2nd September 1973
- The Death of JRR Tolkien -
The Hobbit, the unexpected bestseller and cult novel, written by JRR Tolkien was never intended for publication. It stemmed from the mundane beginnings of marking exam scripts. A student had left a blank page in the answer booklet. Tolkien wrote on the page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He claimed he never knew why he wrote this rather random comment.
Being the sort of person he was he set about researching what a hobbit was and why he lived in a hole. After this he used the information he found to tell stories to his four children. They went down so well that they were shared with friends and soon found their way into the hands of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishing firm George Allen and Unwin. She asked Tolkien to complete the story for publication in a book. When he had finished the chairman of the company, Stanley Unwin, asked his 10-year-old son, Rayner, to read it through. He loved it. The cult was born and it became so popular that a sequel was asked for.
Tolkien submitted his earlier writings known collectively as the Silmarillion. This work comprises of five parts, Ainulindalë, about the creation of Eä, the ‘World that is’. The second part Valaquenta, which describes the supernatural powers of Eä. The third, Quenta Silmarillion, tells the history of the events before the ‘First Age’ and the fourth part, Akaallabêth mentions the downfall of Numenor during the Second Age. The fifth and final part, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, sets the scene for the Lord of the Rings.
The feedback from these was less favourable and it was considered too high a risk to spend the money that was required publishing the works. Instead Unwin asked for a sequel to The Hobbit. By 1949, twelve years after starting them, he had finished the draft copy and completed his tales. However a dispute with Unwin led Tolkien to offer the book to the competitor Collins. Their demand that the Lord of the Rings should be dramatically cut led him to return to Unwin and in 1952 the book was published in three volumes not only due to paper shortages but also to keep down the cost of the book. The three volumes, known now the world over, are The Fellowship of the Ring (Books 1 and 2), The Two Towers (Books 3 and 4) and The Return of the King (Books 5 and 6). They have sold over one hundred and fifty million copies and catapulted Tolkien to be one of the world’s best known authors.
All of this was a far cry from his humble origins. His ancestors were German clockmakers in the eighteenth century but were refugees to England from the Seven Years’ War and Frederick the Great’s invasion. They settled in Birmingham and London. His father was a bank clerk and money was scarce. He received a promotion and the family moved to South Africa where John Ronald Reuel was born on 3rd January 1892 in Bloemfontein. When he was three the family, minus his father, went to England on a visit. Whilst they were there his father died of Rheumatic Fever and they moved in with his mother, Mabel’s, parents in King’s Heath, Birmingham. The West Midlands was a mix of beautiful countryside and dark, urban life in Birmingham. They then moved on to Sarehole, an isolated hamlet in Worcestershire, where Ronald enjoyed exploring the mill and countryside around. Mabel taught the children from home and he quickly picked up Latin and the love of reading. In 1900, vehemently against the wishes of her family, his mother was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church and they cut off all financial help. Tragically Mabel died from diabetes in 1904 and the children were looked after by Father Francis. He went with him to live in the pleasant Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston and attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham.
It was here that he became fluent in Greek as well as Latin but also in Gothic and later Finnish. He even started to devise and build up his own languages. Other lodgers included a woman called Edith Bratt, who was nineteen – Ronald at the time was 16. The two grew close but Father Francis forbade any meetings or correspondence until he was 21 and he obeyed this order. He went on to Exeter College, Oxford, in 1911 to study Greats and continue his interests in Classics, old English and Germanic languages, Welsh and Finnish.
After two years of his four-year degree he was awarded a moderate second class in his Moderations – a poor reflection of his undoubted talent. He did score an Alpha plus in philology, dealing with the structure, history and relationships of language, and changed his course to English Literature and Language. It was at this stage that two major developments took place. Firstly he met up again with Edith, on reaching 21, and World War One broke out.
He stayed at Oxford to finish his degree and was awarded a First Class Honours. During this period he had worked hard on his own verse, prose and languages but could not find a thread to join them together. In 1915 he enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers as a 2nd Lieutenant but before going to France he married Edith in Warwick, where she lived, on 22nd March 1916.
His visit to France coincided with the Somme campaign and he was in and out of the trenches for 4 months seeing action especially in the Leipzig Salient. However he got ‘Trench Fever’, a typhus like infection from the unsanitary conditions, and was sent home where he spent a month in a hospital in Birmingham. He learned, while there, that most of his friends from schooldays, who he had kept in touch with, had been killed. In their honour and with the experiences of the trenches in his mind, he set about writing various stories. The Book of Lost Tales, as they are now known, was published after his death, and some of the stories in the Silmarillion, can be found there.
Between 1917 and 1918 the illness kept recurring and he did various jobs at army camps around England before becoming an assistant lexicographer on the New English Dictionary, based in Oxford, after demobilisation. While he was there he read some of his stories to friends, including Neville Coghill and Hugo Dyson, future members of the Inlkings group. They were well received. He then landed the job of Senior Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds where he refined his Lost Tales and developed his Elvish language.
In 1924 he was appointed to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and enjoyed the life of a don. His own academic writings and life were not remarkable but he did write influential pieces on Beowulf and on the origins of the term ‘Welsh’.
He stayed here until his retirement in 1959 although he did change to the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature in 1945. During World War Two he was offered the opportunity to serve as a code breaker in the cryptographic department of the Foreign Office. He accepted and went for training but was told his services would not be required. It was in Oxford that he read his stories to his friends in a group that they called the Inklings. This group included C.S. Lewis who became a great friend and supporter, as well as Charles Williams and Coghill and Dyson. They met weekly at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford and a picture of them can still be seen in the pub today. On retirement He and Edith moved to Bournemouth and lived happily by the sea until her death in November 1971. He then returned to Oxford and was given rooms in Merton College where he stayed until his death on 2nd September 1973. They are both buried in the Catholic section of the Wolvercote Cemetery.
JRR Tolkien will not be remembered by many for his academic writings. He will be remembered for his books of stunning vision and uniqueness. W.H. Auden described them as a masterpiece and they have been turned into massive blockbuster films. Tolkien has enriched the literary history of this country in a way that few have before or since.