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."