The Making of an English Mythology; from Reality to Fantasy and back again, 1917-1954: Tolkien’s Creative Years.

Men of the 1st Battalion in Tolkien’s Regiment, The Lancashire Fusiliers, in a communication trench near Beaumont Hamel,
during the 1916 Battle of the Somme.
Beginning the Epic – Great Haywood and Hull:

Following his recovery from the Somme and ‘trench fever’ on his return from France in 1916, Tolkien was determined to create an entire mythology for England. He had hinted at this during his undergraduate days at Oxford when he studied and wrote of the Finnish Kalevala: I would that we had more of it left – something of the sort that belonged to the English. This idea grew during his recuperation until it reached ‘epic’ proportions. This is how Tolkien expressed it when recollecting many years later:

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen), I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large to the cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply: to England, to my country.

It should possess the tone and quality of that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our “air” (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain the hither parts of Europe; not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine Celtic things), it should be “high”, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales of fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd!

He was once more with Edith in Great Haywood in the English Midland countryside, which once more inspired him. His fellow surviving King Edward’s friend and member of the Tea Club – Burrovian Society (TCBS), Christopher Wiseman, was far away at sea. Still, he sensed something was about to happen and wrote to Tolkien, telling him that he ‘ought to start the epic.’ On the cover of a notebook, Tolkien wrote the title he had chosen for his mythological cycle: The Book of Lost Tales. Inside the notebook, he began to compose what eventually became known as The Silmarillion.

The Earthly Paradise & The Silmarillion – Tolkien’s Truth:

The device that linked the stories in the first draft of the book (which he later abandoned, to be completed by his son, Christopher and published in 1977) owes something to William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise. In the story, a sea-voyager arrives at an unknown land where he is to hear a succession of tales. Tolkien’s voyager was called Eriol, a name he explains as meaning one who dreams alone. But the stories that Eriol hears – grand, tragic and heroic – cannot be defined as the mere product of literary influences and personal experiences. When Tolkien began to write, he drew upon something more profound, a richer seam of his imagination than he had yet explored; and it was a seam that would continue to yield for the rest of his life. The first of the ‘legends’ that make up The Silmarillion tell of the creation of the universe and the establishment of the known world, which Tolkien, recalling the Norse Midgard and the equivalent words in Old English, calls Middle-earth. This was not intended to be another world or part of one, but our world, as he wrote, adding:

I have (of course) placed the action in a purely imaginery (though not wholly impossible) period of antiquity, in which the shape of the continental masses was different.

Later stories in the mythological cycle deal chiefly with the Silmarilli, the three fabulous jewels of the elves, which give the book its title, their theft from the blessed land of Valinor by the evil power Morgoth, and the subsequent wars in which the elves try to regain them.

Some theologically-oriented critics have puzzled over the relationship between these stories and Tolkien’s Christianity. They have found it difficult to understand how a devout Roman Catholic could write with such conviction about a world where God does not seem to be worshipped. However, there is no real mystery in his mythology. On the contrary, the Silmarillion is the work of a profoundly religious man who does not contradict Christianity but compliments it. True, in the legends, there is no worship of God, yet God is present implicitly and more explicitly in The Silmarillion than in the work that grew out of it, The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s universe is ruled over by God, The One. Beneath him in the hierarchy are The Valar, the guardians of the world, who are angelic powers, holy and subject to God; at one juncture in the story, they surrender their power into His hands. Tolkien cast his mythology in this form because he wanted it to be remote and strange, yet at the same time, not to be a lie. He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe; as a Christian, he could not place that view within a cosmos without the God he worshipped. At the same time, to set his stories ‘realistically’ in the known, historical world, with explicitly Christian beliefs, would deprive them of imaginative colour. So while God is present in Tolkien’s universe, He remains unseen in every sense.

In one sense, Tolkien believed that when he wrote The Silmarillion, he was writing the truth. He did not suppose that precisely such beings as he described, ‘elves’, ‘dwarves’ and malevolent ‘orcs’, had walked the earth and done the deeds he recorded. But Tolkien did feel, or hope, that his stories did embody profound truths. This is not to suggest that he was writing an allegory: far from it. Time and time again, he expressed his distaste for that form of literature; once writing, I dislike allegory wherever I smell it. Similar phrases can be found in his letters to readers of his books. So, in what sense did he regard The Silmarillion as ‘true’? A tentative answer can be extracted from his essay On Fairy-Stories and in his story, Leaf by Niggle, both of which suggest that a man may receive from God the gift of recording a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. Indeed, while he was writing The Silmarillion, Tolkien believed that he was doing more than inventing a story. He wrote of the tales making up the book:

They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, seperately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour… since the mind would wing to the other pole and spread itself on the linguistics: yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere, not of “inventing”.

The first story to be put on paper was written out during Tolkien’s convalescence at Great Haywood early in 1917, although it occupies a place towards the end of the cycle as published. This was The Fall of Gondolin, which tells of the assault on the last elvish stronghold by Morgoth, the prime power of evil. After a terrible battle, a group of the inhabitants of Gondolin make their escape, and among them is Earendel, grandson of the king. This provides the first link with the early Earendel poems, the first sketches of his mythology. The style of The Fall of Gondolin suggests that Tolkien was influenced by William Morris.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that the great battle which forms the central part of the story owes its inspiration, at least partly, to Tolkien’s experiences at the Somme, or to his reactions to them, for the fighting at Gondolin has a heroic grandeur entirely lacking in modern warfare. But these can only be superficial influences, for Tolkien used no models or sources for his strange and exciting tale. Its two most notable characteristics were entirely his own devising: the invented names and the fact that most protagonists were elves.

