I - The Author, a short biography
1The Early Years
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is one of the most influential writers of fantasy fiction in the English speaking literary world. Not only have his own writings been translated into 25 different languages and sold millions of times, but the magic of his books, his vision of Elves, Orcs and other unusual races may be seen again and again today in the works of many writers of fantasy fiction, painters and other artists. Who is this man and where did he come from?
The name Tolkien is very probably of German origin (Tollkühn), but in spite of their Saxon heritage J.R.R. Tolkien’s father Arthur Reuel Tolkien and his family considered themselves to be English through and through. Shortly after Arthur moved to South Africa with his wife Mabel Suffield for financial reasons, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Ronald to his family) was born on January 3rd, 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa, followed, two years later, by his brother Hilary.
After his father’s untimely death in 1896 his mother quickly moved back to England, taking her two boys with her. Mabel Suffield joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1900 together with her sons and, although she also died surprisingly soon of diabetes in 1904, both Ronald and Hilary remained Catholics throughout their entire lives. After his mother’s death Ronald and his brother were raised by the Catholic Father Francis Morgan.
Having been introduced to Latin, ancient Greek and German by his mother, Ronald Tolkien soon mastered other languages like Gothic, Finnish, Welsh and Old English at Exeter College, Oxford, and also began making up his own languages at a young age. It was here, that Tolkien first came upon two lines in the Old English poem ‘Crist’ by Cynewulf.
Eala Earendel engla beorthast
ofer middangeard monnum sended.
Hail Earendel, brightest of Angels,
Above Middle-earth sent unto men.
‘Middle-earth’ is an ancient designation for Europe, while its Scandinavian version ‘Midgard’ designates the world of Men as opposed to the world of Gods. Tolkien soon started playing with this theme and wrote his first poem about the mariner Earendel in his made up Elvish language Quenya in 1914.
After four years of studies in Oxford he finished with a first class degree in 1915 and married Edith Bratt the following year shortly before he was sent straight into the Somme offensive. He was sent back after only four months with trench fever but remained in home service throughout 1917 and 1918, when his first son, John Francis Reuel, was born. It was during this time that Tolkien thought up his characters Beren, a mortal man, and Lúthien, an immortal Evish woman, who fell in love, Lúthien sacrificing her immortality to be with Beren.
After the end of the war he worked as an Assistant Lexicographer on what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary and was, in 1920, appointed Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds. He stayed in Leeds, where his second (Michael Hilary Reuel, 1920) and third son (Christopher Reuel, 1924) were born until he successfully applied for a professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925. There his last child, Priscilla, was born in 1929.
At Oxford Tolkien gathered a group of fellow writers around him, the ‘Inklings’, the closest of whom to Tolkien must have been C. S. Lewis. This loose grouping met regularly, mostly to discuss their half finished or yet unprinted works. It was probably here, that Tolkien read for the first time his tales of the fall of Gondolin and the war of the Elves against Morgoth.
A storyteller at heart, Tolkien used to make up stories for his children all the time. One day, while marking exam papers, he wrote, for no particular reason, on a blank piece of examination paper the line ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ He was so intrigued by this that he quickly started to make up or find out, as he himself would say, more about this Hobbit. Tolkien would later write that similarities between himself and his creation, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, were obvious. Tolkien’s mother, Mabel Suffield, one of the three remarkable daughters of old John Suffield became Belladonna Took, one of the three daughters of the Old Took himself. The other side of the family, the Bagginses were, like the Tolkiens, respectable and sensible people. Tolkien himself superimposed a number of his own preferences, good plain food, especially mushrooms, a pipe, colourful clothing and the like on the entire Hobbit society. The name ‘Bag End’ for Bilbo’s home is taken directly from what local people used to call his aunt Jane’s farm in Worcestershire, Worcestershire itself being what was to be rendered into the Shire in Tolkien’s writings. Although in itself independent at first, ‘The Hobbit’ and the world of Bilbo Baggins got drawn more and more into Tolkien’s made up world of the Elves, their language Quenya, Beren and Lúthien. It is a children’s story, but deeply interwoven with Tolkien’s mythology and what was much later to be published as the ‘Silmarillion’. Tolkien decided that the adventures of Bilbo Baggins were to take place thousands of years after said mythological basis in what he called the ‘Third Age’.
Tolkien’s tales of strange and distant lands do not take place on a different planet, but are deeply connected to our earth.
