THE SHIRE (WHTM) — January 3 marks the birthday of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the Oxford Professor of Linguistics, who wrote some of the most famous books in the world including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien (pronounced TOLL-keen) was born in Africa, in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province in the Republic of South Africa), where his father was a bank manager. At age three, Tolkien went to England with his mother and brother for what was supposed to be just a visit but became a permanent move when his father died. The English countryside he grew up in inspired the Shire, the homeland of the Hobbits.
Early on, he showed a talent for languages. In addition to English, he knew Latin, French, German, Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse (Old Icelandic), Spanish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh, and had at least some familiarity with Danish, Dutch, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, and Swedish. As if learning all those languages was not enough, in his teen years, he became interested in invented languages and started creating some of his own.
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Then World War I broke out. Tolkien joined the British army and arrived in France just in time to be thrown into the Battle of the Somme. This brutal slugfest, which began in July of 1916 and dragged on until November, pitted French and British armies against Germans. Together the three armies generated around one million casualties, killed, wounded, or missing. Tolkien contracted trench fever (a disease spread by lice) in October. It almost killed him but may have saved his life by taking him out of combat. As he later related, by the end of the war all but one of his closest friends was dead. His experience in that war made its way into the Lord of the Rings; both the horror of combat and the bonds that could form among soldiers in the field.
After the war, Tolkien worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, working mostly on the histories of words of Germanic origin, then embarked on a career as a professor of languages at Oxford. He did fresh translations of the Middle English Poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. He also helped create A Middle English Vocabulary. His 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” upended the scholarly views of the poem by pointing out it was a poem, and the monsters-Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the dragon-were central to the story of human destiny.
And all the while, he was teaching students, and of course, conducting exams. One day in the early 1930s, he was marking tests and found a student had left a page blank. Looking at the page, he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The rest, as they say, is Middle Earth history. The Hobbit was successful, and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, went from reasonably successful to astonishingly successful to cultural phenomenon over the decades, especially after the movies came out in the early 2000s.
His success inspired other writers, and now fantasy novels fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Tolkien created the mold for modern fantasy stories, and writers of these stories, whether they want to or not, must acknowledge his influence. You can set your story in a Tolkienish medieval-like world of sword, sorcery, wizards, elves, orcs, and horses, or try to get as far away from that setting as possible by staging your story in a gritty modern cityscape, with that thing lurking around the corner or in the sewer or barreling down the street in a motorcycle. Either way, the Oxford Don is looking over your shoulder. (Come to think of it, there are a lot of gritty cityscapes in LOTR.)
And the scholar has himself become the subject of scholarship. Books, magazines, and webpages all delve into the mysteries of Middle-Earth, and the amazing history (possibly the most elaborate backstory ever) Tolkien created for his fantastic universe.
So on January 3, we acknowledge the effects J.R.R. Tolkien has had on our society, for teaching us stories set in Faerie (by whatever name you call it) can teach us much about ourselves and are not “just fairy stories.”