It could be said that the elves of The Silmarillion grew out of the ‘fairy folk’ of Tolkien’s early poems, but in reality, there is little connection between the two. Elves may have arisen in his mind through his enthusiasm for Francis Thompson’s Sister Songs and Edith’s fondness for ‘little elfin people.’ Still, the elves of The Silmarillion have nothing to do with the ‘tiny leprechauns’ with ‘Goblin Feet’. They are, to all intents and purposes, men: or rather, they are Man before the Fall, which deprived him of his powers of achievement. Tolkien believed that there had once been an Eden on earth and that man’s original sin and subsequent dethronement were responsible for the ills of the world; but his elves, though capable of sin and error, have not ‘fallen’ in the theological sense, and so can achieve much beyond the powers of men. They are craftsmen, poets, scribes, and creators of works of beauty far surpassing that of human artefacts.

They are made by man in his own image and likeness: but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him. They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire.

Tolkien’s illustration from The Hobbit.

The names of persons and places in The Silmarillion were constructed from Tolkien’s invented languages, which were a raison d’étre for the whole mythology; it is perhaps not so surprising, therefore, that he devoted just as much time and attention to them as to the stories themselves. He had sketched several invented languages as an adolescent and had developed some of these to a level of some complexity. But his favourite was the one he based on Finnish, called Quenya. By 1917 it had become very sophisticated, with a vocabulary of several hundred words, though based on a more limited number of word stems.

From this ‘Primitive Eldarin‘, Tolkien developed a second Elvish language, spoken by different peoples among the elves. This he called Sindarin, and he modelled its phonology on Welsh, the language which after Finnish was closest to his own personal taste. However, he could not have chosen a more different basis for his main ‘elvish’ languages. He invented more, but the elvish names in The Silmarillion were constructed almost exclusively from Quenya and Sindarin. Later, he dismissed many of his earlier invented names as ‘meaningless’ and subjected others to severe philological scrutiny to discover how their development could be explained. He came to regard his own invented languages and ‘historical’ chronicles as ‘real’. This grew from his belief in the ultimate truth of his mythology.

Returning to the North & The Children of Húrin:

He began this work on sick leave from the army at Great Haywood in 1917. Edith helped him, making a fair copy of The Fall of Gondolin in a large exercise book. Working together like this provided an interlude of rare contentment. In the evenings, Edith played the piano, and John Ronald recited his poetry or made sketches of her. At this time, she also conceived a child. But the month in hospital in Birmingham had all but cured Tolkien of his trench fever, and he was called back to service in France by his battalion. He was posted temporarily to Yorkshire. Edith and her cousin Jennie packed their belongings once more and followed him north, moving into furnished lodgings a few miles from his camp at Hornsea. But after returning to duty, he went sick again and was placed in a Harrogate sanitorium. He was then sent for further training at an army-signalling school in the Northeast.

But by the second week in August, he was back in a hospital, this time in much more congenial circumstances at the Brooklands Officers’ Hospital in Hull. A friendly group of patients provided good company, among them a friend from the Lancashire Fusiliers. He could also continue with his writing. Meanwhile, Edith was heavily pregnant and living with her cousin in miserable seaside lodgings. There was no piano in the boarding house, food was desperately short due to the sinking of British ships by the U-boats, and she hardly ever saw Ronald, whose hospital was far from Hornsea. Edith regretted giving up her house in Warwick and decided to return to Cheltenham, where she had lived for three years before marrying Ronald, the only town she had ever really liked. She and Jennie could stay in rooms until the time came to give birth in a comfortable hospital.

At about this time, while in the Hull hospital, Tolkien composed another major story for The Book of Lost Tales. This was the tale of Túrin, to which he eventually gave the title The Children of Húrin. Again, specific early literary influences on Tolkien can be detected: the hero’s fight with the great dragon suggests a comparison with the deeds of Sigurd and Beowulf. At the same time, his unknowing incest with his sister and his subsequent suicide were derived from the story of Kullervo in the Kalevala. But these ‘influences’ were only superficial. The Children of Húrin is a powerful fusion of Icelandic and Finnish traditions. Still, it surpasses this to achieve a degree of dramatic complexity and subtle characterisation not often found in ancient legends.

The Tale of Beren and Lúthien:

On 16 November 1917, Edith gave birth to a son in a Cheltenham nursing home after difficult labour in which her life was in danger. Although discharged from his hospital, Ronald could not get leave to travel south until almost a week after the birth, by which time Edith had begun to recover. They decided to name the child John Francis Reuel in honour of Father Francis Morgan, Ronald’s former guardian (pictured below), who travelled from Birmingham to baptise the child. After the christening, Edith brought the baby back to Yorkshire, where she moved into furnished rooms at Roos, a village north of the Humber estuary and not far from the camp where Ronald was stationed and promoted to lieutenant.

By this time, however, it seemed unlikely that Ronald would be posted to France again. So on days when he could get leave, he and Edith went for walks to a small wood where she sang and danced among the hemlock, and from this came the story that was to be the centre of The Silmarillion: the tale of the mortal man Beren who loves the immortal elven-maid Lúthien Tinúviel, whom he first sees dancing among hemlock in a wood.

