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Lord of the Rings was a classic when I was a kid. It was a tradition, a world into which I got a glimpse and I was very proud of that. It was a very nice world… To this day, I’m shocked to meet someone who hasn’t seen or read the LOTR trilogy. I always wonder if they’re aware how much they’re missing.But even if you do know the Lord of the Rings, if you’ve read The Hobbitfrom cover to cover, if you feel you practically live in Middle Earth, there might still be a story that you’re unfamiliar with, that of Tolkien himself.ImageWe usually refer to him as just Tolkien. I guess it’s because saying John Ronald Reuel Tolkien five times in a conversa-tion gets a bit boring. I suppose you could call him Ronald, it’s what his friends called him, but Tolkien should be enough, for most people worth their salt.While researching for this piece, I had the wonderful surprise of finding out that the name Tolkien is believed to be of German origin (the great man himself be-lieved this), a variation of the word Toll-k?hn: foolishly brave, or stupidly clever. Isn’t that brilliant, given the circumstances? It just seems to fit in with the whole Tolkien universe…
A tumultuous personal lifeTolkien was born in January 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Although he only lived four years in South Africa, he remembered it rather well and claimed that it inspired his later writings, to some extent. But in 1896, Tolkien’s father, Arthur, died of complications of rheumatic fever, forcing the family (now comprised of Ronald, his mother, Mabel, and his younger brother, Hilary) to move back to Eng-land, specifically, in the hamlet of Sarehole, near Birmingham.Soon after, Mabel and her sister converted to Catholicism, and naturally, so did the boys. Tolkien would remain a devout Catholic throughout his life. Alt-hough poor, the family was quite happy. But not for long.
In 1904, when Tolkien was only twelve, his mother, Mabel, died of diabetes (fatal in the days before insulin) and he and his brother, Hilary, were placed in the care of the parish priest, Father Francis Morgan. Although the priest was theoretically in charge, the boys were boarded with an unsympathetic aunt for a short while, and then with a Mrs. Faulkner, who owned a boarding house.It was at this boarding house, at the age of 16, that he met a young woman, Edith Bratt, who was three years older than him.ImageThey were immediately drawn to one another and became good friends. The story goes that Edith would be his muse, throughout his life, inspiring many of his stories, especially the tale of Beren and Luthien, a recurring story in his Leg-endarium.
However, Father Francis, who was still responsible for the two boys, intervened and forbid Tolkien from seeing or speaking to this girl. So, the poor boy had to wait until he was 21 (when Father Francis was no longer responsible), in order to pursue his relationship with Edith.In the meantime, his academic life was going well…and then not so well. As a boy, he studied at King Edward’s School, where he became part of a reading group of friends. They would remain close friends, constantly sending one another their works, until 1916 when all – apart from Tolkien – died in the war. He was already showing a remarkable interest for lin-guistics, having mastered both Latin and Greek, and making up his own languages, for fun.He then went on to Oxford, to study Classics, but he didn’t do very well and switched to English Language and Literature.By this time, his relationship with Edith was also blossoming. But their life would be far from ideal. Just as they were growing closer together, the nations were growing closer to war.
And in 1914, World War I broke out. Tolkien was reluctant to enlist, of course, but in the end, he hadn’t a choice. However, he spent many boring months in England, where he didn’t see any action. But when it be-came apparent that he would be deployed to France, he married Edith, on 22 March 1916.ImageHe fought for four months (including the Battle of Somme), before he became ill with trench fever, due to the deplora-ble living conditions and was sent back to England. He did home service at various camps, after that.In November, 1917, his son, John Francis Reuel, was born. In the following twelve years, the couple would have three more children, Michael, Christopher and Priscilla.
In fact, many of his stories were born as bedtime stories for his children and would later be published as Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, etc.Befittingly, Tolkien took up a job as Assistant Lexicographer at the New English Dictionary, but he didn’t stay for long. He then became an Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. It was here that he collaborated with E. V. Gordon on the famous edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . It was also around this time that he began reading his own works in public.After this, he returned to Oxford as Professor. Here, he set the foundation for a group of Oxford friends, with similar interests, called ‘The Inklings’, with important members such as Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis.A hobbit is bornLegend has it that one evening, grading papers, Tolkien discovered a blank page, left behind by a student. For some mysteri-ous reason, he wrote on this pageIn a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.Tolkien then felt he had to know why he had written this odd statement and what a hobbit was, so he began investigating. The more he thought about it, the more complex the story became. He told it to his younger children and gave a manu-script to Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishing firm of George Allen and Unwin.She gave it to Stan-ley Unwin, who was the Chairman of the firm. Stanley tried the story on his own 10 year old son,Rayner, who liked it.
Later onayner would also be involved in the publishing of The Lord of the Rings. And so, The Hobbitwas published in 1937.He then went to work on more tales of this imaginary world of his. What came forth wasn’t LOTR, as one would expect, but The Silmarillion, which combined several stories that had already appeared in The Hobbit. The Unwins decided that although it was good, it wouldn’t sell. However, they did encourage Tolkien to write a sequel for The Hobbit. Although disappointed in the failure of his most recent work, he agreed. And thank God he did.Needless to speak of the magnitude of The Lord of the Ring series, of the cult following ti gathered and still has to this day. J.R.R. Tolkien spent years creating a world apart from our own, painting vivid pictures in so many minds.ImageWhat’s amazing to me, about this man, is that his entire life revolved around this story. That even the incident with the piece of paper and the hobbit note only played into an already on-going story in his head.J.R.R.
Tolkien died on 2 September 1973, two years after his beloved wife (and muse), Edith. They are buried to-gether. And although the man himself is dead, his memory lives on through his wonderful creations and will continue to do so, for a very long time.Left: Tolkien and his EdithRight: notice the names Beren and Luthien?
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