The start of Middle-earth
When Tolkien decided that he was ready to start his great work, he realised that he wannted to blend together a number of themes:
1. His desire to express his feelings in poetry, originating long before with the TCBS.
2. His desire to create a mythology for England:
“It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ … and, while possessing … the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic …, it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. … The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.”
3. His realisation that the degree of complexity he wanted meant that he needed to invent a history for his languages in which they could fully develop and change.
4. His desire for his mythology to reflect his own moral and religious views. However, he realised that placing his work in a universe in which a Catholic God was present would deprive the work of imaginary colour. His compromise was to set his work in a world with a God, but one who remains mostly unseen.
So, with those thoughts in mind, he bought a cheap notebook, wrote “The Book of Lost Tales” on the cover in thick blue pencil, and started to write what would eventually be “The Silmarillion”.
Its hero was Eriol, meaning ‘one who dreams alone’. And while the first draft owed a good deal to William Morris’s “The Earthly Paradise”, it was also the first time that the things that Eriol heard, dreamt or saw could not simply be explained away as the product of literary influences and life experiences. This was Tolkien’s first small step into a fantasy world, a world of his imagination.
The first of the legends he wrote told of the creation of the universe and the establishment of the known world. He called the world Middle-earth, as a corollary to the Norse Midgard. From the start, Tolkien was clear that Middle-earth was our world:
“Middle-earth is our world … I have (of course) placed the action in a purely imaginary (though not wholly impossible) period of antiquity, in which the shape of the continental masses was different.”
While writing his mythology, Tolkien had a sense that he was, in some way, writing the truth, not just a story. He felt, or maybe just hoped, that he was expressing a profound truth – that he was extracting already created stories from an untapped pool of English mythology.
“They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so the links grew. … yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of inventing.”
The “Fall of Gondolin”
The “Fall of Gondolin” was the first full Middle-earth story to be put to paper, while Tolkien was recuperating at Great Haywood in early 1917. The story came to include Earendel – a link back to his early poems – and it was his first story to centre around elves.
Elves were to become important to Tolkien as to him, they represented Man before the Fall. Tolkien devoutly believed that the fall of man from the Garden of Eden occurred through human error and sin, and was responsible for the ills and suffering in the world today. To Tolkien, elves came to represent a world which had not ‘fallen’ in the theological sense, and so were a race that was able to achieve much beyond the power of Men in Arda Marred.
Tolkien’s Elves were immortal, unless slain in battle or died of a broken heart. As old age, disease or death did not bring their work to an end while it was still unfinished, they were perfect material for an epic saga.
“They are made by man in his own image and likeness; but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him. They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire.”
When the “Fall of Gondolin” was finished, Edith copied it out in a large exercise book.
Quenya and Sindarin
At the same time as Tolkien was creating the starting threads of his mythology, he was also still working on the languages that were to form the nucleus of all his Arda-based works.
By 1917, Quenya had become very sophisticated, with a vocabulary of many hundreds of words. In his world, Quenya had been ‘derived’ from a more primitive language supposedly spoken in an earlier age, primitive Eldarin.
At this time, Tolkien also started creating another elvish language, based on Welsh phonology, and this was the language eventually known as Sindarin.
Beside his two main languages, Tolkien worked on a number of other elvish tongues, which existed only in outline but interacted in his mind to produce a complicated family tree of languages. A particularly important part of this linguistic work was the creation of names. He preferred to think of the meaning for a new character name, and then make up the name in all his languages. In reality, however, he often made up the names as he was going along, and later tried to construct a philological reason for that name.
As years went by, Tolkien began to consider his languages and stories ‘real’ – events that simply needed to be elucidated. When he found an apparent contradiction in a story, or an unsatisfactory name, he looked at it as the problem to be sorted out, a oddity that he must find out about.
Personal life intervenes
The time when Tolkien was writing the “Fall of Gondolin” was an interlude of domestic bliss. In the evenings, Edith played the piano and Tolkien recited his poetry or made sketches of her. It was during this time that David was conceived.
Tolkien was seemingly cured of his trench fever, and his battalion wanted him back in France. He, however, did not want to return to battle. Towards the end of his leave, he was again taken ill. After a few more weeks, he recovered, and was sent temporarily to Yorkshire. Just after he returned to duty, he was again taken ill, and then sent to a sanatorium in Harrogate. Like so many soldiers in the World War, he did not want to return to danger, and his body responded, keeping his temperature above normal, and his body weak.
However, by April, he was fit, and he was sent for further training at an army signalling school in the North East. He failed a signalling exam, and was then taken sick yet again. By the second week in August, he was back in hospital – the Brooklands Officers’ Hospital in Hull. While there, he was visited by nuns from a local Catholic convent – with one, he formed a friendship that lasted to the end of her life.