This profoundly romantic fairy story encompasses a broader range of emotions than anything Tolkien had previously written, achieving at times a Wagnerian intensity of passion. It is also Tolkien’s first quest-story; the journey of the two lovers to Morgoth’s terrible fortress, where they hope to cut a Silmaril from his Iron Crown, seems as doomed to failure as Frodo’s attempt to carry the Ring to its destination. Of all his legends, The Tale of Beren and Lúthien was the one best loved by Tolkien, not least because he identified the character of Lúthien with his own wife. After Edith’s death more than fifty years later, in 1971, he wrote to his son Christopher, explaining why he wished to include the name Lúthien on her tombstone:

She was (and knew she was) my Lúthien. I will say no more now. But I should like ere long to have a long talk with you. For if, as seems probable, I shall never write any ordered biography – it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths – someone close in heart to me should know something about things that records do not record: the dreadful sufferings of our childhoods, from which we rescued one another, but could not wholly heal wounds that later often proved disabling; the sufferings that we endured after our love began – all of which (over and above personal weaknesses) might help to make pardonable, or understandable, the lapses and darknesses which at times marred our lives – and to explain how these never touched our depths nor dimmed the memories of our youthful love. For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.’

The young Tolkien family’s time at Roos ended in the spring of 1918 when he was posted to Penkridge, one of the Staffordshire camps where he had trained before going to France in 1916. By this spring, those of his battalion who had not been invalided out of France had all been killed or taken prisoner at Chemin des Dames. Edith travelled south with the baby and Jennie to be with her husband but was now tiring of her life, which she called a miserable, wandering, homeless sort of life. When Ronald was almost immediately recalled to Hull, Edith refused to go with him. She wrote to him assertively that she would never go round with you again. When he was again taken ill, returning to the officers’ hospital, she also wrote, I think you ought never to feel tired again, for the amount of bed you have had since you came back from France nearly two years ago is enormous. In the hospital, besides working on his mythology and elvish languages, he began to learn Russian and improved his Spanish and Italian.

Oxford again – Our home together:

He was discharged from hospital in October, and, with peace seeming a little nearer, he began to look for an academic job in Oxford. When the war ended on 11 November 1918, Tolkien contacted the army authorities and obtained permission to be stationed at Oxford to complete his education until demobilisation. He found rooms near his old digs in St John’s Street, and in late November, he and his family, together with Jennie Grove, took up residence there. Tolkien had long dreamt of returning to Oxford. But, throughout his war service, he had suffered an ache of nostalgia for his friends, his college and the way of life he had led for four years. He was also uncomfortably conscious of wasted time, for he was now twenty-seven, and Edith was thirty. But, finally, they could enjoy what they had long hoped for: Our home together.

Following demobilisation, Tolkien went to work as an assistant lexicographer for the New English Dictionary, the later parts of which were still being compiled at Oxford. The work-room was in the Old Ashmolean building where a small group of experts laboured away at producing the most comprehensive dictionary of the English language ever compiled. They had begun their work in 1878, and by 1900 the section covering the letters A to H had been published; eighteen years later, U to Z was still incomplete after the delays resulting from the war. Tolkien enjoyed working at the dictionary and liked his colleagues, especially the accomplished C. T. Onions.

For the first weeks, he was given the job of researching the etymology of warm, wasp, water, wick (lamp) and winter. Although wasp may not be a difficult word to define, the paragraph dealing with it cites cognates in Old Saxon, Middle Dutch, Modern Dutch, Old High German, Middle Low German, Middle High German, Modern German, Old Teutonic, Lithuanian, Old Slavonic, Russian and Latin. Not surprisingly, Tolkien found that this kind of work taught him a good deal about languages, and he once said of the period 1919-20 when he was working on the dictionary: I learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life. He did his job remarkably well, even by the high standards of the dictionary, and Dr Henry Bradley, his supervisor, reported of him that:

His work gives evidence of an unusually thorough mastery of Anglo-Saxon and of the facts and principles of the Germanic languages. Indeed, … I have never known a man of his age who was in these respects his equal.

Bradley was not a demanding taskmaster as far as hours were concerned; in any case, the work was scarcely supposed to occupy Tolkien’s entire working day. Like many of his colleagues, he was expected to fill out his time and income by teaching at the university. He made it known that he was willing to expect students, and the colleges began to respond, especially the women’s colleges, which needed someone to teach Anglo-Saxon to their young ladies. Tolkien had the advantage of being married, so a chaperon was not required to be sent to his home when he was teaching them.

As a result of this boost to their income, Ronald and Edith decided that they could afford to rent a small house, and they moved into one close to their rooms, into which they moved in the summer of 1919, engaging a cook-housemaid. Edith’s piano was brought back from storage, so she could play regularly for the first time in years. She was pregnant again, but she could now give birth in her own home and bring her second child up there. By the following spring, Ronald was earning enough from tuition to be able to give up the Dictionary work. Meanwhile, he continued to write The Book of Lost Tales, and one evening, he read The Fall of Gondolin to the Essay Club at his old college, Exeter. It was well received by the undergraduate audience.

