Wednesday, March 11, 2009

JRR Tolkien: Hope for the Older Writer

Alice C. Linsley

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born of British parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa in January of 1892, but moved to England with his mother, Mabel Tolkien at the age of three. Tolkien's father died when he was very young.

In 1904, Tolkien's mother died of diabetes, and the young John Ronald and his brother Hilary went to live with their aunt in the West Midlands. From there they eventually moved to the Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston.

John Ronald and Hilary were brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, and remained devout Catholics throughout their lives. Their parish priest, Father Francis Morgan, visited the family regularly and assumed responsibility for the boys' material and spiritual welfare after the death of their mother.

In 1908, Tolkien attended Oxford and in 1915 he was awarded First Class Honours degree in English Language and Literature.

Tolkien married Edith Bratt in 1916. The couple had four children. John entered the priesthood, and Michael and Christopher both served in the Royal Air Force. Michael later became a schoolmaster and Christopher a university lecturer. Priscilla (born in 1929) was their only daughter. She became a social worker.

During WW I Tolkien served in the army and saw action on the Somme. He returned home suffering from shell shock, and while convalescing he started to study early forms of language and worked on Silmarillion (published 1977). For the rest of his life, Tolkien expanded the mythology of his fantasy worlds.

In 1918, Tolkien joined the staff of New English Dictionary and in 1919 he became a freelance tutor in Oxford. Tolkien then worked as a teacher and professor at the University of Leeds. In 1925, he became Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. He was appointed Merton Professor of English at Oxford in 1945, and retired in 1959.

His scholarly works included studies on Chaucher (1934) and an edition of Beowulf (1937). He was interested in the Finnish national epos Kalevala, from which he drew inspiration for some of his imaginary language Quenya. Most of the inhabitants of Tolkien's imaginary Middle-Earth are derived from English folklore and mythology or from a romanticized Anglo-Saxon past.

With C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and other friends, Tolkien formed an informal literary group called The Inklings, which took shape in the 1930s. They all had an interest in storytelling and their Tuesday lunchtime sessions in the Bird and Baby pub became a well known part of Oxford social life. At their meetings, the Inklings read drafts of fiction and critiqued one another's work. Williams died in 1945 and the meetings stopped in 1949.

In the 1960s American paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings began to acquire a following of devoted readers. In 1972 he received CBE from the Queen. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973.

The Hobbit was published in 1937 when the author was 45 years old. He developed the history of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings which was published when Tolkien was over 60. That give me hope as an older writer.

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