‘... Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. ... The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N. W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance in time. ...’1
Tolkien finished writing ‘The Hobbit’ in 1936 and it was printed by Allen & Unwin in 1937 after Stanley Unwin tried it on his ten-year-old son Rayner. The first edition of the book was published on September 21st, 1937 and was sold out by Christmas after it had received a number of remarkable reviews, especially one in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ by Tolkien’s dear friend and Inkling fellow C. S. Lewis. After reprints as well as publication in America, Tolkien’s publisher Unwin was in desperate need of a follow up to ‘The Hobbit’. Tolkien at first hoped that he could finally organise and publish his mythological collection, the ‘Silmarillion’, but this material, with the possible exception of a prose ending to the unfinished longish poem ‘The Gest of Beren and Lúthien’ was considered unpublishable by Unwin. Tolkien was disappointed, but agreed to write new material as a sequel to ‘The Hobbit’.
3The Lord of the Rings
As Tolkien believed to have rather used up the character of Bilbo Baggins and all there was to him, he soon had the idea to let Bilbo’s nephew (he was called Bingo at first and much later became Frodo) have an adventure. He also chose rather early to let the ring, that Bilbo finds in ‘The Hobbit’, play a major role. After the first chapter was completed by December 1937 work on the new book got rather out of hand. By August 1938 the major plot as well as the importance of the One Ring were laid out by Tolkien on a family holiday at Sidmouth. Even the title ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is mentioned by Tolkien at this stage.
The author often got weary writing this book as a sequel to ‘The Hobbit’, wanting to go on with his serious mythology in the ‘Silmarillion’. By the autumn of 1938 Tolkien realised, that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (henceforth abbreviated as LOTR) was in no way going to be a children’s’ book, but also not as deeply mythological as the ‘Silmarillion’. He strongly felt, that every aspect of his earlier work unitedly served to create the background world to LOTR.
The outbreak of WWII had no immediate influence on Tolkien’s life at Oxford. 1940 saw the first of what was to become a number of obstacles in the continuing writing of LOTR. At the end of 1942 Tolkien had written 31 chapters, but strongly felt that he was stuck. It took the help of his son Christopher to draw an exact map of the regions covered so far. Much of the time invested in that stage had gone into the finer and more thorough definition of the two Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin that Tolkien used mostly for short poems and to create the names of characters and places. Tolkien laid a great deal of importance on the finer details as he wanted his readers to get inside the story and take it as actual history.
During the following years Tolkien slowly continued to inch his way through the final chapters of the book and to tie up loose ends, continuously sending information on his progress to his son Christopher, who was at that time training as a pilot for the R.A.F. in South Africa. He rewrote a chapter of ‘The Hobbit’ to have it connect better with what he wrote for LOTR; this changed chapter was included in the first reprint of ‘The Hobbit’ after the war. Tolkien finished writing LOTR in late 1947 and reviewed and changed it for almost another two years until, in 1949, the book was ready to be printed.
As Tolkien had grown angry about Allen & Unwin, because they had rejected his ‘Silmarillion’ in 1937, he tried, at first, to have LOTR published by Milton Waldman of the publishing house Collins. He was interested in not only publishing LOTR, but also the ‘Silmarillion’, provided that Tolkien would finish it. Tolkien’s contract with Allen & Unwin over ‘The Hobbit’ had included a clause about a two months’ consideration time for his next book, but because Tolkien wanted to publish with Collins he merely informed Allen & Unwin in February 1950 of the fact, that he had finished LOTR as a rather long sequel to not ‘The Hobbit’, but the ‘Silmarillion’, wanting to publish both, and that they were not at all suitable for children if suitable for anyone at all.
‘... Ridiculous and tiresome as you may think me, I want to publish them both – The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings – in conjunction or in connexion. ... All the same that is what I should like. Or I will let it all be. ...’2
Unwin regarded the sheer bulk of the material, which had only been described by Tolkien and not presented as a full manuscript yet, to be too much and so proposed to have LOTR cut, rewritten or published in several volumes, but Tolkien refused angrily. Unwin did not want to publish the material as it was, so Tolkien left Allen & Unwin, achieving the first step of his initial objective, to publish with Collins.
