We all know the story. Once upon a time an unusually gifted and slightly obsessive Englishman created a new kind of novel, an epic fantasy quest with a mediaeval flavour that took its companions through endless and very English landscapes, on a full-circle tour that at last returned home again. Yes, it's William Morris's The Well at the World's End (1896) – one of the many influences that J.R.R. Tolkien took on board as he slowly created his own mythology in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Incidentally, the wickedest of William Morris's bad guys was called Gandolf.
The road to Middle-Earth began in the late 1890s when seven-year-old Tolkien, fired by reading the Nordic legend of Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir in Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book, tried to write his own story about a dragon. This was mercifully lost to the world. Another little seed came from Macbeth. Tolkien the boy thought it was a total cheat that the witches' prophecy about Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane was fulfilled by boring old men carrying branches: "I wanted to devise a setting by which the trees might really march to war." Which, over half a century later in The Lord of the Rings, is what the treelike Ents eventually did.
At school, he discovered and became utterly fascinated by languages, precociously learning Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and (so he could at last read about Sigurd in the original) Old Norse. One thing that philology buffs usually can't resist is making up their own languages: Tolkien and a cousin soon invented one called Nevbosh or New Nonsense, which had a rich enough vocabulary for them to write limericks in it.
Philology became the main track of Tolkien's career, leading him to Oxford as a student, a don and eventually the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. In his spare time he invented more and more elaborate languages, like the "Elvish" dialects Quenya (which he based on Finnish) and Sindarin (borrowing extensively from Welsh). For years he wrote his diary in a home-made elvish alphabet. The new languages suggested the shapes of suitable myths to be told in them; these Silmarillion myths needed to be anchored in an imaginary landscape and geography; and so gradually Middle-Earth took shape.
Tolkien was dead serious about his creation, with grandiose ideas about creating a new mythology for England. He kept his sense of fun for his children, amusing them with fairytales like Roverandom and an increasingly elaborate sequence of spoof letters from Father Christmas (both published after his death). Then, marking the much-feared School Certificate exam papers one day, he came across a blank page and idly wrote: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." The history of fantasy swerved onto a new course.
The Hobbit started out as a sprightly yarn for kids, but wandered into darker and deeper territory as the action moved from the comic-rustic village of Bilbo the hairy-footed hobbit into what turned out to be part of Tolkien's larger map of mythic Middle-Earth. Not much was revealed about the big picture, about the unseen Necromancer being Sauron the Dark Lord or the significance of that magic ring, but it was a story with deep roots that made it more than just another fairytale squib. Even the loathsome Gollum had been brewing in Tolkien's imagination for many years: his early-1920s verse "Glip" was about a similar slimy cave-dweller with pale luminous eyes.
One of the biggest decisions ever taken at publishers Allen & Unwin came when a one-boy focus group – the chairman's ten-year-old son, paid a shilling for his efforts – gave The Hobbit an enthusiastic thumbs-up, and the book was scheduled for publication. When it appeared in 1937, Tolkien's pal C.S. Lewis unashamedly published rave reviews in the Times and Times Literary Supplement. Bestseller status and a US literary prize soon followed.
With a success like that behind him, the only thing that could threaten the publication of Tolkien's next fantasy was his own stubbornness. He wanted a two-book deal for The Lord of the Rings, which he spent sixteen years writing, and The Silmarillion, which he never actually finalized. Unwin objected, and he switched to Collins; Collins balked at the enormous length of the project, and Tolkien went embarrassedly back to Unwin, who published The Lord of the Rings in three volumes spread over two years.
Its impact was terrific despite some slightly twee material in the early chapters. There's a certain talking-down-to-kids cuteness near the beginning, and some readers gave up altogether at the Tom Bombadil episode. This character, whose appearance was based on a Dutch doll owned by one of Tolkien's children, was recycled from one of our man's earlier verse narratives and keeps saying witty things like "Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!" No wonder the later Bored of the Rings parody made him into the permanently dope-happy Tim Benzedrine.
But Tolkien had already connected to those chilly depths of Middle-Earth back-story, with Gandalf's big information dump in chapter two, "The Shadow of the Past". As the epic of the Ring gained momentum, Frodo and his fellow-hobbits kept things down to earth. Readers could identify with them as ordinary folk, maybe a bit soft and self-indulgent at the outset, but (as we all like to imagine ourselves) "tough as old roots" when it comes to the crunch. The great dramatic irony of The Lord of the Rings is that its stirring chapters of high pageantry, full of mighty lords with ancient names going nobly to war, are mere diversions – far less important than the doings of those exhausted little hobbits sneaking around behind enemy lines in hope of destroying the One Ring.
