things lie, to accept less than flawlessness.
Tolkien also had some strange eccentricities, particularly in his later life.
He was Gallophobic, disliking anything about the French, from the influence of French cooking in England to the Norman Conquest – the latter event paining him as if it had just happened.