If you’ve never heard of J R R Tolkien and know absolutely nothing about his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the only possible explanation is that you have spent your entire life living at the bottom of a coal pit on the other side of the galaxy.
Even for those who have never read a word of his writing, Tolkien’s influence has been inescapable. The virtual inventor of the epic fantasy genre, he’s been followed by thousands of `sword and sorcery’ imitators with an avalanche of books and films.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born of British parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa on 3 January 1892. Orphaned in childhood, he survived the carnage of the Great War and went on to a career as a noted Anglo-Saxon scholar at Oxford before becoming the author of imaginative fiction.
As authors go, Tolkien was a late starter. Although he was a relatively youthful 45 when his first work of fiction, The Hobbit, was published, it was not until 1954, when he was 62 years old, that his second novel, the epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, appeared.
He never published another novel during his lifetime, but in the 19 years between the publication of The Lord of the Rings and his death in 1973, he became one of the most celebrated and widely-read authors of the twentieth century.
Since then, the success of his novels (and posthumously published writings) has continued to thrive and grow. Sales of his books number in the hundreds of millions and they are published in every major language on the planet.
Today, Tolkien’s Hobbits are as convincingly a part of the English heritage as leprechauns are to the Irish, gnomes are to the Germans, and trolls to the Scandinavians.
Indeed, many people are now unaware that Hobbits were invented by Tolkien, and assume that – like fairies and pixies – they have, more or less, always been with us. However, Hobbits are not the only creations of Tolkien’s mind that have invaded our world. His Orcs, Ents and Balrogs have found their way through, and the Elf, the Dwarf, the Wizard and the Dragon are very different creatures today because of Tolkien.
As time passes, more and more of Tolkien’s world invades our own. Computers are called Gandalf, hovercraft called Shadowfax, bookstores called Bilbo’s, restaurants called Frodo’s, multi-national corporations called Aragorn, and computer games called: Gondor, Rohan, Imladris, Lothlorien.
Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth has so thoroughly become part of our own age that it’s difficult to believe that only 38 years have passed since the publication of The Lord of the Rings. However, to be strictly accurate, its creator did not see Middle-earth as an alternate fantasy world at all.
‘Many reviewers seem to assume that Middle-earth is another planet!’ Tolkien wrote in a letter of the 1950s. He found this a perplexing conclusion, because in his own mind he had not the least doubt about its locality: ‘Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modem form of midden-erd’ middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumene, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell).’
A decade later, Tolkien gave a journalist an exact geographic fix: ‘The action of the story takes place in Northwest of Middle-earth, equivalent in latitude to the coastline of Europe and the north shore of the Mediterranean.’
The trick of Tolkien’s world is not the where, but the when: ‘The theatre of my tale is the earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.’ And in another letter: ‘I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place.’
That imaginary time is a mythical one just before the first recorded human histories and the rise of any recorded historic civilization. It begins with a new creation myth which results in the making of a flat planet within spheres of air and light. It is inhabited by pagan gods, Elves, Dwarves and eventually humans.
We are 30,000 years into the history of this world, however, before the human race actually appears. Another 3,900 years pass before the cataclysmic destruction of the Atlantis-like culture of Numenor resulted in this mythical world’s transformation into the globed world we know today. The events of the remaining 4,000 years of Tolkien’s-annals were then intended to lead on ‘eventually and inevitably to ordinary history’.
All this creation and tailoring and these extraordinarily detailed chronologies beg another obvious question about Tolkien’s world: Why? Why did Tolkien choose basically to re-invent our world by giving it a new history (or a mythic prehistory) in an imaginary time?
‘I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.’
This was Tolkien’s life ambition. So great was this obsession that it could be argued that the undoubted literary merits of Tolkien’s epic tale of The Lord of the Rings was almost a secondary concern. Important as the novel was, any analysis of Tolkien’s life and work makes one aware that his greatest passion and grandest ambition was focused on the creation of an entire mythological system for the English people.
‘I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story … which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country.’
The enormity of this undertaking is staggering. It would be as if Homer, before writing the Iliad and Odyssey, had first to invent the whole of Greek mythology and history.
The degree to which he has actually succeeded is remarkable. In large part Tolkien’s invented mythology in the popular imagination has definitely become that of England. It is certainly the most complex and detailed invented world in all literature.
However, this creation of an English mythology does not, in itself, really explain how Tolkien’s books were suddenly catapulted into the block-buster success league of publishing during the 1960s.
Retrospectively, it seems very unlikely that such a self-confessed ‘old fogey’ of an Anglo-Saxon professor could suddenly find a huge American campus cult following in the midst of the radical, politically-charged 1960s. Tolkien was nobody’s idea of a radical campus professor, so what was it in his writing that was suddenly so relevant to the lives and politics of the youth culture of the 1960s?
The answer was that Tolkien’s approach to the grand theme of his Ring Quest was as unconventional and inventive as his unlikely heroes, the Hobbits.
Tolkien turned the tradition of the quest on its head. Of all the scores of ring legends found the world over, Tolkien’s is the only tale where the object of that quest is not the seizing of power, but in the rejection of it. The heroes, although not – strictly speaking – pacifists, are actively refusing the corrupting influence of wealth and power.
This was widely seen as a provocatively ‘anti-establishment’ stance and it was this interpretation of the hero as a ‘drop out’ from the system which made it relevant to the concerns and temper of the times.
Although Tolkien always rejected the idea of any allegorical reading of The Lord of the Rings, certain accidents of history made some parallels seem inescapable. In a letter written as early as 1956, Tolkien found it necessary to state: ‘Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for Domination).’
However, he had to acknowledge that in a larger sense its message or moral certainly did not exclude Atomic power. ‘Nuclear physics can be used for that purpose [bombs]. But they need not be. They need not be used at all. If there is any contemporary reference in my story at all, it is to what seems to me the most widespread assumption of our time: that if a thing can be done, it must be done. This seems to me wholly false. The greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason are in abnegation. When you say Atomic Power is “here to stay” you remind me that Chesterton said that whenever he heard that, he knew that whatever it referred to would soon be replaced. So-called “atomic” power is rather bigger than anything he was thinking of (I have heard it of trams, gas-light, steam-trains). But it surely is clear that there will have to be some “abnegation” in its use, a deliberate refusal to do some of the things it is possible to do with it, or nothing will stay!’
The Lord of the Rings proved to be the perfect student counter-culture book. It was full of action and adventure, but it appeared to hold an anti-establishment, pacifist message. Frodo Baggins might not have been exactly a Hobbit Ghandi, but he did reject the temptations of worldly power, and the student anti-war and anti-nuclear movement of the sixties saw a connection with the Hobbits’ humble values.
Ultimately, the greatest strength of Tolkien’s Hobbits in their epic struggles against all odds was their basic human decency. It was their essential humanity, their simple but pure human spirits, that allowed them to triumph in the end. And it is this human element combined with the grandeur and pomp of a magnificently-conceived mythic world that has been the key to Tolkien’s continued popularity ever since.
In his Hobbit, Tolkien found an Everyman that has, and will continue to have, universal appeal to people of any time and any place.
David Day is a poet and writer with particular interest in the environment as well as Tolkien. He is the author of Tolkien, the Illustrated Encyclopedia published by Mitchell Beazley (0 85533 924 1, £17.99). His recent children’s titles include Noah’s Choice published by Puffin (0 14 03.1906 9, £3.50 pbk) and The Big Lie published by Piccadilly Press (185340 110 2, £8.95).
The complete works of Tolkien were reissued by HarperCollins in Autumn 1991.