The Tale of Túrin
At about this time, Tolkien created the “Tale of Túrin”, a story which would eventually be known as the “Children of Húrin”. Literary influences for the work included “Sigurd” and “Beowulf” (which contained a fight with a dragon), and the “Tale of Kullervo” in the “Kalevala” (which contained incest and suicide). But, like the “Fall of Gondolin”, the tale passed beyond a fusion of Icelandic and Nordic traditions into the creation of something new and unique.
Beren and Lúthien
Eventually Tolkien returned to active duty in the army, and he was promoted to Lieutenant. Soon after that, Edith gave birth to David, and then she moved back to Yorkshire, taking furnished rooms at Roos, near Tolkien’s camp.
Near Roos, the Tolkiens found a small wood with an undergrowth of hemlock, and there they wandered when he could get leave. He wrote the following of Edith:
“Her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes bright, and she could sing – and dance.”
From this came the story of Beren and Lúthien, Lúthien being a beautiful elf that the mortal Beren first saw dancing among hemlock in a wooded glade. This was Tolkien’s first quest story, and the first to contain such a wide range of emotions. It was also his favourite, for he identified Edith with Lúthien.
Ending of the war
In the spring of 1918, Tolkien was posted to Penkridge, one of the Staffordshire camps where he had trained before being sent to France. He was extremely lucky that he had not been returned to the front line, for every man in his Battalion who remained in France was either killed or captured.
He was then posted to the Humber Garrison, where he was again taken ill and sent back to the hospital in Hull. There he worked on his mythology and elvish languages, improved his Spanish and Italian, and taught himself a little Russian.
In October 1918, he left hospital and went to Oxford to see if there was any chance of finding an academic job there for after the war. However, the University was scarcely functioning, and no-one knew what would happen when peace came. But while in Oxford, he visited William Craigie, who was then on the staff of the New English Dictionary (NED), who told Tolkien that he could have a job as an assistant lexicographer.
At the end of the war, 11th November 1918, Tolkien asked if he could be stationed at Oxford until demobilisation. This was granted, and late in November, he, Edith, Jennie and the baby moved back to the university town. Tolkien had long dreamt of returning to Oxford, suffering nostalgia throughout the war for his old life, his college and friends.
Oxford also provided his and Edith’s first home together – 50 St John’s Street. They rented rooms here from a Miss Mahon.
“Our parents would tell stories of how they would enter her kitchen with some trepidation to find piles of unwashed dishes mounting up towards the ceiling, and on top of such a pile, a large cockerel looking down at them with an unnerving expression in its eye.”
The rooms were only a short walk from his new workplace for the NED in the Old Ashmolean building in Broad Street. (In the photo on the right of the Old Ashmolean Building, Bradley and Craigie are seated at the front desks on the right of the picture; between them, two desks further back, is Onions.)
Tolkien found that he liked his work at the NED, and also that he liked his colleagues, especially CT Onions. In his first weeks, he researched the etymology of “warm”, “wasp”, “water”, “wick” and “winter”. The depth to which he took his research can easily be demonstrated from the entry for “wasp”, which cited comparable forms in Old Saxon, Middle Dutch, Modern Dutch, Old High German, Middle Low German, Middle High German, Modern German, Old Teutonic, primitive pre-Teutonic, Lithuanian, Old Slavonic, Russian and Latin. He found that the dictionary work taught him a lot about languages, and later said that in the period 1919 – 1920 he learnt more than in any other two year period.
His supervisor also saw that enthusiasm and expertise, saying that Tolkien showed evidence of an unusually thorough mastery of Anglo-Saxon and of the facts and principles of the comparative grammar of the Germanic languages.
“I have never known a man of his age who was in these respects his equal”
Tolkien’s work at the dictionary was not meant to occupy him full-time, and it was expected that he would supplement his income by teaching in the University. He made it known that he was willing to take on students, and colleges began to respond, particularly Lady Margaret Hall and St Hugh’s, both women’s colleges who badly needed a tutor in Anglo-Saxon.
Soon the Tolkiens decided that they could afford the rent of a small house, and moved to 1 Alfred Street (now called Pusey Street). They moved there in late summer 1919, engaged a cook-housemaid, and brought Edith’s beloved piano was out of storage. Soon she fell pregnant again.
By spring 1920, Tolkien was earning enough from tuition to give up the NED. He continued to work on “The Book of Lost Tales”, reading the “Fall of Gondolin” to the Essay Club at Exeter College, where it was well received.
But the family’s plans suddenly changed when Tolkien applied for the post of Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, scarcely expecting to be considered. However, considered he was, and eventually he was offered the post.