Leeds and The Book of Lost Tales:

Suddenly, however, the family’s plans changed again when Ronald applied for the post of Reader in the English Language at the University of Leeds. He scarcely expected to be considered, but in the summer of 1920, he was called for an interview. He was met at the station by the Professor of English, George Gordon, who had been a prominent member of the English school at Oxford before the war. Tolkien knew before he left Leeds that he had got the job, but he soon had serious misgivings about his decision to accept the post and his family’s resulting move to the grimy, industrial north of England of that time. At first, life was difficult for him, especially since, soon after the beginning of the term in October, Edith gave birth in Oxford to a second son, who was christened Michael Hilary Reuel. Ronald was living in a bedsitting room in Leeds during the week, making the long train journey to Oxford at the weekends to see his family.

Not until the beginning of 1921 were Edith and the baby ready to move north, and even then, Tolkien could only find temporary accommodation for them in furnished rooms in Leeds. However, at the end of the year, they took the lease of a small, terraced house on a side street near the university, where they established their new home. The English Department was still small, but George Gordon was a good organiser and was building it up. He gave space in his office to Tolkien and showed concern for his domestic arrangements. Most importantly, he handed over responsibility to Tolkien for all the linguistic teaching in the department. Gordon had decided to follow the Oxford pattern and divide the Leeds English syllabus into two options, one in post-Chaucerian literature and the other concentrating on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English.

The latter course had just been established, and Gordon was keen for Tolkien to organise a syllabus that would be attractive to undergraduates and provide them with sound philological training. Tolkien immediately threw himself into the work, although at first, he was a little glum at the sight of solid-looking, somewhat dour Yorkshire students. However, he soon came to have great admiration for many of them and once wrote:

‘I am wholly in favour of the “dull stodges”. A surprisingly large proportion of them prove “educable”: for which a primary qualification is the willingness “to do some work”.

Many of his students at Leeds worked very hard and were soon achieving excellent results. But at the end of 1921, Cape Town University offered him the new De Beers Chair. In many ways, he would like to have accepted. It would have meant a return to the land of his birth, and he had always wanted to see South Africa again. But Edith and the baby were in no fit state to travel, and he did not want to be separated from her as his mother and father had been from each other when his father died. However, early in 1922, a new junior lecturer was appointed to the language side of the English Department at Leeds, a young man named E. V. Gordon. A small Canadian, unrelated to the Professor, he had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where Tolkien had tutored him during 1920. So now he made him welcome in Leeds, writing in his diary that Eric Valentine Gordon has come and got firmly established and is my devoted friend and pal.

Soon after E. V. Gordon’s arrival, the two men began collaborating on a significant piece of scholarship. Tolkien had been working for some time on a glossary for a book of Middle English extracts. This meant, in effect, compiling a small Middle English dictionary, a task that he undertook with infinite precision and great imagination. The glossary took a long time to complete, but it reached print early in 1922, by which time Tolkien wanted to turn his hand to something that would give greater scope to his scholarship. He and E. V. Gordon decided to compile a new edition of the ME poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as there was no suitable edition for undergraduates. Tolkien was responsible for the text and glossary, while Gordon would provide the greater part of the notes. Tolkien found he had to work fast to keep up with Gordon. They finished in time for publication by the Clarendon Press early in 1925. It was a significant contribution to the study of Medieval literature.

Home life for the Tolkiens was generally happy at this time. Edith found the atmosphere in the university refreshingly informal after Oxford, and she made friends with other wives. Money was not plentiful, however, and they were saving to buy a house, so family holidays were few and far between. He had been composing a good deal of verse over these years in Leeds. Much of it concerned his mythology, some of which found its way into print in the Leeds University magazine, The Gryphon, in a local series called Yorkshire Poetry, and in a book of verses by members of the English Department entitled Northern Venture. In addition, he began a series of poems called Tales and Songs of Bimble Bay. One, The Dragon’s Visit, describes the ravages of a dragon who arrives at Bimble Bay and encounters Miss Biggins. A third, Glip, tells of a strange, slimy creature who lives beneath the floor of a cave and his pale luminous eyes. All were glimpses of essential things to come.

In May 1923, Tolkien caught a severe cold which turned into pneumonia. His grandfather, John Suffield, then ninety, was staying with the family at the time, and Ronald recalled a vision of him standing at the foot of his bed, speaking to him in contempt, to the effect that I and my generation were degenerate weaklings. Nevertheless, the old man lived on for another seven years, spending much time with his youngest daughter, Tolkien’s Aunt Jane. She had left Nottinghamshire and had taken a farm at Dormston in Worcestershire. It was at the end of a lane which led no further, and the local people called it Bag End. When Tolkien had recovered from pneumonia, he went with Edith and the children to stay with his brother, Hilary, who, on leaving military service, had bought a small orchard and market garden near Evesham, the ancestral town of the Suffields. The Tolkien brothers flew kites with the children, and Ronald also managed to find time to do some work, turning again to his mythology.

From Tolkien’s illustrations for The Hobbit.

The Book of Lost Tales was almost complete. At Oxford and at Leeds, Tolkien had composed the stories that tell of the creation of the universe, the fashioning of the Silmarils and their theft from the blessed realms of Valinor by Morgoth. The cycle still lacked a clear ending, but Tolkien wanted to conclude it with the voyage of Earendel’s star-ship, which had been the mythology’s first element to take hold in his imagination. But some of the stories were still only in synopsis form, and a little more effort was required to bring the work to its conclusion. Rather than pressing on towards this objective, however, Tolkien decided to rewrite it, almost as if he didn’t want to finish it. So he did not complete the work but went back and altered, polished and revised it. He also began to recast the two principal stories as poems. For the story of Túrin, he chose a modern equivalent of the type of alliterative measure found in Beowulf, and for The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, he decided to work in rhyming couplets.

