John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 and died in 1973. He is best known for The Hobbit (published in 1937) and The Lord of the Rings (published 1954-55). His books have left a lasting impact on the world, both in literature as well as the popular consciousness. Since I’ve done articles on both H.P. Lovecraft and Ursula K. Le Guin, I thought it was time I wrote about my favourite author. Like the previous two this will be a discussion on how I discovered his works and how his writing has influenced me.
I think I’ve previously written that I became aware of Tolkien when I found a copy of The Hobbit in the living room bookshelf when I was seven years old and started reading it, mostly because it had a dragon on the cover. This isn’t quite the truth. The year before this my family was given a calendar of Tolkien’s drawings from The Hobbit by a family friend and that was when I first noticed Tolkien. I was particularly drawn to the picture of The Lonely Mountain with Smaug flying around it. I imagined I was there at the foot of the mountain watching the dragon flying above. It gave me chills. So when I found the copy of The Hobbit a year later I already had a good idea of what it was about.
When I was 11 I began reading The Lord of the Rings, and then I tackled The Silmarillion when I was 13. I did read The Silmarillion from cover to cover then, but a lot of it did go over my head at the time. It was only when I read it again when I was older did I learn to appreciate it more. In fact my love for The Silmarillion grows ever more stronger the older I get. Tolkien spent most of his life writing the tales that made up The Silmarillion. It was his life’s work and he began writing the first versions of it during the First World War when he was in the trenches. Tolkien was a very talented linguist. He had a knack for learning new languages, and he also at a young age began to make up his own and from that came his Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin. Having created these languages he began writing the history of the people that spoke them and thus his world of Middle-earth was born. Many of the main stories of The Silmarillion, such as Beren and Lúthien, The Fall of Gondolin, and The Children of Húrin existed very early on his mythology. He was always striving to find a way to tell the stories of what is now known as the First Age of Middle-earth that would engage the reader. His first attempt was The Book of Lost Tales written in notebooks during the Battle of the Some in 1916. In this first version Eriol the Sailor comes to the island of Tol Eressëa and has the history of the Elves recounted to him in the Cottage of Lost Play.
The main problem with completing The Silmarillion was that primarily it was the major work he focused on during his creative life and he ended up writing various different versions of all the tales. Some were brief and some were expanded, but sadly, a lot were left unfinished. When Tolkien’s son Christopher came to edit a publishable version of The Silmarillion he had years of writings to go through with many different versions of the same stories. This is why the book Unfinished Tales, and the History of Middle-earth series came to be published in the 1980s and 90s, as there were so many writings and different versions left unpublished. If you read the History of Middle-earth series you can see the various different versions of The Silmarillion’s stories through the years. Unfinished Tales has a wonderful narrative of Tuor’s coming to Gondolin that cuts off rather abruptly. I really wish he had finished it. Tolkien maintained that there were four major stories in The Silmarillion: Beren and Luthien, The Children of Hurin, The Fall of Gondolin, and The Voyage of Eärendil. It’s interesting to see that three of them now have their own stand alone versions. It is unlikely that The Voyage of Eärendil will ever be published on its own however*. While Tolkien counted it as one the major stories compared to the others he didn’t write that much about it, though you could argue it was the first thing in Middle-earth he wrote about as the poem “The Voyage of Eärendel the Evening Star” was written in 1914. The name éarendel comes from Anglo-Saxon meaning “luminous wanderer” possibly referring to the morning star, what we now know is the planet Venus. Tolkien was struck by the “great beauty” of the name which is why he came to write the poem and subsequently incorporate the name and the voyage in the poem into his own mythology.
As Tolkien was always trying find a vehicle to tell the stories of the First Age of Middle-earth you could say that in a way The Lord of the Rings served that function. Through it stories are told of earlier times and there are references to earlier heroes or instances. That’s what I like about Tolkien’s writings about Middle-earth: you feel the depth of history in them. Along with the different languages and cultures you feel like it is a real place you can escape to. The history of the Elves is quite sad and tragic. Everything of beauty and power they make is stolen from them, corrupted, or used against them. Galadriel says “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” (The Lord of the Rings, p.376) which is pretty much how Elves see their own history in Middle-earth. By the Third Age, even with the Dark Lord Sauron defeated, the Elves know that they too will diminish and end up leaving Middle-earth for ever. There is an elegiac quality to these writings which is probably a reason why I connect with them so well.
