Tolkien: the great sub-creator of Middle-earth
Middle-earth — perhaps most are familiar with the name, maybe even the writer’s name, JRR Tolkien. The shaper of Middle-earth was much more than a name; he was a mastermind of sub-creation, his invented term for expression of truth through myth. How an imaginary world can so profoundly affect our literature, our expectations, and our ideals would be a mystery without an understanding of the man behind Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s friend CS Lewis wrote the best description of the Professor, as many of his students affectionately called him. CS Lewis called Tolkien a “great but dilatory and unmethodical man.” 1 To elaborate on this, JRR Tolkien himself likened his tastes and behaviors to a hobbit “in all but size.” 2 He loved languages, and, even though he was a poor speaker, he “liked to tell jokes in English, to sing in Gothic, to narrate sagas in Icelandic, to chant in Elvish, and to recite poetry in Anglo-Saxon.” 3
This professor with a wide range of hobbies and interests eventually wrote “The Lord of the Rings”.
“What is remarkable is that The Lord of the Rings…had all the earmarks of a publishing disaster…it ran…longer than War and Peace; it contained stretches of verse, five learned appendices, samples of imaginary languages in imaginary alphabets…it was concerned with good and evil, honor, endurance and heroism…and was described by its author as ‘largely an essay in linguistic aesthetics.’” 4
To the shock of some of the literary community, “The Lord of the Rings” is not only one of the most popular novels written, but now it has also begun to be considered as one of the greatest classics as well. Since its publication, “The Lord of the Rings” has been translated into twenty-six different languages and has sold nearly one-hundred million copies around the world.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. Their son was an unhealthy baby, but retained a surprising number of vivid memories from his early childhood. His experiences with a tarantula colored passages in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”. That was not the only anxious situation he found himself in, however. One of the South African employees “borrowed” young Tolkien without permission in order to show him off in his village.
Because both Tolkien and his younger brother were in ill health, their parents made the decision that Mabel Tolkien would take the boys to England, where Arthur would join them later. Unfortunately, Arthur Tolkien died due to complications of influenza shortly after his family left. Mabel, because of her conversion to Catholicism, was deserted by all but one member of her family. Later, she was diagnosed with diabetes, a disease that at the time was considered fatal. She died in 1904 when Tolkien was twelve.
Before her death, Mabel Tolkien had entrusted the care of her sons to Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a Catholic priest. He somehow managed to get one of the boys’ aunts to provide for their education. Father Morgan was one of the chief figures in Tolkien’s childhood and teenage years.
Tolkien, at then seventeen, took a scholarship examination. He was awarded a lesser scholarship, called an exhibition, to Exeter College, a division of Oxford University. Even though he was financially stretched, he still found time to make friends and tell them jokes. The atmosphere darkened in England as the First World War loomed. The rolls of Oxford were greatly lessened as its enlisted members were killed in the “Great War.” After earning his B.A., Tolkien, along with many other members of Oxford University, made the decision to go to war. He enlisted in 1915. In 1916, just before being sent to the front, Tolkien was granted leave, on which he married his first and only love, Edith. His later experiences on the front lines gave him the ability to write haunting passages about war. It also scarred him — all but two of Tolkien’s friends died. He knew of only one that had lived; the other he lost touch with.
After returning home to England due to illness, Tolkien and his wife started a family. Their family continued to grow. Soon Tolkien was making up stories to tell his children. There is some debate about whether or not Tolkien wrote what later became “The Hobbit” as a result of these bedtime stories, but Tolkien adamantly stated that he had not.
“If you’re a youngish man and you don’t want to be made fun of, you say you’re writing for children. At any rate, children are your immediate audience and you write or tell them stories for which they are mildly grateful: long, rambling stories at bedtime.” 5
Eventually, Tolkien refined and wrote these stories down—and there they sat until a woman named Elaine Griffiths caught wind of it. After unsuccessfully trying to get Tolkien to submit it for publishing, she recruited the help of her acquaintance Susan Dagnell, an employee of a publishing house, to coax Tolkien to hand it over. She succeeded, and, largely thanks to her, we now have “The Hobbit” as we know it.
Later the publishers asked Tolkien to write another book about hobbits because of the success of his first book. What came of that was “The Lord of the Rings”. It begins in a similar vein to “The Hobbit”, but quickly became decidedly darker and less of a children’s story with the appearance of the Ringwraiths. “The Lord of the Rings” formed a bridge between Tolkien’s complex mythology, “The Silmarillion”, and Third Age story of “The Hobbit”, blending characters, incidents, and conflicts into one stream of thought.
“The Lord of the Rings” took Tolkien fourteen years to write. His duties as a professor and a family man slowed the process, and his perfectionism further elongated the already lengthy writing period. He found time to write, however, when he could: the famous “Rings” poem “was composed while Tolkien was taking a bath. “I still recall kicking the sponge out of the bath when I got to the last line, and I knew it all and jumped out.” 6
After the publication of the third volume, “The Lord of the Rings” saw a steady and unprecedented increase in popularity. Tolkien is quoted as saying, “Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I am not. But they do use this sometimes as a means against some abominations … the university pulled down a very pleasant little grove of trees to make way for what they called a ‘culture center’ out of some sort of concrete blocks. The students were outraged. They wrote ANOTHER BIT OF MORDOR on it.’ 7 “The Lord of the Rings” also turned up in some surprising places. In Southeast Asia, a Green Beret translated it into Vietnamese. The commander of the Vietnamese II Corps, General Loc, opted for the Great Eye as his battle insignia, hoping to alarm the enemy. One of Tolkien’s poems, “Errantry,” was published in a school newspaper. Students apparently liked it – it was “torn out, recopied, and passed around in many forms until it had become an ‘anonymous’ poem.” Tolkien reportedly took great delight in becoming an anonymous bard, like one of his favorite poets, the unknown author of “Beowulf”.