Meanwhile, Ronald’s career at Leeds took a significant step forward. In 1922 George Gordon left to go back to Oxford to take the Chair of English Language and Literature. Tolkien did not get the vacated chair at Leeds, but the Vice-Chancellor promised him that the university would soon create a Professorship of the English language, especially for him. Two years later, in 1924, he became a professor at thirty-two, remarkably young by the standards of British academia at that time. In the same year, he and Edith bought a house in West Park, on the outskirts of Leeds. It was much larger than the house in St Mark’s Terrace and was surrounded by fields where they could take the children for walks. Edith was pregnant again, and when a third baby boy was born, they baptised him Christopher Reuel in tribute to Christopher Wiseman.

Return to Oxford & Resettlement – The Suburban Professor:

Then, early in 1925, came the word that the Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford was shortly to fall vacant; the post was advertised, and Tolkien applied. In theory, his chances were slim, for he was up against three other excellent candidates, including his old tutor at Oxford, Kenneth Sisam. Both the other two candidates withdrew, leaving Sisam, who was well-supported in Oxford, and Tolkien. He was also backed by many, including George Gordon, a master at intrigue. In the election, the votes came out equal, so the Vice-Chancellor had to cast his vote and did so in Tolkien’s favour. With that one act, Ronald had returned to Oxford, this time for good.

In one of the North Oxford streets, Tolkien found and bought a modest new house. The family travelled down from Leeds at the beginning of 1926 and moved in. Here, in Northmoor Road, they remained for twenty-one years but not in the same house. Later, in 1929, the Tolkiens bought a larger neighbouring house from Basil Blackwell, the bookseller and publisher, and they moved from number twenty-two to number twenty early in the new year. Shortly before the move, a fourth and final child was born, the daughter Edith had long hoped for, who was christened Priscilla Mary Reuel. After these two events, life at Northmoor Road was uneventful, a life of pattern and routine in which there were minor interruptions but no significant change.

So the Tolkiens had resettled in Oxford, where Ronald was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and went to live in a conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the early part of his retirement, then moved to the coast, returning to Oxford after Edith’s death in 1971 and himself died a peaceful death at the age of eighty-one, two years later. In biographical detail, it was an ordinary, unremarkable life led by countless other scholars, a life of academic brilliance, but only in a narrow field of little or no interest to the layman. And that would be that, wrote his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, in the late seventies, …

… apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’, he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers. It is a strange paradox, the fact that ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are the work of an obscure Oxford professor whose specialisation was the West Midland dialect of Middle English, and who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden.

Carpenter (1977, 1982, 2016), J. R. R. Tolkien: London: HarperCollins Pubishers, p. 150.

Both from his letters and diaries, and the photographs of him with colleagues, students and family, it seems that Ronald Tolkien was entirely conventional in the places he lived in, even in the areas he visited. He occupied a North Oxford house, both inside and outside, almost indistinguishable from hundreds of others in that district (if anything, it was less flamboyant than many of its neighbours). He took his family on holiday to ordinary places. During the central years of his life, the richest period of creativity, he made no journeys outside the British Isles. This was mainly the result of straightened financial circumstances, for he did not lack the desire to travel, just the means. For instance, he would have liked to have followed E. V. Gordon’s example in visiting Iceland. Later in life, when he had fewer family ties and more money, he did make a few journeys abroad. But travel never played a large part in his life, simply because his imagination did not need to be stimulated by unfamiliar landscapes and cultures.

The Worcestershire countryside near Sarehole, looking west towards the Malvern Hills and the Welsh hills, as it looked in the 1890s.
The Thirties – Explorations & a Return to Sarehole:

In the 1930s, when he owned and drove a car, he loved to explore the villages of Oxfordshire, especially those in the east of the county, then still known as ‘Banburyshire’ by many villagers. But he was not by habit a long-distance walker, and only once or twice did he join his friend, C. S. Lewis, on the latter’s cross-country walking tours. He knew the Welsh mountains but rarely visited them; he loved the coasts, but his only expeditions to them took the form of conventional family holidays at seaside resorts. But he was not indifferent to his surroundings, for man’s destruction of the environment and the landscapes of England moved him to anger. Here, from his diary, is an anguished description of his 1933 return to his beloved childhood landscape near Sarehole Mill when he was driving his family to visit relatives in Birmingham:

‘I pass over the pangs to me of passing through Hall Green – become a huge tram-ridden meaningless suburb, where I actually lost my way – and eventually down what is left of beloved lanes of childhood, and past the very gate of our cottage, now in the midst of a sea of new red-brick. The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill, but the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool, where the bluebell lane ran down into the mill lane, is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house (which the children were excited to see) is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has not been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change.’

(Please note that 264 Wake Green Road is a private residence, as it was in 1896 when the Tolkiens lived there.)
From ‘The Birmingham Tolkien Trail’, a leaflet produced by Birmingham Museums ( Gracewell cottages can be seen to the left of the road. The photograph on the left above dates from around 1896-1900, when the family lived in number 5, now 264.

