Friday, December 01, 2006

Hobbitually speaking...

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a professor at Oxford University and scholar specializing in Old and Middle English. He is best known for this books, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), set in the imaginary world of Middle-earth populated by humans, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Goblins and Hobbits.

Born in South Africa, Tolkien returned to England with his mother and younger brother at age four after his father died. He was brought up in the Catholic faith and remained a devout Catholic throughout his life. After Tolkien's mother died in 1904, he was raised by a Catholic priest. Already Tolkien had mastered Latin and Greek, was learning Gothic and Finnish, and was inventing languages of his own. He began his studies at Exeter College, Oxford in 1911, studying the Classics, Old English, Gothic, Welsh and Finnish. During his study of Old English, he came across this couplet in a poem:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended

Hail Earendel brightest of angels,
Over Middle Earth sent to men.

"Middangeard" was the term for our world, which is located in the middle between hell below and heaven above. This word inspired some of Tolkien's early poetry about an imaginary ancient world.

Tolkien enlisted as a second lieutenant and married Edith Bratt, whom he had known since he was sixteen years old, in March of 1916 shortly before being sent to active duty on the Western Front. After four months in the trenches he was sent home ill, and suffered relapses during the next two years. During this time he worked on his stories, Book of Lost Tales and Silmarillion. His first son was born in 1917. By the time of the Armistice in 1918, Tolkien had been appointed as Assistant Lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary.

A year later Tolkien became an associate professor of English at the University of Leeds. In addition to teaching, he collaborated with E.V. Gordon on their edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Two more sons were born while Tolkien was at Leeds. Then he became Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at Oxford in 1925. Later from 1945 until his retirement in 1959, Tolkien was Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. His last child and only daughter was born in 1929. He wrote illustrated letters from Santa Claus to his children each year, later published as The Father Christmas Letters. During his time at Oxford, Tolkien became a member of the now famous writers' group, "The Inklings," including his close friend C.S. Lewis.

During the summer of 1928, when Tolkien was grading examination books, he found one with a blank page. "One of the candidates mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it—which is possibly the best thing that can happen to an examiner—and I wrote on it 'In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.' Names always generate a story in my mind and eventually I thought I should find out what hobbits were like." This search resulted in a story that he told to his children. A draft of the story won the approval of a publisher's ten-year old son, Rayner Unwin, and the final version of The Hobbit was published in 1936.

Tolkien's sequel to The Hobbit grew into the 16-year saga, The Lord of the Rings. Thanks to the support of the now adult Rayner Unwin, his father's publishing house accepted the project, assuming that it would probably not make a profit, and published it in three volumes during 1954 and 1955. Needless to say, they drastically underestimated the popular appeal of the trilogy, and to Tolkien's amazement he even became rather wealthy.

I am in fact a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, unmechanized farm lands, I smoke a pipe and like good, plain food—unrefrigerated—but I detest French cooking. I like—and even dare to wear in these dull days—ornamental waistcoats. I'm fond of mushrooms out of a field, have a very simple sense of humor (which even my most appreciative critics find tiresome). I go to bed late, and get up late when possible. --J.R.R. Tolkien

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