Wolvercote Cemetery, located in a small village in Oxford, is a place of pilgrimage for many. People from various parts of the world flock here to visit the final resting place of J.R.R Tolkien, the author of books like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, that continue to hold sway over children and adults, even today.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, or Ronald as he was known to family and friends, was born on January 3rd 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to Englishman Arthur Reuel Tolkien and his wife Mabel. He also had a younger brother named Hilary. When Ronald was three years old, his mother took him and his brother to England for what was planned as a short vacation. Unfortunately, his father, who was expected to join them in England later, died in South Africa due to an attack of rheumatic fever. The Tolkiens then stayed with Mabel’s parents in England. Their woes did not end there. At age twelve, Ronald lost his mother to diabetes, which was a fatal disease in those pre-insulin days. The boys were then assigned to the guardianship of Fr. Francis Morgan, who played an important role in their Catholic upbringing.
Tolkien was a keen student of languages from a very young age. He quickly gained competence in languages like Greek, Latin, Gothic and Finnish. As a child, he had even created new languages, purely for fun. It was this love for languages that allowed J.R.R. Tolkien – the writer – to take shape. In fact, Tolkien is perhaps the only writer studied so extensively as a fiction writer and a philologist. Even today, his craft and style are discussed in academic circles all over the globe. The volume of his writings is so vast that it has been able to sustain the interest of linguistic researchers for decades.
He further explored his affinity for languages during his student years at Oxford. Early German, especially Anglo-Saxon literature, poetry and mythology fascinated him. He was inspired by their language, style and subjects. Their influences can be seen in a lot of his writings. Throughout his student years, he kept an interest in the creation of new languages, attempting to invent a language for the Elves.
Tolkien found his soul mate in Edith Bratt, whom he married in 1916 after a long courtship. The same year, the United Kingdom was engaged in World War I and Tolkien joined the armed forces. In June 1916, he arrived in France as a member of the British Expeditionary Force. This was a difficult time for him and Edith. He later wrote, “Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then … it was like death.” It was a stressful time for a simple man like Tolkien. He was sent back home in November 1916 as he was suffering from trench fever, a disease common in the unsanitary conditions of the war. Tolkien lost much in WW I. He declared, in later years, “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Stirred by his experiences in the war, he wrote The Book of Lost Tales (published posthumously) during his period of recovery. Most stories of the Silmarillion first appear in these pages. The book also featured the romantic tale of Luthien and Beren, the immortal Elf-maiden and mortal Man, which was inspired by Tolkien’s wife. It was from this point that the magical world of Middle-Earth took off on its flight.
Later, Tolkien took up a post as Reader in English Language at Leeds University. Here, he continued his work on The Lost Tales and the “Elvish” languages. Tolkien successfully applied for the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925. It was during his Professorship at Oxford that this man fully discovered the magical world of Middle-Earth. He was the professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945 and of English Language and Literature from 1945-1959. During his tenure, he met with several intellectual minds of his generation. C.S. Lewis, also an author of fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia, had been a good friend of Tolkien’s. They were both members of “Inklings”, an informal literary discussion group in Oxford. Tolkien presented some of his early writings to this group. The two encouraged and supported each other. Unfortunately, they fell apart from each other later.
Meanwhile, a stroke of inspiration led the master writer to author The Hobbit. The now well-known story goes thus — while he was carrying out the tedious task of marking exam papers, he came across a paper in which the candidate had left a page blank. On a stroke of what could, perhaps, be called divine intervention, he was moved to write, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”, on the page. It is only appropriate that one of the greatest stories by the father of modern fantasy should have begun thus. The genius that he was, Tolkien then went on to write more about the Hobbit and his adventures, thus creating a classic fantasy. An incomplete manuscript of The Hobbit happened to fall into the hands Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishing firm George Allen and Unwin, who encouraged Tolkien to write more. The Hobbit was published in 1937, and became an immediate success. This was followed by The Lord of the Rings (published in three volumes from 1954-1955). And the world of fantasy literature was transformed for ever. Several works of Tolkien’s were also published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien. Some of them are the Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin etc.
Tolkien was not the first writer of fantasy. There were several others like William Morris, George MacDonald and Andrew Lang who came before him, and from whom he drew inspiration. But Tolkien, in his works, put together an irresistible combination of a mind-blowing storyline, simple writing and subtle humour. W.H. Auden says, “I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it”. His works have invited quite a bit of criticism. Tolkien has frequently been accused of “escapism”. The only reply is that the Lord of the Rings is exactly that … escapist literature of the very highest quality! The Lord of the Rings and the other books like Silmarillion transport the reader into the magical realm of Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s descriptions are so vivid that one cannot help but “believe”. Only Tolkien, with his immense dedication and passion for his story, could produce such extensive material to bring to life a whole new world. Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts throw light on the depth of the history he created for Middle-Earth. As a philologist, he also created languages for each of the species described in his books, Quenya and Sindarin being the most well-developed of them.
The depth and clarity of Tolkien’s stories endeared him to his readers. Tolkien, who revived the fantasy genre of writing, is called the Father of Modern Fantasy. The greatest tribute to the unparalleled genius of this man is the influence he has had on every writer of fantasy after him. Best selling authors, like W.H. Auden, Arthur. C. Clarke, Terry Pratchett, Anne McCaffery and several others, bow before this mastermind. “Tolkien did what Dickens and Dostoyevsky did, create an entire universe with believable characters, depth and details. Very few people manage that,” says Michael White, author and biographer. Tolkien has received several awards and commendations in his lifetime. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1972. The users of Amazon.com voted the Lord of the Rings the “Book of the Millenium”. His books have acquired a cult following and have been made into movies and video games.
Despite the fame and popularity that he received, Tolkien still remained the same, simple man. He was against industrialization and disliked cars, often choosing to ride a bicycle. He preferred the peace and tranquility of his home and life with his family. When he rose to popularity, he chose to move to the quiet resort of Bournemouth with them.
J.R.R Tolkien passed away on the 2nd of September 1973 and was buried alongside his wife, Edith. The legend on the gravestone says:
Edith Mary Tolkien
John Ronal Reuel Tolkien
Even in death, Tolkien remained true to his passion. “I wish life was not so short. Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.”, says one of Tolkien’s characters from the book The Lost Road. In his limited lifetime, J.R.R Tolkien brought to life a whole new world that will entertain people in the generations to come.