He had spent four years of his childhood, his happiest, at Sarehole, where he lived in one of the small terraced ‘cottages’ with his mother and brother. Then it was still a Worcestershire hamlet outside the Birmingham boundaries.

Gracewell Cottages, Wake Green Road, today.

He was similarly sensitive to the damage inflicted on the Oxfordshire countryside by the construction of war-time aerodromes and the ‘improvement’ of roads. Later in life, when his strongest-held opinions began to become obsessions, he would see a new road that had been driven across the corner of a field and cry, “There goes the last of England’s arable!” By this time of his life, he would maintain that there was not one unspoilt wood or hillside left in the land, and if there was, he would refuse to visit it for fear of finding it contaminated by litter. However, he also believed that this was the penalty mankind paid for living in a fallen world, the result of man’s own sin. If this were not the case, he would have spent an entire undisturbed childhood with his mother in a paradise such as Sarehole had become in his memory. Instead, he believed his mother had been taken from him through the cruelty of her own family, and now even the Sarehole landscape itself had been wantonly destroyed.

Above: Moseley Bog today.

But although Tolkien lamented the encroachment of the suburbs on his former home and the cutting down of his favourite trees in his surroundings, there was one place that ‘civilisation’ had missed; Moseley Bog. It had been an ideal place for his childhood adventures. It was once a storage pool for Sarehole Mill and is also the site of two Bronze Age burnt mounds (see the recent photograph below). The Bog was later recalled in Tolkien’s description of the Old Forest, the last of the primaeval wild woods where Tom Bombadil lived. If he had stopped his car in Hall Green, Tolkien would have also been able to show his family one of the few remaining fords in the Cole Valley, still there today, where he and his brother learnt the West Midland dialect by playing with the children of nearby Hall Green (see the ‘sepia’ panel picture, top right).

The Bronze age ‘burnt mounds’ in Moseley Bog, on the bank of the millstream or ‘leat’. Recent photos by Andrew J Chandler.

In a world where perfection and true happiness were ultimately impossible, did it matter in what surroundings one lived? In the end, they were all merely transient. In this sense, Tolkien’s attitude was profoundly evangelical and ascetic, not to be confused with modern secular environmentalism. In his writing, one of the final chapters of Lord of the Rings (chapter eight of The Return of the King, The Scouring of the Shire) reflects Tolkien’s attitude through the discatastrophe they describe. Just as light is unperceivable without darkness, eucatastrophe is meaningless without the presence of discatastrophe or “sorrow and failure” (On Fairy-Stories: 153). This duality of light and dark, hope and despair, victory and defeat is integral to Tolkien’s created world. 

A more straightforward explanation of his personal passivity on environmental discatastrophe might be that by the time he reached middle age, his imagination no longer needed to be stimulated by experience. It had received all the stimulus it required in the early years of his life, the eventful years with changing places; now, it could nourish itself upon these accumulated memories. He explained this himself when describing the creation of Lord of the Rings:

One writes such a story not out of the leaves of the trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and social-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mould is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.

Tolkien is saying here that it was almost exclusively upon his early experience, sufficiently broken down by time, that he nourished the seeds of his imagination. Further experience was not necessary, and it was not sought. What he now required was more linguistic material. Besides being a professor of English language and philology, Tolkien read in thirty-five languages, everything from Old Norse to Lithuanian. He had invented his first ‘created’ language when he was just a teenager, and his later tales were then created around these carefully constructed languages, including fifteen Elvish dialects and languages for the Hobbits, Ents, Orcs, and Dwarves. I have already written about his emotional responses to Finnish, Welsh and Gothic and their strange sounds and words. While working on the Oxford Dictionary, he acquainted himself with several other early Germanic languages. He also read widely in Icelandic.

A West Midlander by blood – Dialects of Middle English:

Why, then, should he choose to specialise in early English? Someone so fond of strange words would be more likely to have concentrated his attention on foreign languages. But, to understand his choice, we need first to realise that something exciting happened to him when he first discovered that a large proportion of the poetry and prose of Old English and Middle English was written in the dialect that had been spoken by his mother’s ancestors. In other words, it was, at one and the same time, both remote in time and intensely and immediately personal. I have written in earlier articles about his deep attachment to the West Midlands and his belief that the town of Evesham and its surrounding county of Worcestershire had been the home of his ancestral maternal family, the Suffields. He once wrote to W. H. Auden:

I am West-midlander by blood, and took to early west-midland Middle English as to a known tongue as soon as I set eyes upon it.

Source: Freeborn (see source list below).

If we define a known tongue as something that already seemed familiar to him, we might be tempted to dismiss this as a ludicrous exaggeration. How could he recognise a language that was seven hundred and fifty years old, in which only two known texts survived, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the northern variety of the dialect, placing it as anywhere between Salop (Shropshire) and (today’s) south Lancashire, and Piers Ploughman, written, in Tolkien’s southern variety by an author, Langland, whose exact whereabouts we know nothing about? Yet this was what he believed, and once this idea had occurred to him, it was inevitable that he should study the dialect closely and make it the centre of his life’s work as a scholar. This is not to suggest that he only studied the early English of the West Midlands. On the contrary, he became well versed in all the dialects of Old English (OE) and Middle English (ME).