At some point I plan to do an article on Tolkien’s other works. For me the stand out one is Smith of Wootton Major. While Tolkien has written that he dislikes allegory, this story definitely has allegorical elements about his own life. In this story Smith has a fay star stuck to his head since childhood which allows him to wander freely about the land of Faery (or you could call it Elfland or Fairyland, etc.) which he does for most of his life until one day he has to give it up. It is a bittersweet tale that Tolkien wrote in the late 1960s that you could say is also about Tolkien’s own wanderings in Faery (or Middle-earth) and that he knew it was also coming to an end. Farmer Giles of Ham is a good story too. I think it would make a really good animated film and I wonder why no one seems to have really thought about it. I’m not a great fan of film or TV adaptations of Tolkien’s works and I would prefer that cameras are kept out of Middle-earth, which probably sounds weird for someone from New Zealand to say since the films were shot here, but I think Farmer Giles is one that would work quite well as a film. It has a really interesting dragon in it too, but then again I love dragons and any dragon is interesting to me.
Another reason why I like The Lord of the Rings is that even though it is a fantasy novel I do believe it’s a story for our modern age. Which is why I think so many people have connected with it even though it’s a book set in a forgotten age of our world and has an anti-technological sentiment but is read by people living very much in a technological society. I will talk more about this in a separate article. I did begin to discuss this and 500 words on I was only partly the way through my explanation, so I have saved it and it will be an article I will work on for another day rather than make this one over three thousand words. Let’s just say here that Tolkien’s writings are often grappling with the moral dilemmas of our time which is one reason why I think people connect with it. And there’s also escapism of course. The desire to escape the world we live in, even if it’s just for a brief moment, is often not considered important or worthy, but I think it’s an understandable desire given the world we live in.
Tolkien himself has been a great influence on me. I count him as one of the people that acts as a soul guide (for want of a better expression) for me, helping to guide me through the darkness and delineate right from wrong. In fact when times are very bleak for me that is when I tend reach for his writings. They have got me through some very dark periods of my life and for that I’m grateful I know his books. His writings teach me to be aware of corruption in all it’s forms and to not give into the darkness. Because of Tolkien I spent most of my adolescence reading my way through a large chunk of the fantasy literature that was available at the time. I don’t even know if I would have wanted to be a writer if I hadn’t encountered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at such an early age. His books stirred something in me and fired my imagination. Yes I have written a lot of contemporary poetry and stories but my heart truly belongs in Elfland. It was Tolkien that showed me that. And though I’m currently working on a fantasy novel, and even if I’m able to get better as a writer, I feel I’ll never be in the same league as him, not with all the power and imagination he had. All the different languages he made, the weight of history you can feel in his works, the immeasurable sadness of the world, it would be truly difficult to replicate that or do something similar, not unless I committed to it and made it a life’s work like he did, and even then…
I feel sorry for people who say they don’t like Tolkien. I think it’s sad they will never find the joy and solace that I do in his works. But each to their own. I know it’s not for everyone. Along with music and Star Wars, Middle-earth has kept me in one piece so far. I guess you find what works for you, whatever keeps you anchored to the world and use that to get you through life’s trials. For me the works of Tolkien do this. It’s always good to know there is another world I can escape to if I have need of it. In this world there are intelligent but very dangerous dragons, Wizards, Elves living deeply in the forest, Human heroes helping to fight against the encroaching darkness, giant spiders, magic rings, tall towers and fortifications, sentient tree-like beings, giant wolves, Ringwraiths riding winged steeds, to name a few. All these things, along with a compelling story is what gets me opening a book and regularly returning to the amazing world of Middle-earth.
*Foretelling is not one of my gifts. See my article on Rey and The Force Awakens for proof of this. Knowing my luck as soon as I publish this article a book for The Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath will be announced in the media. Just watch.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings (Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1978)
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