This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 626 published on 12 January 1974.
Professor Tolkien sighed, pushed back his chair from his desk, and reached for his pipe. At last the third and final volume of The Lord of the Rings was finished. Or at least as finished as Tolkien could ever feel it would be, for he hated this moment when his writing finally left his desk and went off to the publishers to be printed.
Usually he wrote and re-wrote his books many times, always feeling that there was something more he could do to improve them. But now his publishers, who had been demanding that he complete the book for weeks, had finally insisted that he send it to them.
It is hardly surprising that John Tolkien was such a perfectionist about his writing, however, for he was a very distinguished man. At the time when The Lord of the Rings was published he was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University.
He was born in South Africa in 1892, and came to England with his mother four years later, when his father died. The family settled in Worcestershire in an area which is now a suburb of Birmingham but was then, in 1896, open country. Here John quickly developed a deep love of nature, while his imaginative mind devoured all the legends of King Arthur, and the fairy tales of George MacDonald, Andrew Lang, and many others.
As a small boy he did not go to school but was taught at home by his mother, and it was she who first stirred in him the interest in ancient languages which influenced the whole course of his life. She turned out to be a fine teacher, too, for in 1903, John won a scholarship to King Edward’s School in Birmingham.
At school it soon became clear that John was a very independent pupil. He described himself as being ‘one of the idlest boys Gilson (the Headmaster) ever had’. But his idea of idleness was to spend long hours studying the ancient languages of Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, and Gothic, instead of applying himself to his more ordinary lessons!
At this time, too, the young Tolkien made his first attempts at inventing his own language, which he called Elvish. He went on working on this for many years and eventually produced a whole vocabulary and grammar so complete that anyone who had learned it could quite as well have talked in Elvish as in English!
Once having invented the language Tolkien naturally started to think about what sort of people might have spoken it. And so he created a whole imaginary world of ideas and creatures – some of which became the hobbits, magical beings who inhabited The Hill and were the heroes of his two most famous books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Most of this work had to be done in Tolkien’s spare time, however, for he was also turning into a brilliant scholar. After leaving school he went to university at Exeter College, Oxford. Here, in 1915, he took a first class honours degree in English and from then on his academic career progressed impressively. He spent five years at Leeds University where he was given his first professorship. Then, in 1925, when he was thirty-three years old, he moved back to Oxford, where he became Professor of Anglo-Saxon. And here he stayed in various eminent posts until his retirement in 1959.
With his colleagues at Oxford John Tolkien liked nothing better than to talk. He hated going to bed – it seemed such a waste of time – and he much preferred staying up far into the night smoking his pipe and discussing almost any subject under the sun. His mind always worked so fast that he had developed an irritating habit of talking very quickly and indistinctly. But it was well worth making the effort to hear what he said for he was always interesting and often brilliant.
With the publication of his two books The Hobbit in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings in 1955, world-wide fame came his way. The books were so popular, that they were translated into many languages and reprinted over and over again. So the MBE he was awarded in 1972 was certainly well earned.
Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are fairy tales for children and adults alike. The hero, the hobbit, is an extraordinary being called Bilbo Baggins, who is a small creature with a rather fat stomach, and a liking for brightly coloured clothes. He is, according to the author, a rather ordinary creature – except that he has the ability to disappear when human beings appear!
Bilbo, like all good hobbits, has a horror of adventures. He much prefers a quiet and uneventful life, so his reactions to the unexpected arrival of thirteen dwarves to tea are very amusing. Especially as these lead to a very exciting adventure.
Professor Tolkien died very recently in September 1973, an old and much respected man of 81. Although his published books were so successful they were only a fraction of all the poetry, articles and lectures he wrote during his long life. He was, too, a very modest man, and did not wish to have books written about him – but there is no doubt that his life would provide any writer with a fascinating subject.
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