Inside Language – The Teacher & Entertainer:

By the time Tolkien began teaching at Leeds University in 1920, he had extensive linguistic knowledge covering continental and ‘British’ languages (‘Celtic’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’). But this was not just dry academic knowledge. In the lecture theatre, his recitations of Beowulf, for example, became dramatic performances, an impression of an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall, impressing generations of students because it brought home to them that that the poem was not just a set text to be read for examination purposes but a piece of poetry originally recited for its dramatic effect. One former student, the writer J. L. M. Stewart, described the impact of Tolkien’s performance as follows:

He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting, listening guests.

Another former student, W. H. Auden, wrote to Tolkien many years later:

I don’t think I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite ‘Beowulf’. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.

Besides being a teacher of philology, Tolkien was already an accomplished writer and poet by the mid-twenties, a man who not only studied words but knew how to use them for poetic effect. Of course, he could find poetry in the sound of words themselves, as he had done since childhood, but he also had a poet’s understanding of how language is used. This was expressed in a memorable phrase in The Times obituary of him, almost certainly written by C. S. Lewis (pictured below), which talks of his unique insight … at once into the language of poetry and … poetry of language. Thus, he encouraged students of early texts to treat them not as exemplars of a developing language but as literature deserving serious appreciation and criticism. Lewis also suggested in his obituary that Tolkien’s proficiency in the technical details of the language was the product of his long attention to private languages and their invention:

Strange as it may seem, it was undoubtedly the source of that unparalleled richness and concreteness which later distinguished him from all other philologists. He had been inside language.

Lewis, at age 48, a photograph by Arthur Strong, 1947.

Tolkien’s mentor in philology, Joseph Wright, had been trained in Germany, where the discipline first developed in the nineteenth century. Much as he loved his old tutor and found his books invaluable for their contribution to the science of language, Tolkien was possibly thinking of Wright when he wrote of the bespectacled philologist, English but trained in Germany, where he lost his literary soul. This could not be said of Tolkien himself; his philological writings invariably reflected the richness of his mind. He brought to even the most intricate aspects of his subject a ‘grace’ of expression and a greater sense of the significance of this matter. This is well demonstrated in his article on the Ancrene Wisse (1929), a medieval book of instruction for a group of anchorites, which probably originated in the West Midlands. Tolkien showed that the language of two important manuscripts of this text (one in Cambridge, the other in the Bodleian) was no mere unpolished dialect but a literary language with an unbroken tradition going back before the Norman Conquest. He expressed this conclusion in the context of writing about his beloved West Midland dialect as a whole:

It is not a language long relegated to the ‘uplands’ struggling once more for expression in in apologetic emulation of its betters or out of compassion for the lewd, but rather one that has never fallen back into ‘lewdness’, and has contrived in troublous times to maintain the air of a gentleman, if a country gentleman. It has traditions and some acquaintance with books and the pen, but it is also in close touch with a good living speech – a soil somewhere in England.

This kind of writing, forceful in its imagery, characterised all his articles and lectures, however abstruse or unpromising the subject might seem. In this respect, he almost founded a new school of philology; certainly, there was no precedent for the humanity he brought to the subject. It was an approach which influenced many of his most able students, who themselves became philologists of distinction. Even by the usual standards of comparative philology, Tolkien was extraordinarily painstaking in his research and preparation for classes, though some students found it difficult to follow his discourse. His concern for accuracy and flair for detecting patterns and relations should not be underestimated. He also demonstrated his deductive abilities in major and minor linguistic matters. When discussing a word or phrase with students, he would cite a wide range of comparative forms and expressions in other languages.

He was expected to give a minimum of thirty-six lectures a year. Still, he did not consider this sufficient to cover both Old and Middle English. In his second year after being elected Professor, he gave a hundred and thirty-six lectures and tutorials. Throughout the 1930s, he continued to provide at least twice the statutory number of classes each year, more than most of his colleagues, despite the appointment of an assistant, Charles Wrenn. In addition, he undertook a good deal of ‘freelance’ work as an external examiner to other universities, for with four children to bring up, he needed to augment his income.

The ‘Legendarium’ of Middle-earth:

Frontispiece to the Fifth HarperCollins edition of The Hobbit, 1995.

Turning to his story-telling, after becoming a professor at Oxford in 1925, he wrote his elaborate fantasy tales in his spare time, mainly for his own children. The longest and most important of these was The Hobbit, which he began in 1930 as a coming-of-age fantasy. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion were to form a connected body of tales, fictional histories, invented languages, and literary essays about the make-believe world of ‘Middle-earth’. Tolkien gave the word ‘legendarium’ to his collection of works on this fictional realm.

Meanwhile, he revised the syllabus at the university, and for the first time in the history of the Oxford English School, something like a genuine rapprochement was achieved between ‘Lang.’ and ‘Lit.’ This was partly due to the active support of C. S. Lewis and others who had initially opposed his proposals. Tolkien’s contemporaries also had high hopes of him in terms of original research, for his glossary to Sisam’s book, his edition with E. V. Gordon of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and his article on the Ancrene Wisse manuscripts demonstrated that he had an unrivalled mastery of the early Middle English of the West Midlands. They expected him to continue contributing meaningful work in this field, and he had every intention of doing so. But his promised edition of the Cambridge Manuscript of the Ancrene Wisse for the Early English Text Society did not materialise for many years, while the more significant part of his research never reached print.

