J. R. R. Tolkien
It is a peculiarly British slice of history that our greatest works of fantasy should have emerged from a group of academics sitting in a smoke-filled local pub. The group was, of course, the Inklings and the pub was the Eagle and Child (known colloquially as the Bird and Baby) in Oxford.
The group included the bard of myth and children’s fable Roger Lancelyn Green, the creator of Narnia, C.S. Lewis and, perhaps most famously of all, the Lord of Middle Earth himself, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings.
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The Making of the Fellowship
Tolkien biography and criticism
J. R. R. Tolkien Biography
Before the Beginning
The childhood landscape that influenced Tolkien’s later fantasy world was a mixture of the gentle, rolling countryside of the West Midlands, the industrial hub of Birmingham, and the wilder hills of the Welsh borders.
A keen linguist, Tolkien showed an early proficiency in Latin, Greek and Finnish, as well as making up his own languages for fun. During active service in the First World War, having lost all but one of his close friends, he started to pull together stories ‘in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents’, a collection which later became the posthumously published Book of Lost Tales.
Returning from the front, he began a career in academia, first in Leeds where he and his colleague E.V. Gordon collaborated on their translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and then at Oxford, where he wrote his version of Beowulf.
‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’
Some of Tolkien’s earliest stories began life as tales for his children, including The Pocket Roverandom, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Farmer Giles of Ham, alongside his treasured Letter from Father Christmas.
Having idly come up with the idea of a creature living in a hill, Tolkien found himself needing a world and a story to put him in and so Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf and the first pieces of the Middle Earth puzzle were realised in The Hobbit. A modest success, several critics dismissed the book, with one commenting,‘this is not a work which many adults will read through more than once,’ - a view he was perhaps later forced to concede that was somewhat short-sighted.
Tolkien’s second foray into the world was The Silmarillion but publishers rejected it as too dense – Tolkien agreed ‘they were quite right’ and later revised the text. He returned to his earlier notes for the three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King) that would become The Lord of the Rings, a book that was to take him fourteen years to write.
Early modest sales and critical reception in Britain were aided by a hedonistic, 1960s counter-cultural following in the United States, its nororiety accelerated by a pirated paperback edition, forcing one University of California, Berkeley official to describe The Lord of the Rings as ‘more than a campus craze; it’s like a drug dream’. It was a following Tolkien had mixed views about, describing it as an ‘absurd frenzy’; it was nevertheless a frenzy that would make him not only famous, but wealthy.
‘The road goes ever on and on…’
Tolkien died in 1973 having achieved the status of a cult hero, enjoying considerable commercial success. Many Waterstone’s booksellers began their reading lives with his books and were delighted when he came top in our poll to find the greatest book of the twentieth century.
Despite being against dramatizing the books – he famously said ‘it would be easier to film The Odyssey,’ – they have nevertheless become some of the most watched (and profitable) films of all time.
Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien (himself a former Inkling and writer) has overseen the posthumous editing and publishing of many of Tolkien’s early works and drafted stories including The Children of Húrin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur and, in 2017, The Tale of Beren and Lúthien.
Tolkien insisted to the last that his books couldn’t be updated and shouldn’t be seen as allegories but as what he intended them to be – fairy tales designed not to imagine our own world but to create another. ‘The reader must approach Faerie with a willing suspension of disbelief. If a thing can be technologically controlled, it ceases to be magical.’
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