Happy Birthday JRR Tolkien!

After reading all those synopses the life of a hobbit sounds quite appealing.
Here, from one of my favorite daily emails, the Writers Almanac, comes this:

It's the birthday of J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien, born in South Africa (1892). His family came back to England after his father died and his mother taught him Latin and converted him to Catholicism. She died when he was twelve and friends said he stayed a Catholic and continued to study languages in her memory.

He went on to philology, or the study of the derivation of languages, at Oxford, and it was there that he met his friend C.S. Lewis. Lewis later said, "At my first coming into the world, I had been warned never to trust a [Catholic], and at my first coming into the English Faculty, never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both." Despite Lewis' suspicion they took to one another right away and with a number of other men formed The Inklings, a group of writers who met in a local pub each week to talk about books and read aloud what they'd been writing. Lewis and Tolkien often talked late into the night about the idea that books could be "morally serious fantasy," dressing correct theology in the clothing of a ripping good tale.

Tolkien's idea for a novel came from his love for language. He was fluent in Classical Greek and Latin, Old Norse, Old English, medieval Welsh and Anglo-Saxon and an ancient form of German called Gothic, among other ancient European languages. He was so interested in the structure of language that he decided to invent an entire language of his own. He even invented a new alphabet to write in that language and when he began writing Lord of the Rings, he gave that new language to the Elves calling it "High Elvish." He later said, "I wrote Lord of the Rings to provide a world for the language... I should have preferred to write the entire book in Elvish."

Many critics now consider Lord of the Rings to be one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. It's the story of Bilbo Baggins, a lowly hobbit who sets out on a quest to destroy a magic ring so that it cannot fall into the hands of the evil Sauron.

It took Tolkien twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings, in part because he was a great procrastinator and refused to take any time off to work on the book. He was constantly stopping his writing in order to research various details he wanted to include, such as the proper way to stew a rabbit. He wrote to his editor more than once to say that he wasn't sure he could finish the book, but after twelve years he had finally done it. He wrote, "It is written... in my life-blood."

Tolkien wasn't sure anyone would want to read The Lord of the Rings since it was hardly the children's book his editor had asked for. He wrote, "My work has escaped from my control. I have produced a monster... a complex, rather bitter and rather terrifying romance. I now wonder whether many beyond my friends would read anything so long."

The book was moderately successful when the first volume came out in 1954, but it didn't become a huge bestseller until the 1960's when American college students fell in love with it and psychedelic rock bands like Led Zeppelin began writing songs about it. Tolkein never enjoyed having become a cult figure in his own lifetime. He tried to live quietly for the rest of his life.

J.R.R. Tolkein said, "Literature stops in 1100. After that it's only books."

He once said, "I am in fact, a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands. I smoke a pipe and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field).... I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much."


Alina said...

Yeah, but... the Lord Of the Rings the story of "Bilbo" Baggins? Has the person who wrote this article read the books? Somehow I find that doubtful. I may be nitpicking, but if you're going to praise someone as a great author, shouldn't you do them the courtesy of getting the details right?

Rhonda Stapleton said...

Wow, thank you for sharing that. That's really interesting.

I'm not sure I agree with the idea of literature stopping at 1100, though. There's lots of wonderful works that came after that.

Unfortunately, my family looks like hobbits - we're all short and hairy. How many times have I wished my mom had married a tall, thin blond...

Ingrid said...

Love Tolkien, but the Gothic language is probably Old High German.

Anonymous said...

I want to be HIM when I grow up. *sigh*

Thank you again and again and again for the outstanding job you did on the Great Synopsis Ordeal of 2005. I am not so patient or kind as you and would not last long at your job at all. ::goggling with awe::

Though an editor, too, and multi-print published for 16 years now I learned much from you in the last few weeks. While working on my latest opus I was *fixing* things with the words, subtle stuff, but important, because I could almost hear whatever comment you might make. My next book's going to be the better for your help.

The other voices in my head wholeheartedly agree with me concerning your contribution. Later tonight, as a special treat, we'll get naked at the airport. You're invited to join in, but understand if you've other plans.

Love you, love Killer Yap, gin & T-bones for everyone.

Anonymous said...

Would Tolkein be a blogger if he were with us today?

Anonymous said...

"The Inklings" is good. I'd never heard it before.

Thanks, MS, for bringing this article to your blog site.

I, too, was one of those sixties Tolkien groupies who put aside homework and read the whole trilogy, start to finish, over a long weekend.

Thirty years later, I couldn't quite make my son understand why I had no desire to see any of the movie adaptations -- that I think some stories are simply better served in print than in celluloid. This is certainly one of them.


Anonymous said...

Personally I wish Tolkien wouldn't use so many exclamation marks!!!!!!

lady t said...

I must confess that the only Tolkien
book I've ever finished was The Hobbit(adored the Peter Jackson film
trilogy)-I tried the Simarillion once but that book makes the works of Joyce
seem like beach reads in comparison:)

Happy birthday to Tolkien-he opened up the world of fantasy literature to many others who light the way with his words.

Bethany K. Warner said...

Frodo Baggins. Frodo.
The Lord of the Rings is about Frodo.

Ric said...

Ah, but the movie version is great. You still need to have read the books to get the most out of them.
Turned on to Tolkein by my cousin, who was living in Paris at the time, helping a disgruntled teen get through that growing up period. Don't think she's ever realized what magic she gave me.

Beth said...

Lady T,

Well, The Silmarillion is not a novel; it's a history. In fact, it's sort of like reading a long series of synopses. [g] The eyes start to cross after awhile. I never managed to finish it myself, though I adore The Lord of the Rings.

Nathaniel said...

I adored the Lord of the Rings. Read it so many times when I was younger I can quote verbatim from any page in the trilogy, and I’m not even obsessive-compulsive. I picked it up again last year for old time’s sake, and I didn’t really enjoy it this time. It reads like it was written by a university prof: tight, dry and precise. Oh well, everything has its day.

Kip W said...

For Bilbo, it was a short quest. He walked over to Frodo's house and said, "Frodo, would you destroy this ring for me? There's a dear."

bordermoon said...

My favorite Tolkien trivia is the much-repeated but possibly apocryphal story that one day, as JRR read his latest pages to the Inklings, one of them finally sighed, "Oh, Christ, Johnny, not another fucking elf!"

Pat Brown said...

Tolkien always claimed 'the tale grew in the telling'. I read the Lord of the Rings so many times over the years, I've lost track. I'm busy trying to catch up by watching the extended movies multiple times too.

I do have to wonder though, if Lord of the Rings showed up in a slush pile today, would it find any takers?

I've always thought the ending was very slow, and usually had to force my way through it to get to the 'good bits'.