On This Day in History- 3 January 1892
Given the recent release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or The Hobbit Part 1 as I like to think of it, it’s fitting that today marks the 121st birthday of none other than fantasy giant John Ronald Reuel, or J.R.R., Tolkien. While he did not invent the genre of fantasy, one could argue that it dates back to the mythologies of pagan civilizations, he is most noted for a significant resurgence of the genre. He based his works on his own knowledge, his own beliefs, and his own experiences. The most autobiographical of them all was a trunk novel that didn’t see the light of day until after he died. His work has impacted all of us, myself included.
Born in what is now South Africa, he would move to England with his mother and younger brother shortly after his father died of a local fever (it is Africa, after all). Able to read at the age of four, already showing a love of language as well as nature, he went from school to school until his mother was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church in 1900, to the disdain of her Baptist family. She gave custody of her children to Friar Francis Xavier Morgan, shortly before succumbing to diabetes. This would combine with his love of fantasy stories in a way no one anticipated.
While he and his brother were brought up to be good Catholics, John steeped himself in religions and constructed languages. We’re familiar with some of them, such as Gene Roddenberry’s Klingon, but equally famous would be an invention of Tolkien’s. This happened when he encountered Animalic in his early teens, an invention of two cousins of his, while he was studying Anglo-Saxon and Latin. In 1911, he and three friends created a secret society that would result in Tolkien’s love for writing poetry (this is reflected in Elvish verse). Two years later, he formally engaged Edith Mary Bratt, though he would not marry her until he returned from the World War.
When the British Empire entered war with the Axis Powers in 1914, John shocked his relatives by delaying enlistment until he finalized his degree July of 1915, at which time he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in an infantry regiment. The following year, he transferred to an expeditionary unit, deploying to France in June of 1916. He wrote to his fiancee constantly, developing a code to get around the postal censorship. In doing so, he gave Edith a map of his movements throughout the Western Front.
It was in that October that John contracted Trench Fever. He was bounced around between hospitals a garrison duties, deemed unfit for general labor, while many of his dearest friends were killed one by one. He himself would have died, had he not been removed from combat due to multiple cases of trench foot (a deforming fungus that thrives in cold and mud), taking its toll in the form of depression.
With the war finally over, he turned to writing professionally. He started as a dictionary etymologist , specializing in Germanic. He steadily worked his way up, writing The Hobbit, The Fellowship of The Ring and The Two Towers during his fellowship at Pembroke College. Later, during the Second World War, his specialty in linguistics paid off when he was earmarked as a codebreaker, though this same period was critical for a dear friend of his from college.
While Tolkien was attending school in Oxford, he met a young scholar named Clive Staples, or C.S., Lewis. When they met, Lewis had chosen Atheism over Christianity. It was Tolkien that successfully took Lewis back to Christ, which reflected in Lewis’ Narnia books. While teaching, the two belonged to a drinking group of fantasy writers calling themselves “The Inklings”. When “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” was published, Lewis was criticized by Lewis for his blatantly Christian allegory (the similarities between Aslan and Christ are obvious to a child), although he was known for using his own. The wizard Gandalf is my favorite example: when we first see him in The Hobbit, and again in The Fellowship of The Ring, he is described with a tall grey hat, long grey robes, a long white beard and a yew wood staff. This same description is used for the Norse God Odin, specifically for his Wanderer aspect. After he’s resurrected in “The Two Towers”, he is described with no hat, a and a white robe. This description has more in common with Christ (savior figure, miracles, resurrection). While Aslan starts as Jesus, Gandalf starts as Odin to become Jesus. This is less of a metaphor for Christianity, and more of a metaphor for the evangelizing of Europe.
Tolkien would ultimately retire in 1956, with increasing acclaim until he ultimately died in 1971. After he died, his son Christopher found a trunk novel. Trunk novels are kind of like bastard children, in that they’re only recognized in times of necessity and desperation, or with no approval whatsoever. This trunk novel depicted a war that was only mentioned in the other books. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books were all affected by the Battle for Mount Doom, as well as the events leading up to it. This trunk novel is the depiction of these events. Yes, it was The Silmarrillion. It was after this that Christopher took over his world, expanding the literature of Middle-Earth (a name that comes from the term midgard, the Nordic concept of Earth along the cosmological world tree Yggdrasil). I personally don’t know what role Christopher played in the films, if he played one at all, but I can tell you that John is revered to the point of being, quite literally, a God among Men.
While some are more devout fans than others, and some may totally dislike fantasy, but we all can acknowledge the power that J.R.R. Tolkien has had on Western society, in his life and his writings. In my life alone, he helped me to see the beauty in medieval warfare and cultures, diverse mythologies and epic battles, poetic languages and embracing destiny. The Lord of the Rings taught me, a young boy on the losing end of a battle with bullying that left me with neither friends nor self-worth, that even the most insignificant Hobbit can change the world for the better. It taught me that you don’t have to be a runaway prince, or legendary wizard, or gifted archer to impact the world. It may have been a mere fairy tale, but to millions it was a tale of seeing ones place in the world. Happy 121st birthday, John Tolkien, for so long as your work impacts the lives of men and women of all ages, you will never truly die. Never forget that, geeks.