Of course there were many rave reviews, not all of them by C.S. Lewis; the most prestigious praise came from the poet W.H. Auden. One maverick who put in the boot was heavyweight US critic Edmund Wilson, who didn't much care for anything English and stomped all over The Lord of the Rings in a splenetic essay called "Oo, Those Awful Orcs!" According to Wilson: "The wars are never dynamic; the ordeals give no sense of strain; the fair ladies would not stir a heartbeat; the horrors would not hurt a fly." Admittedly he had a point about the fair ladies, but the book-buying public didn't take the slightest notice.
Tolkien's perfectionist obsession with revisions and corrections meant that the official American paperback of The Lord of the Rings was delayed and delayed ... and meanwhile, naughtily taking advantage of a loophole in US copyright law, Ace Books brought out unauthorized paperbacks. Eventually the authorized edition appeared with Tolkien's stern message: "Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it and no other."
This was bad publicity for Ace, who eventually caved in, paid Tolkien royalties, and promised not to reprint. But all this controversy shone a blazing spotlight on the books themselves, which headed rapidly for US best-seller lists and became the latest student cult. Maps of Middle-Earth sprouted on campus walls, and there was a rash of badges with legends like "Frodo Lives" and "Tolkien Is Hobbit-Forming". To his dismay, Tolkien realized that he'd never again be just an obscure Oxford professor.
For the rest of his life, shrinking as much as possible from publicity, he continued to revise and re-revise The Silmarillion, lost in a maze of alternative drafts, multiply rewritten chapters, and the need to dovetail all the historical details with The Lord of the Rings to prevent tiresomely anal people like SFX columnists from gloating over inconsistencies. He never finished. Christopher Tolkien eventually edited The Silmarillion into publishable shape after his father's death.
Dying in 1973, Tolkien didn't see the flood of Lord of the Rings imitations that began with Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara and still continues. Lucky him. He created today's commercial fantasy genre, and would have been terribly embarrassed to know it.
Ten Tolkien Factoids
- Ballantine, US publishers of The Hobbit, never managed to explain to the outraged author why their cover picture included two emus.
- According to family legend, the Tolkiens are descended from the 16th-century George von Hohenzollern who was so reckless in battle that he got the nickname Tollkühn – German for foolhardy.
- Tolkien's ear for language sometimes needed fine-tuning. In an early Lord of the Rings draft Frodo was called Bingo, and one Silmarillion elf was originally Tinfang Warble.
- C.S. Lewis mentioned Tolkien's magical drowned land of Númenor in his own novel The Hideous Strength, but spelt it wrong ("Numinor"). Tolkien's verdict on that book: "Tripish, I fear." He wasn't keen on Narnia either.
- When one of his readings was first taped, Tolkien was intensely suspicious of the diabolical machine and insisted on reciting the Lord's Prayer in Gothic into the mike to purge any evil influences.
- Best contortionist feat in Middle-Earth: "'Yrch!' said Legolas, falling into his own tongue."
- Our author battled furiously with Allen and Unwin's printers over corrections to his nonstandard spellings, like "dwarves" and "elven" rather the dictionary's "dwarfs" and "elfin". He had the last laugh: thank to his influence, "dwarves" has pretty well replaced "dwarfs" in modern fantasy....
- Friends and biographers said loyally that Tolkien's erudition and enthusiasm made his Oxford lectures hugely successful despite speech problems (he injured his tongue in early life). Others were less respectful: one-time student Sir Kingsley Amis remembered those Old English lectures as "incoherent and often inaudible."
- Drafts of Lord of the Rings were read aloud to Oxford's "Inklings" literary group, including Lewis and Charles Williams. Once, as Tolkien began a chapter, a mutter was heard from the back of the room: "Oh God, not another fucking elf."
- The Tolkien family dreads further publicity from the coming movies. After decades of harassment from overenthusiastic fans and money-hunters, Tolkien's son and literary executor Christopher now lives in France and uses an alias when visiting England. Keeping wild boar in his garden also helps.