J.R.R Tolkien: Who was the man and how did his life affect his work?

J.R.R Tolkien id widely regarded as one of Britain’s most distinguished authors, with the legendarium he created being woven into the fabric of pop culture in many parts of the world. Although most know his work (chiefly The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), most know little of the man himself and his life, much of which bled heavily into his work.

Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa on January 3rd 1892, but at age 3 his parents bought him back to England, the place of their birth. It was here, in a hamlet outside of Birmingham called Sarehole, that Tolkien had some of the happiest years of his life; it is believed that this was his inspiration for Hobbiton, the idyllic countryside where it seemed that time stood still. These happy years persisted until the death of his mother at age 12; after this he became a ward of the Catholic Church along with his brother, it was here and in boarding schools where Tolkiens love of Classics and modern language emerged.

Sarehole Mill, Where Tolkien lived from age 3 to 12 and part inspiration for Hobbiton

It was this love of lexicography and history that propelled him into his education at Oxford University, which he completed in 1915. There he studied not only philosophy but many languages including Old English, the Germanic Languages, Welsh and Finnish. It was his deep love and knowledge of language that allowed him to create the rich tapestry of dialects and speech heard throughout Middle Earth. He had a fascination for Elves and the language that they may speak; crafting his own language and lexicon from a mixture of Finnish and Welsh inspiration. However it’s what happened next in his life that is believed to have the biggest impact on his future works.

A year before he graduated from Oxford University, the Great War broke out across Europe. Tolkien enlisted in the army in 1916, joining the Lancashire Fusiliers, although it would be over 6 months before he would be deployed to the frontlines in France. It was here that many believe the inspiration for Mordor, the hellish barren landscape and home of evil which played a pivotal role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was in the 4 months that he spent fighting in the Somme offensive that he saw most of his friends die in the line of duty.

Tolkien as a Second Lieutenant in the First World War

He combined his life experiences with his love of classics and mythology; ultimately weaving the rich tapestry and lore found in his 50 year spanning legendarium. One example of this is the figure of Gandalf in the books; wise, loyal, powerful and sage like, his character draws parallels with the Nordic god Odin whose appearance and power parallel that found in the portrayal. Also the character of Aragon, the rightful king, was heavily based on the Old English poem of Beowulf, with its themes of responsibility, masculinity and sacrifice heavily translating into the works. Tolkien’s deep knowledge of mythology gave him a deep pool of inspiration which allowed him to create such an enduring story that people still cherish to this day. 

Tolkien first started to build his legendarium into a collection of works with his seminal work “The Fall of Gondolin” in which much of the foundations for the lore of Middle Earth were established. This lore would be conveyed in the stories he told to his children and poems he wrote in the years following the war but it was not until 1937, when he published his book “The Hobbit” that his work would be thrust into the mainstream consciousness. The rampant success of the books spawned possibly his best known works, “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” however it would take over 17 years from the release of The Hobbit for this to happen. 

Since then Tolkien and his work have played a pivotal role in the fantasy genre, creating a bench mark for which all other works are compared to. George R.R Martin cites Tolkien as one of his biggest influences and the film series has gone down it history as one of the best film series of all time. Just as Tolkien dedicated much of his life to the history and languages of the past, history will now remember him as one of the most influential authors in history.

By Ryan Pointon

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