JRR Tolkien Essays
Reports on Tolkien
St. John’s at Prospect Hall – Catholic High School 1990-94
Taken from old reports by Walton Stowell, Robert Trainor, & Chris Chromey
Middle-Earth: Our History? – based on Rob Trainor’s highschool paper 1993
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontien, South Africa; on January 3, 1892. His father worked there as a banker, although both of his parents were from England. When John was only 4 years old, his father died. His mother Mabel then took young John and his younger brother, back to her native home in Birmingham, England. John was raised there and attended the King Edward School.
In 1904 when John was 12, his mother passed away. From then on he and his brother were raised by a Roman Catholic priest. Tolkien went from King Edward’s school, to Exeter College at Oxford. Before he got his degree, World War I broke out. In 1915 at the age of 23, John Tolkien entered the army, with the Lancashire Fusiliers regiment. The next year he married Miss Edith Bratt, who later became the mother of his children. Tolkien served with the Fusiliers from 1915 until 1918. At the end of WW1, he returned home and went back to college. John got his Masters Degree in 1919.
John studied many languages and knew a number of languages including Latin, German, Gothic, French, Greek, and Middle English. He developed his own hybrid languages, which would be the basis for his novels. John worked for a short time on the famous Oxford English Dictionary. He also became a ‘reader’ professor in English at Leeds University from 1924-25. His first publication was A Middle-English Vocabulary. Then he and E.V. Gordon published a critical text on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, analyzing the infamous old 14th-Century anonymous poem; John later translated it into modern English verse.
In 1925 John Tolkien left Leeds, and went to Pembroke College at Oxford; where he remained for the next 20 years, as Rawlison and Bosforth ‘Professor of Anglo-Saxon’. John’s imaginary languages led to him forming lands and stories around them. He sorted out places where his languages would be spoken, and what their attitudes might be culturally. John became an Oxford ‘fellow’ and ‘don’. He published Chaucer as a Philologist in 1934. Next came Beowulf: Monster and Critics. Tolkien himself had become a respected philologist. Philology is the study of written words, their origins, and meanings.
He wrote stories for his children, as ‘letters from’ Father Christmas. While grading college papers, John Tolkien began day-dreaming and sketching notes about a ‘hobbit’. In 1937, when Tolkien was 45 he was urged by his colleagues and children to publish his book called The Hobbit. It took him 12 more years to write the Lord of the Rings. It took John his life-time to write the Silmarillion, which was post-humously finished for him by his son, Christopher Tolkien.
‘Middle-Earth’ is the setting for The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Tolkien describes Middle-Earth using familiar objects and concepts, that make it seem like it could have existed in the distant past of England. This is how Tolkien conceived many of the ideas, and to many fans there are many charming and philosophical allegories and parallels. According to Tolkien, Middle-Earth (Arda) is ultimately its’ own world set in a fictional past of Earth, and not just mere metaphor.
Tolkien wanted to create a fictional mythology for the English, as they didn’t really have one before (besides the Mabinogion, Book of Kells, Beowulf, and the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood). He certainly achieved his goal of creation. Middle-Earth should perhaps best be considered a fantasy time period, set in the distant pre-historic past of Europe. The anachronisms and races are very much fantasy, and the themes are mythical.
References where Tolkien compared the reality of modern Europe and the fiction of ancient Middle-Earth include: the landscape and habits of Hobbiton (like Welsh), Hobbiton’s position north-west, general geography, astronomy changes, language roots, and flora and fauna (including insects). “It is plain indeed, that in spite of later estrangement, Hobbits are relatives of ours: far nearer to us than elves, or even than dwarves.” (LOTR I, 20) The land is similar to Europe, but much has changed by years of ‘wind and wave’. The significance of the comparison, is that it gives us familiarity with the setting. These descriptions also add believable gravitas; that the lands have been there for a long time, and slowly changed over time. Things like tobacco, clothing, and chimneys are clearly taken out of time and place and dropped in for amusement.
JRR Tolkien – based on Chris Chromey’s research paper, English 11, 1992
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell; nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.” – 1st paragraph of The Hobbit
In 1938 the world was introduced to its first hobbit. Somehow we fell in love with this short round creature who lives in a hole with a life of comfort and a friendly manner. Throw in an adventure of dwarves, magic treasure, and evil monsters; and you come up with a tale so enchanting that its popularity breaks new ground in literature and pioneers the way of fantasy writing.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was the brilliant inventor of the hobbit race (and Middle-Earth). The Hobbit, his first book concerning this magical world, started out as a story Tolkien told to his children in the form of letters he would give them every Christmas (via ‘Father Christmas’ mail), which contained a chapter of hobbit Bilbo Baggin’s adventures and illustrations. Later on in life Tolkien read the hobbit tales to his literary chums, in a jolly writing group called the Inklings. The Inklings were a group of scholars who met with C.S. Lewis in his Magdalen college apartments, and later in old local English taverns. They would talk, read excerpts, and drink with an air of romanticism. Tolkien enjoyed these meetings, perhaps like Bilbo gathering with friends in the Shire of Middle-Earth.
