J.R.R. Tolkien in His Own Words

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Audio: Down­load the Com­plete Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia by C.S. Lewis

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