Tolkien’s health eventually declined. He was eighty-one when he died on September 2, 1973 “of pneumonia complicated by a gastric ulcer.” 8
The Lord of the Rings
The story of “The Lord of the Rings” is deeply fixed in the world of mythology that Tolkien created. Many have questioned fantasy as a genre, calling it escapism. Tolkien, nevertheless, said, “I shall never write any ordered biography…it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in myths and tales.” 9 Fantasy was used in such a way for centuries. Others have objected to fantasy as being sacrilegious. Perhaps the best defense, if one is needed, is a passage from “The Silmarillion”.
“It is told that in their beginning the Dwarves were made by Aulë in the darkness of Middle-earth; for so greatly did Aulë desire the coming of the Children…that he was unwilling to await the fulfillment of the designs of Ilúvatar… Ilúvatar spoke to him… ‘Why doest thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority?’
“Then Aulë answered: ‘I did not desire such lordship…Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without mockery, but because he is the son of his father.’” 10
Fantasy was, before “The Lord of the Rings”, usually composed of one-dimensional fables or allegories. One-dimensional is certainly not a description that would apply to “The Lord of the Rings”. In fact, Tolkien’s skilful handling of a mixture of literary qualities abruptly resuscitated the dying genre of fantasy. There are many classic literary devices in “The Lord of the Rings”, such as alliteration, foreshadowing, and Good versus Evil, but these are supplemented and heightened by the use of fantasy and unusually clear description and atmosphere.
“It is a scrubbed morning world, and a ringing nightmare world…This…is not for children; nor is it for whimsy-lovers and Alice quoters. Neither is it a dead moral apparatus festooned with poesy, like ‘The Faerie Queen.’ It is an extraordinary work—pure excitement, unencumbered narrative, moral warmth, barefaced rejoicing in beauty, but excitement most of all; yet a serious and scrupulous fiction, nothing cozy, no little visits to one’s childhood.” 11
While it is decidedly not an allegory, “The Lord of the Rings” contains many elements of the truths Tolkien believed in. “Evil is readily recognizable by its ugliness and by its fruits. Goodness is equally recognizable, and its fruits are more lasting. The author does not preach, but his good characters exemplify in action the virtues of mercy, perseverance, generosity, and friendship.” 12 “The Lord of the Rings” also took the realism in fantasy to a higher level. For fantasy to be readable, “one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we line in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up a mirror to the only nature we know, our own.” 13 Tolkien’s extensive mythology aided him greatly. He had a ready-made history in “The Silmarillion” to exercise in “The Lord of the Rings”. “By the time the reader has finished…he knows as much about Tolkien’s Middle Earth, its landscape, its fauna and flora, its peoples, their languages, their history, their cultural habits…as he knows about the natural world.” 14
After the “immense popularity of Tolkien,” 15 fantasy began to see much more attention in the public and literary circles. There was a downside to this, however. “Tolkien has had many imitators, and imitators of imitators, and imitators of imitators of imitators, until some heroic-quest fantasies resemble nothing so much as blurry sixth-generation photocopies of his work,’ complains professional historian and novelist Harry Turtledove.” 16 However, none have been as successful as Tolkien in creating so vivid a world, such believable characters, and so enduring a story. “The demands made on the writer’s powers in an epic as long as “The Lord of the Rings” are enormous and increase as the tale proceeds – the battles have to get more spectacular, the situations more critical, the adventures more thrilling – but I can only say the Mr. Tolkien has proved equal to them.” 17 Perhaps the person who offered the most succinct praise for Tolkien and his works was an “unknown admirer,” an electrician who was working in a library in Oxford. Upon spotting a bust of JRR Tolkien:
“Without hesitation or embarrassment…downed his tools, walked over to the bust and clapped his arm around the bronze shoulder.
“‘Well done, Professor,’ he said…‘You’ve written a smashing good yarn.’” 18
1 Daniel Grotta, JRR Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth, (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Courage Books, 1992), 9
2 Ibid. 10
3 Ibid. 13
4 Ibid. 117
5 Ibid. 84
6 Ibid. 104
7 Ibid. 142
8 Ibid. 155
9 Bradley Birzer, JRR Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth (ISI Books, 2002) 23
10 JRR Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (Ballantine Books, 2002) 37
11 Donald Barr, “Shadowy World of Men and Hobbits,” May 1, 1955
12 Encarta Encyclopedia, 2004 ed., s.v. “Literature Guide to The Lord of the Rings,” by Marie Michelle Walsh
13 WH Auden, “The Hero Is a Hobbit,” October 31, 1954
14 WH Auden, “At the End of the Quest, Victory,” January 22, 1956
15 Birzer, Sanctifying Myth, 129
17 Auden, “Victory”
18 Grotta, Architect, 158