This week my blog is dedicated to author J.R.R. Tolkien in anticipation of the new movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
I recently saw this image posted of a quote by Markus Zusak on Pinterest and immediately loved it! It describes exactly how I feel about any novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact I have a copy of The Hobbit in my backpack and I’ve had it in there for six months now. I read a few chapters here and there on my train ride into work. I should finish it this week. I thought for today’s post that I would focus on the author and some facts about his life and his writing.
The following information is taken from Tolkien’s biography on www.tolkiensociety.org.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on the 3rd of January 1892. When he was four his father died and they returned to live in England. Although his time was brief in South Africa, Ronald would take some of those vivid experiences and write about them. For example, he once had a scary encounter with a large hairy spider.
Family life was generally lived on the genteel side of poverty. However, the situation worsened in 1904, when Mabel Tolkien was diagnosed as having diabetes. She died on the 14th of November that year leaving Ronald and his brother destitute. At this point Father Francis took over, and made sure of the boys’ material as well as spiritual welfare, although in the short term they were boarded with an unsympathetic aunt-by-marriage, Beatrice Suffield, and then with a Mrs Faulkner.
Tolkien mastered Latin and Greek at a young age and continued on to master Old English, Welsh and Finnish during his schooling at Exeter College, Oxford in 1911. He was also busy creating his own languages at this time. His studies originated with the Classics but changed to English Language and Literature.
Tolkien married his sweetheart Edith in Warwick on the 22nd of March 1916. Eventually he was sent to active duty on the Western Front, just in time for the Somme offensive. After four months in and out of the trenches, he succumbed to “trench fever”, a form of typhus-like infection common in the insanitary conditions, and in early November was sent back to England, where he spent the next month in hospital in Birmingham.
Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, although periods of remission enabled him to do home service at various camps sufficiently well to be promoted to lieutenant. It was when he was stationed at Hull that he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and there in a grove thick with hemlock Edith danced for him. This was the inspiration for the tale of Beren and Lúthien, a recurrent theme in his “Legendarium”. He came to think of Edith as “Lúthien” and himself as “Beren”. Their first son, John Francis Reuel (later Father John Tolkien) had already been born on 16 November 1917.
In the summer of 1920 he applied for the quite senior post of Reader (approximately, Associate Professor) in English Language at the University of Leeds, and to his surprise was appointed. At Leeds as well as teaching he collaborated with E. V. Gordon on the famous edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and continued writing and refining The Book of Lost Tales and his invented “Elvish” languages.
In 1925 the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford fell vacant; Tolkien successfully applied for the post. His rare scholarly publications were often extremely influential, most notably his lecture “Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics”. His seemingly almost throwaway comments have sometimes helped to transform the understanding of a particular field – for example, in his essay on “English and Welsh”, with its explanation of the origins of the term “Welsh” and its references to phonaesthetics (both these pieces are collected in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, currently in print). His academic life was otherwise largely unremarkable. In 1945 he changed his chair to the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature, which he retained until his retirement in 1959. Apart from all the above, he taught undergraduates, and played an important but unexceptional part in academic politics and administration.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part two on Tolkien’s life.