John Ronald Reuel Tolkien led the quiet, hobbitish life of an Oxford professor for 34 years, working in German and Saxon studies from 1925 until he hung up the robes in 1959.
Tolkien made a significant mark in his world purely as an academic—his ground-breaking paper on the epic Old English poem Beowulf changed scholarship on that work forever, and he’d have died a respectable man in 1973 even if he’d never put pen to page to spin fantasy masterpieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These books, of course, made him a name outside Oxford and academe… and every serious reader today knows of his literary Middle Earth, where goblins and elves and dwarves and shape-shifting bear-men and talking eagles and evil wolves and dragons—yes, dragons—carried on their affairs, fought their wars, loved their loves.
Tolkien may be world-famous today, but his life was hardly a bed of English roses. Born in the Orange Free State, in what would eventually become South Africa, Tolkien landed in a typical middle-class ex-pat family—his father ran a branch of an English bank far from the scepter’d isle.
In 1895, Mr. Tolkien took a trip back to England. Not long after, Tolkien, age three, and his mother and siblings learned that dear old daddy had died of rheumatic fever. The lad barely remembered having a father.
Tolkien proved a good student, as you’d expect from a kid who would grow up to be a writer. He aced his way through early schools and exams. He spent time drawing, but his real passion—language—soon became apparent. He read by age four, and learned Latin effortlessly. For his own fantasy reading, he enjoyed stories from the American West—stories of Red Indians, as he put it—and he always loved fairy stories.
These early elements, language and fantasy, formed the powerful bliss that Tolkien would follow his entire life.
When Tolkien’s mother died of diabetes when he was 12, the orphan passed into the care of relatives. Parentless, Tolkien must surely have oftentimes felt like a lonely soul on a solitary quest—often a theme in his works.
In 1911, two years before Europe became a slaughterhouse in WWI, Tolkien traveled in Switzerland. The Alps profoundly affected him, leaving an impression of majestic snowy peaks and hard hikes that appear again and again in his works. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we always find a mountain to get to, mountains to pass over, mountains to burrow under.
When The Great War came, Tolkien made rank as a low-level officer—one of those flowers of an entire generation of English youth to be harvested by German shears. The young scholar eventually found himself living in mud in the trenches of France. It proved a lousy experience—literally. Tolkien contracted trench fever, carried by the lice that swarmed everywhere on soldiers of WWI armies, and the disease made him too weak for duty. He spent the rest of the war in and out of hospitals, ravaged and emaciated.
That fever proved literature’s good luck. It got Tolkien through the war whole, and eventually he returned to his world of words.
He took a first job at The Oxford English Dictionary…and how’s this for a job description…he took responsibility for words of German origin that started with the letter W. In his spare time, he translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Old English. The work garnered some attention, and not long after publication Tolkien came home to mother Oxford to serve as a scholar at Pembroke College.
He began writing a book there that would be published to wild acclaim in 1937. It never went out of print, except during years of paper rationing in WWII.
Tolkien spun out a shaggy tale about a new kind of creature with fur on its feet and a taste for sweets, a thing called a hobbit that lived in a gentrified burrow in a place called The Shire. This world of hobbits physically resembled the gentle English countryside around Oxford.
Here’s how Tolkien introduces his furry progeny in the famous opening lines of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.
… what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow naturally leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curtly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it).
The chief hobbit of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, savors life as a complacent, middle-aged gentleman…or gentle-hobbit, maybe. He peaceably rests in his peaceable kingdom until one day when he answers a fateful knock on the door. To Bilbo’s astonishment, two dwarves stand on his stoop, expecting to be let in and fed. Two more dwarves soon appear, then two more, and two by two Bilbo’s comfortable, well-stocked home spills over with 13 hooded dwarves, then a wizard—Gandalf. The next thing Bilbo knows, he’s conscripted into this disreputable company and swept reluctantly off on an uncomfortable, despicable thing called…an adventure.
The dwarves seek to return to a distant place called The Lost Mountain. They once lived in a happy, prosperous kingdom beneath the promontory, until a terrible dragon, Smaug, moved in, stole their treasure (and much treasure from other folks), and drove the dwarves into exile. Now the dwarves intend, with the help of the remarkable wizard, to take back their world and treasure from the dragon.
This adventure, an innocent preamble to a tougher and darker Lord of the Rings, brings the traveling troupe through many toils and snares. They’re captured by trolls. Giant spiders catch them too—Tolkien as a child in South Africa got a nasty bite from a giant baboon spider, so we can hardly be surprised that antisocial arachnids often appear in his works.
The traveling party makes it through dark Mirkwood, with its oppressive forest gloom, and they make it through goblin-haunted caves under fearsome mountains. They dine with glamorous elf-lords and with mysterious bear-men, get chased up trees by giant wolves, get carried away in rescue by soaring eagles. For a reader who can easily switch on the Suspend Disbelief button, The Hobbit makes for a sheer, ecstatic romp.
Something also happens in The Hobbit that turns out to be one of those immortal moments in literature, as memorable as the moment Proust takes a taste of that madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past or when Ahab nails a gold coin to the mast in Moby Dick.
Deep in the caves beneath the Misty Mountains, Bilbo finds a magic ring. When the little hobbit slips it on, he disappears, allowing him to become just the sort of stellar burglar the dwarves imagined he would be at the outset of their adventure. Bilbo’s discovery also sets in motion events that make Tolkien a god for readers who love fantasy—the plot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy flows from Bilbo’s ring and all that happens after he has found it.
Paste reader, every book of fiction is really a fantasy, isn’t it? Every novel is make-believe, whether Dave Eggers or Nora Roberts or Gabriel Garcia Marquez dreamed it into being. The fantasies differ by degree, of course. Some books set out to model precisely the actual world we inhabit, with its cigarette smoke, lipstick, icy streets, summer dresses. Other books try to cast out further into the imagination, asking us to reconsider reality entirely. Readers who like fantasy and science fiction often seem more willing to leave behind the shores of verisimilitude.
Tolkien’s books followed many other-worldly fictions, but Tolkien can generally be acknowledged as the fountainhead of a renaissance of fantasy writing that has seamlessly flowed down in many rivers of ink to the vampires and dragons and even anime cultures of the modern day.
Tolkien as a scholar looked back into the ancient Saxon and German writings, including Beowulf, and read in the runes, in the outlandish story-telling and lyrical writing, a great many themes and moral messages that didn’t feel old at all, but timeless. He wrote out those themes and message for his 20th-century audiences, and conceived works of great beauty—books with the proven, if rare, ability to transport a reader to another reality and inspire other writers to dream up their owns worlds. For that accomplishment, we consider Tolkien the father of fantasy.
Father of fantasy. Not bad for a kid who never knew his own father.
Charles McNair published a new novel, Pickett’s Charge, in September. He authored the Pulitzer-nominated novel, Land O’ Goshen, and happily serves as Books Editor at Paste Magazine. Learn more at charlesmcnairauthor.com.