This Day In Literary History
On January 3rd, 1892, the legendary English fantasy writer and philologist J.R.R. Tolkein was born. He was born John Ronald Reuel Tolkein in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He would be known as Ronald to his family and friends.
Tolkein's father Arthur was the manager of a British bank in South Africa. When Ronald was three years old, he accompanied his mother, Mabel, and his younger brother, Hilary, on a long visit to England.
His father was supposed to join them, but he died suddenly of rheumatic fever before he could make the trip. Left without an income, his mother moved the family into her parents' home in Birmingham.
They would later move into their own home, supported by relatives. Mabel Tolkein taught her children how to read and write; Ronald could read fluently by the age of four. His mother also taught him Latin and botany.
J.R.R. Tolkein developed an early interest in fantasy literature. Scottish writer Andrew Lang's Fairy Book series was his favorite collection of fairy tale and fantasy stories. It would become a huge influence on his own writing.
When Tolkein was twelve years old, tragedy struck again as his mother died at the age of 34. She had been a diabetic, and in those days, long before the invention of insulin treatment, people born with type 1 diabetes didn't live long.
A few years before her death, Mabel Tolkein had converted to Catholicism, outraging her devout Baptist family to the point that they broke ties with her and cut off all financial support. After she died, she named her priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, as her sons' legal guardian.
In 1908, at the age of sixteen, Tolkein met the woman who would become his true love and wife of over 50 years. Her name was Edith Bratt, and she was three years older. Tolkein's guardian, Father Morgan, was appalled to discover that his ward was in love with a Protestant girl.
Tolkein was ordered not to meet with, speak to, or write to Edith. If he did, Father Morgan would cut off the funding for his college tuition. He had no choice but to follow the order. However, when he turned 21, he wrote Edith a love letter and asked her to marry him. She was already engaged to marry another man.
Edith thought Tolkein had forgotten her, but when they met again face to face, their love was rekindled. Edith returned the other man's engagement ring and agreed to marry Tolkein. Reluctantly, at his insistence, she also agreed to convert to Catholicism.
In October of 1911, Tolkein enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford, with a major in Classics. He would switch his major to English. When World War I broke out in 1914, Tolkein shocked his family by deciding not to enlist for military service until he finished his final year at university.
After graduating in July of 1915, he enlisted. Tolkein trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion in Staffordshire for eleven months. In a letter to his wife Edith, he quipped that "Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed."
Nevertheless, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant, transferred to the 11th (Service) Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force, and shipped to France. With her husband away at the front, Edith Tolkein began suffering considerable psychological stress.
So, Ronald devised an ingenious secret code with which he could communicate his movements to her under the nose of the mail censors. Edith would decode the secret messages in his letters, then use the information to track her husband's movements on a map of the Western front.
In October of 1916, Tolkein contracted trench fever, a typhus-like disease carried by the lice that lived in the trenches. By the following month, he was back home in England recovering.
Unfit for regular service, when he wasn't in the hospital, (the disease kept recurring) he performed garrison duties. He also worked on an early short story collection, The Book of Lost Tales.
After the war ended and he finally regained his good health, Tolkein took a job as an etymologist for the Oxford English Dictionary. From there, he would become an English professor, teaching first at the University at Leeds, then at Pembroke College, where he would write the novels that made him famous.
Before he became a famous writer, Tolkein had been a noted academic. He translated classic Old and Middle English works of literature and gave lectures. In 1936, he gave a famous lecture on the classic Old English epic poem Beowulf titled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.
His own handwritten translation of Beowulf, which included detailed commentary, clocked in at a whopping 2,000 pages. The manuscript, thought long lost, was discovered in the archives of Britain's famous Bodleian Library in 2003.
One day in the early 1930s, while engaged in the tedious but necessary task of grading his students' exams, Tolkein found a blank sheet of paper in one student's exam booklet and scribbled a sentence that had just popped into his head: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
From this one sentence came his first classic fantasy novel. Tolkein finished his first draft of The Hobbit in late 1932. He lent the manuscript to friends to get their input. His close friend and fellow writer, C.S. Lewis, loved the book and gave it a rave review.
