J.R.R. Tolkien Birthday

A happy birthday to the Lord of Literature

January 23, 2017

In his eighty-one years, J.R.R. Tolkien completely re-shaped the fantasy genre. He created a layered, multi-cultural world filled with great amounts of detail that it surpasses any previously written fantasy literature, both in sheer volume of life and developed culture. His most famous work, the Lord of the Rings, has reigned king for the last sixty-two years, inspiring generations to expand their imaginations and discover their own worlds more thoroughly.

Tolkien himself lead an adventure all his own, starting Jan. 3, 1892, when he was born in South Africa, to English parents. When Tolkien was 3, he visited family in England with his mother and brother. During this trip, Tolkien’s father died in South Africa. This left them to live hopping around England throughout his childhood. His inspiration for much of Middle Earth sprung up from these travels, directly naming the Hobbiton resident Farmer Maggot’s land, “Bag End” after his aunt’s farm in Birmingham, England.

When Tolkien was 12, his mother died as well, leaving him an orphan. A priest at a Catholic school raised him after this. Tolkien took high liking to this man, as if he were the father he never had. These were the years that he truly delved into linguistics, not only studying Latin and Anglo-Saxon, but beginning to invent his own languages. He uses this skill multiple times in writing the worlds of Middle Earth, along with his extensive study of folk-lore and cartography. During his love-affair with reading, he also found time for one with a girl. He fell in love with another orphaned student, Edith Bratt. His guardian grew disdainful of her however, and much to Tolkien’s obedient dismay, he was banned from speaking with her until he turned twenty-one.

After college, as soon as he breached the age-ban mark, Tolkien reached out to Edith in a letter. Within a few months she broke off her engagement to another man and married Tolkien, her long lost high school sweetheart. Soon after, though, he was rushed into the military. In a letter to his surrogate father he, “expressed admiration for his wife's willingness to marry a man with no job, little money, and no prospects except the likelihood of being killed in the Great War.” His largest inspiration for the story arc of The Hobbit comes from his draft into the British army in World War One.

During his time as a junior officer in the trenches of France, he wrote many short stories about his experiences, as well as his reveries in imagination. He sent a few of these to his wife in letters and kept a few for himself. In particular, his inspiration for Sam Wise was derived from his time in the military. During World War One, officers had helping hands called “batmen” who run errands, cook their meals, and transport them where they need to go. Sam Wise is this to Frodo, as well as the moral support of a true friend in trying times some batmen also likely were.

Tolkien became ill mid-war, and was sent home for a period, to the delight of his wife. They conceived their first child, and soon after he was permanently discharged from the army. He moved onto working for the Oxford English Dictionary and his manuscript for The Hobbit gained way. Published in 1935, it was an almost instant sensation. For years, Tolkien received praise for The Hobbit and pleas for a sequel. Twenty-years later, with the encouragement of his son, he published The Lord of the Rings, setting the changing tide of fantasy writing to whole new shores.

From humble and harsh beginnings, Tolkien planted strong roots, and nurtured them with the fertilizer of creativity and the sunshine of wit. Now, decades after his death, the seeds he sowed still flourish and thrive. His stories are the dear friends to many.

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