Today is the birthday of J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien, author of the fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He was born on January 3, 1892 to British parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father died when he was 3 years old, and he moved with his mother to England. The young boy took an early liking to stories of magic and myth. In his 1947 book On Fairy Stories, Tolkien wrote:

I had very little desire to look for buried treasure or fight pirates, and Treasure Island left me cool. Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows (I had and have a wholly unsatisfied desire to shoot well with a bow), and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and above all, forests in such stories. But the land of Merlin and Arthur were better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd and the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable.

The urge to compose his own tales came early, but Tolkien became sidetracked by an interest in the subtleties of language. In a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955 he wrote:

I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say “A green great dragon,” but had to say “a great green dragon.” I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.

Tolkien became a philologist. He studied English Language and Literature at Exeter College, Oxford and–after a harrowing experience in the trenches of World War I–embarked on an academic career. He became an expert on Anglo Saxon and Norse mythology.

But the misty forests of Tolkien’s childhood imagination never left him. One day in the early 1930s, he was at home grading a large stack of student papers when his mind began to wander. On a blank sheet in one of the papers, the professor found himself writing, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He didn’t know what a hobbit was, but soon found himself spinning a tale, which he told to his young children. In 1937 it was published as The Hobbit.

The popularity of The Hobbit, not only with children but with adults, led to requests for a sequel, and in 1954 and 1955 Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings was published. It went on to become one of the most popular works of fiction of the 20th century, with over 150 million copies sold worldwide–and counting.

In celebration of Tolkien’s 120th birthday, we present a fascinating film on the author from the BBC series In Their Own Words: British Novelists. The 27-minute film was first broadcast in March of 1968, when Tolkien was 76 years old, and includes interviews and footage of the old man at his haunts in Oxford. H/T The Writer’s Almanac.

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