‘... Sir Stanley Unwin has at length replied personally. ... I added that I shall not be surprised if he declines to become involved in this monstrous Saga; and that now it is off my chest, I am very willing to turn out something simpler and shorter (and even actually ‘juvenile’) for him, soon. ...’3
When Tolkien met with Waldman and William Collins himself in London he was disappointed to hear that they, too, regarded LOTR to be too long and in need of further cutting. Negotiations with Collins became more and more confused as Tolkien provided Waldman with further chapters for the ‘Silmarillion’, which Tolkien regarded as important as LOTR. As nothing had happened by late 1952, Tolkien set Collins under pressure to immediately publish it, otherwise he would leave them and go back to Allen & Unwin. Collins refused and Tolkien personally presented his manuscript to Rayner Unwin, Stanley Unwin’s son who had first read ‘The Hobbit’ back in 1937, and who convinced him that it could only be published in three volumes due to the high price of paper at the time. Tolkien agreed to divide LOTR up into three volumes which were to be named ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’, although Tolkien preferred ‘The War of the Ring’ for the latter, for it gave away less of the story. LOTR was to be sold on a profit sharing agreement, in order to keep the company’s losses low, should the book not sell enough copies to cover production costs, as no one, including the author, actually believed that it would sell more than a few thousand copies.
The reaction after the first volume’s publication in the summer of 1954 was overwhelming. Reviews (including, again, one by Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis in ‘Time & Tide’) loved it and six weeks after its initial publication a first reprint was ordered. In November 1954 the second volume was published, but Tolkien was busy trying to finish the appendices he had promised to have ready for volume three, including an enlarged map of Gondor and Mordor. Time pressed and readers started to become seriously anxious of what was to become of the characters of volume one and two. Tolkien delivered the final appendices as well as the promised maps on May 20th, but was unreachable for his publishers, when he left for Italy with his daughter Priscilla. A number of queries concerning the runes and other matters could not be resolved until Tolkien returned to Oxford, which is why ‘The Return of the King’ did not reach bookstores before October 20th, almost a year after ‘The Two Towers’.
Needless to say, Allen & Unwin did not lose money through the publication of LOTR, but made a huge profit. In 1956 Tolkien received a first payment of 3,500 £, considerably more than his annual salary from the university, and sales were to rise slowly but steadily in the following years. A first translation into Dutch was published in 1956, a Swedish one in 1959. Translations in other languages followed.
Publication in America was taken care of by Houghton Mifflin, and in 1965 Tolkien had Ballantine Books issue a paperback version of LOTR in the USA, which, sadly, had a cover artwork by an artist who had no idea what the book was about, which is why a strange landscape, a little village and, for some reason, emus, can be seen on its cover. This publication was a reaction to an unauthorised paperback edition by Ace Books which had hit the market without any credit to Tolkien whatsoever, the American copyright laws in that time being in a confusing state. As both versions were on sale in America in 1965, Tolkien tried to convince his American readers in replies to fan letters, that the Ace version was unauthorised and unapproved of. He did so with help from his US fan club ‘The Tolkien Society of America’. Their influence to American readers grew so high, that Ace Books was pressed to agree to pay Tolkien a royalty for every copy sold, and not to reprint the book.
The success of LOTR in the USA was even bigger than in Britain. Tolkien Societies began to emerge throughout the country and especially students became true followers of Tolkien’s writing. By 1966 LOTR was outselling Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ and Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, and this enthusiasm started to spread throughout the world. By 1968 an estimated three million copies had been sold worldwide. It had become the bible of the alternative society.
Tolkien himself was not actually pleased by all the cult that was made about him and his book. Fans from England as well as America came to stare at his house or to call him in the middle of the night demanding details of the story or of Evish grammar that not even he had ever thought about.
In 1969, at the age of 73 Tolkien retired from his professorship, regretting not to have done so earlier, after income tax had become a serious problem. He moved to Bournemouth with his wife Edith, who died in 1971. Tolkien returned to Oxford, died in 1973 and was buried there next to his wife in a joined grave. The headstone reads: ‘Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889-1971, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973’.
Four years later, in 1977, Tolkien’s son Christopher finally edited and published the long awaited ‘Silmarillion’, which sold surprisingly well, and later also a number of other yet unfinished or unpublished parts of his father’s work.
1Letter #183 (Notes on W. H. Auden’s review of ‘The Return of the King’, January 22nd 1956), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 238
2Letter #124 (To Sir Stanley Unwin, February 24th 1950), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 135
3Letter #126 (To Milton Waldman, March 10th 1950), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 139