The success of John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien’s magnificent trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” having now been followed by director Peter Jackson’s new movie, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” it seems appropriate to visit with Tolkien himself, especially since he was born this week (Jan 3) in 1892.
His literary career began in his early twenties when his talent for linguistics helped earn him a scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied Old and Middle English. For fun, Tolkien also began inventing his own languages.
Graduating from Oxford in 1915, Tolkien joined the army and fought in the trenches during World War I, but after developing trench fever he was sent home to recuperate. It was during his recovery that Tolkien first began writing stories about “Middle Earth,” creating characters, magical creatures, entirely new languages and histories that would lay the groundwork for his two most famous works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In 1918 Tolkien returned to Oxford, where, except for a brief professorship at Leeds University, he would spend the rest of his academic life. At Oxford, Tolkien published several acclaimed studies and translations of Old and Middle English stories, including the legend of the Knights of the Roundtable.
This interest in legends would manifest itself in his own writings, and was reinforced by his friendship with England’s other literary giant, C.S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), who also taught at Oxford. Tolkien and Lewis both loved a tall tale, especially one with mythological origins, and so the two scholars started an informal study group called “The Inklings,” which met weekly in Lewis’s quarters at Oxford to discuss mythology, literature, religion and many other topics. It was during these weekly meetings that Tolkien first read aloud excerpts from The Hobbit and the first book of his great “Ring” trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Both Lewis and Tolkien also were firm adherents of Christianity, and its influence on their work is undeniable. In Tolkien’s case, the themes of good versus evil — think Gandalf and Aragon struggling against the Dark Lord Sauron — the call to sacrifice and heroism, and the prevalence of magic and miracles in the “Rings” trilogy are manifestations of his religious convictions and his passion for mythology. Indeed, Tolkien believed that mythology shared religion’s power to enrich the spirit and explain universal truths.
When J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973 he had gained a following rare among writers — he was as revered on college campuses as he was in literary circles. And rightfully so. In the main Tolkien is as fine, and as fun, a writer as you’ll ever read.