Tolkien’s academic credentials help to explain why he was able to create such wonderful literature. Tolkien studied mythology and languages, with a focus on Celtic and Germanic lore. Tolkien loved English legends, and wanted England to have more of its own mythological literature. He began creating his own languages also, and used characters (like dwarves, valkyries, and elves) from Teutonic folk-lore. Dwarves were like vikings with their Norse beards, weapons, and armor. Elves were like elegant thin human-sized medieval English style faeries. The tree-ents were like dryads, and the wild ‘wose’ men were like Gaels; both of Celtic origins.
His re-imaginings of old ideas became the basis for the modern ‘medieval-fantasy’ genre. Tolkien published the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings few books during his life-time, but he was not able to finish the Silmarillion which was his large bible of Middle-Earth mythology. Pieces of the Silmarillion were edited and published after JRR Tolkien died, by his son Christopher Tolkien. It shows his father’s genius for synthesizing imagination, literature, language, and mythology in extraordinary detail.
Although Tolkien did not use the term ‘fairy’ in his Middle-Earth books, he did create a “fairy world”, or to be more specific an old world of faeries, that humans had begun to colonize and spread into by more rapidly populating. Humans had shorter lives than the other races, so they clearly were procreating faster, and elves were leaving into the West (much as they did in Celtic myths and legends).
About JRR Tolkien’s youth, we know he had a playmate besides his brother when he lived in Africa; named Hillary. They would play fantasy adventures based on stories. When JRR was about 7 years old, he began to compose his own story about a dragon. He recalled a ‘philological fact’ that his mother was more interested in his grammar, than the story or the characters. She pointed out that he should not say “a green great dragon”, but rather “a great green dragon”. This incident ‘put him off’ from writing for many years, and he became ‘taken up’ with language.
JRR Tolkien wrote an essay (similar to Frank Baum’s intro to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) called ‘On Fairy Stories’, to explaining the relationship between reality, fiction, and folk-lore. Tolkien’s essay also addressed Andrew Lang’s ‘fairy-tales’, and what constitutes stories about the land of ‘Faerie’ and what does not (in the mind of Tolkien). Here is an excerpt:
… Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker; or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar qualities of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality”, it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake in reality. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘is it true?’. My answer to this question (that all children ask) was at first (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” …
To summarize Tolkien’s point here, the art of literature acts as an enchantment upon our minds. A well constructed world of words that tells a story, invites us to believe that the lore is ‘real’. Every writer making a secondary ‘fantasy’ world, wants the reader to desire to believe it is real. This ‘believable’ quality is achieved by using real ‘primary world’ references or characters that can view the fiction through our perspective (and vice-versa). The joy of reading realistic fantasy, is not just escapism, but the thrill of believable travel to that world; by defining its’ own reality. If fiction is well created, it has its’ own consistent truth; which reflects our own reality, each version of every story a magic mirror. The world consistency can change, but it should be reflected on in some way, as in ‘Alice and Wonderland’ stories, the consistency is to be inconsistent with the ‘rules’; with self-exposed unpredictability, as commented on by characters or narration.
By providing linguistic and historic backgrounds, Tolkien gave us the essence of his characters. We can find out more about them, just as we look into non-fiction books for facts about our historical figures. Tolkien thrived on the fact that language is the basis to all communication, and therefore knowledge. Fantasy novels after Tolkien, often imitate his settings and plots, without the depth.
Tolkien’s work feels timeless, like by reading his words we can escape Time. Yet his words also remind us of the power of Time; as with the riddle from the Hobbit:
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kinds, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
Tolkien’s narration language seems ancient, and yet timeless because we can still understand it. One critic* accused his ‘boring’ writing of being a ‘syncretic antiquarian collage’. The critic goes on to say that Tolkien’s “ignorance of all he so conscientiously is trying to transmit” … “definitely leaves his writing lacking”. Clearly, the critic was wrong. To me this is a perfect example of how critics that go beyond factual summary, often show their own ignorance and childishness.
* Essays In Memorium; Catherine Stimpson; Salu & Ferrell (editors); Cornell University, 1979
Tolkien loved children, spent time with them, and made sure to be home at night to tuck in his own children. It was his love for children that drove him to write books for them, built upon college graduate level (adult) education and his child-like imagination (which apparently he never lost). He was not content with the children’s fairy tales he had, when he was a child. Tolkien wanted to give children books that he felt they deserved, that even their adult minds’ could grow into with maturity. The age orientation of his books seems to be progressive. The Hobbit is child-like, the Lord of the Rings is for teens, and the Silmarillion is for adults; but because Tolkien was a scholar, the books are really more advanced, always seeming to be one step ahead of the reader, transcending age at every turn.