About four years later, one of Tolkein's students brought the manuscript to the attention of Susan Dagnall, who worked for the publishing house George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. Dagnall showed the manuscript to her boss, co-founder Stanley Unwin, who asked his ten-year-old son Rayner to read it.
The boy loved The Hobbit and gave it a great review. So, on September 21st, 1937, The Hobbit was published in London. The first edition featured numerous illustrations drawn by Tolkein himself. The entire press run of 1,500 copies sold out, thanks to all the glowing reviews that the novel received.
The Hobbit told the story of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. According to the author, hobbits were "a race of people only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength." Bilbo meets the itinerant wizard Gandalf, who introduces him to a band of dwarfs led by Thorin Oakenshield.
Thorin persuades Bilbo to accompany them all on a perilous journey to the Lonely Mountain, where they plan to recover a vast treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug. The group's trek through the Misty Mountains was inspired by Tolkein's hike through the Swiss Alps while on holiday from secondary school.
Although The Hobbit was originally written as a children's novel, it would become a favorite of adult readers and rightfully recognized as a classic work of English literature.
Heavily influenced by Tolkein's lifelong love of mythology and his passion for Old and Middle English literature, it would be the first book of his famous Middle Earth series.
As Tolkein rejoiced in his success with The Hobbit and began working on a sequel, the winds of war brewed again in Europe. Although politically conservative, Tolkein denounced fascism long before the outbreak of World War II.
He vocally opposed the Nazi regime, whose racist doctrines he considered to be "wholly pernicious and unscientific." In 1938, when a German publishing house preparing to release a German translation of The Hobbit contacted Tolkein to verify that he wasn't Jewish, he was infuriated.
He opposed all forms of racism, including the apartheid system of South Africa, where he was born. After England declared war on Germany in 1939, Tolkein volunteered for service as a code breaker. He was turned down.
During the war, Tolkein not only denounced the horrors inflicted by the Nazi and Japanese regimes on innocent civilians, he also spoke out against Allied war crimes, including the extermination of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Dresden bombings in Germany.
He also denounced the firebombings of civilians in Kobe and Tokyo, Japan, and when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tolkein blasted the "lunatic physicists" who invented the atomic bomb, calling them "Babel-builders."
Tolkein's magnum opus, the epic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings, was originally published in three volumes, The Fellowship of the Ring (July 1954), The Two Towers (November 1954), and The Return of the King (October 1955).
The novel finds hobbit Frodo Baggins, armed with a magic ring he inherited from his cousin Bilbo, on a quest that will place him at the center of a cataclysmic struggle between good and evil over the fate of Middle Earth.
Rightfully regarded as one of the great masterpieces of fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings would be adapted for the radio and the screen, most famously as a series of epic feature films directed by Peter Jackson.
Tolkein retired in 1959, four years after the final volume of The Lord of the Rings was published. While he had hoped to be a successful writer, he never expected that his fantasy novels would make him a world famous literary icon. In England, fan attention was so great that he had to get an unlisted phone number.
In the mid 1960s, Tolkein was surprised to learn that his novels had become hugely popular with the burgeoning British and American countercultures. As a conservative, he didn't agree with the young people's political convictions.
Still, he was flattered that they loved his writings, quipping that "even the nose of a very modest idol... cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense!"
The legendary British rock band Led Zeppelin based several of their classic songs, including The Battle of Evermore and Misty Mountain Hop, on Tolkein's writings, and the legendary Canadian rock band Rush paid tribute to Tolkein with their classic songs Rivendell and The Necromancer.
J.R.R. "Ronald" Tolkein died in November of 1971 at the age of 82.
Quote Of The Day
“All that is gold does not glitter; not all those that wander are lost." - J.R.R. Tolkein
Today's video features a rare recording of J.R.R. Tolkein reading from his classic novel, The Hobbit. Enjoy!