The delays were partly due to his decision to devote most of his time at Oxford to teaching, thus limiting his possibilities for original research. In addition, marking examination papers for widespread institutions throughout the British Isles to provide money for his family also ate into his available time.

But besides these necessary pressures, Tolkien’s perfectionism would not allow any of his work, whether stories or academic monographs, to reach the printer until it had been revised, reconsidered, and re-polished. In this respect, he was the exact opposite of C. S. Lewis, who sent manuscripts off for publication without a second glance at them. Lewis, well aware of this difference between them, wrote of Tolkien:

‘His standard of self-criticism was high and the mere suggestion of publication usually set him upon a revision, in the course of which so many new ideas occurred to him that where his friends had hoped for the final text of an old work they actually got the first draft of a new one.’

But what he did publish during the thirties was a significant contribution to scholarship. His paper on the dialects of Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale soon became required reading for anyone who wished to understand the regional variations of fourteenth-century English. He read it to the Philological Society in 1931. Still, it was not published until 1934, with an apology for the lack of what he considered a necessary amount of revision and improvement. And his lecture Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, delivered to the British Academy in November 1936 and published in the following year, is a landmark in the history of criticism of the Old English poem. In his lecture, he declared that although Beowulf is about monsters and a dragon, this does not make it negligible as heroic poetry. He told his audience:

“A dragon is no idle fancy. Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who have yet been caught by the fascination of the worm.”

Above: The Great Worm

This was Tolkien talking not primarily as a philologist or literary critic but as a storyteller. Just as Lewis said of his philology, He had been inside language, so it might also be remarked that when he talked of the Beowulf dragon, he was speaking as the author of The Silmarillion and, by this time, The Hobbit. This was first published with Tolkien’s illustrations in 1937 and was so popular that the publisher asked for a sequel, which did not arrive until 1954.

Thror’s Map from The Hobbit, showing the origins of the ‘Great Worms’, etc.

By the late thirties, Tolkien had planned to do much more: besides his much-delayed work on the Ancrene Wisse, he intended to produce an edition of the Old English poem, Exodus. He nearly completed this task, but it was never completed to his satisfaction. He also planned further joint editions with E. V. Gordon, particularly of Pearl and the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ elegies, The Wanderer and The Seafarer. But Gordon and Tolkien were now geographically distant from each other, and Gordon had moved from Leeds to take up a chair at Manchester University. As a result, the collaboration between them was technically less easy.

Gordon had done a great deal of work on all three projects, using Tolkien as a consultant rather than a full co-editor, but nothing had reached print by 1938. In the summer of that year, Gordon died suddenly from an unsuspected kidney disorder at forty-two. This unexpected event robbed Tolkien not only of a close friend but also of the ideal professional collaborator, whom he needed if only to make him surrender material to the printer. Tolkien had intended to complete Pearl but found himself unable to do so, as, by this time, he was absorbed in writing The Lord of the Rings.

Reality Intervenes again, 1938-53:

As war approached, Tolkien found another philologist who was an excellent working partner. This was Simmone d’Ardenne, a Belgian graduate who had studied Middle English with him for an Oxford B.Litt. in the early thirties. Tolkien contributed to her edition of The Life and Passion of St Juliene, a medieval religious work written in the Ancrene Wisse dialect. Indeed, her work contains more of Tolkien’s views on early Middle English than anything he ever published under his own name. Mlle d’Ardenne became a professor at Liége, and she and Tolkien an edition of Katerine, a Western Middle English text. But the war intervened and made communication impossible, and after 1945 nothing was achieved by them, barring a couple of short articles on topics concerned with the text’s manuscript. Although Tolkien was able to work with her when he attended a philological congress in 1951, she soon realised that by then, his mind was almost entirely on his stories.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, 1954 – High Fantasy & Discatastrophe:
The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

The translation of Gawain was finished in time for it to be broadcast by the BBC in 1953, Tolkien himself recording a short introduction and a longer concluding talk. Then, in 1954, his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings was published in three parts, carrying over the essential elements from The Hobbit, particularly the ‘One Ring’ that must be destroyed before it can be used by the Dark Lord, Sauron. The Lord of the Rings was also an extension of the tales of the Silmarillion.

Coventry Cathedral, 14 November 1940

The Trilogy is representative of the struggle between good and evil in epic terms and reflects some of the events of the early twentieth century, including the Blitz on Coventry of November 1940, which Tolkien could observe from his North Oxford garden, thirty miles away. It formed the ‘inspiration’ for the story of the burning of the Shire at the end of the third book, The Return of the King.

This was another example of Tolkien’s use of actual events to inform and influence his fictional discatastrophising. Still, his books were not intended, as both he and C. S. Lewis clearly testified, an allegory of the events of the two world wars.

Following the success of The Lord of the Rings, his publishers Allen and Unwin determined to issue the Gawain and Pearl translations in one volume. With this in view, Tolkien made extensive revisions to both translations, but an introduction was required, and Tolkien was uncertain of what to explain to the non-expert readers for whom the book was intended. So, once again, the project lapsed, and it was not until after his death that the two translations were published, with an introduction by Christopher Tolkien, making use of notes found among his father’s papers. Most importantly, the volume brings these poems to an audience that could not have read them in Middle English. For this reason, they are a fitting tribute to the work of a man who believed that the primary function of a linguist is to interpret literature.

Tolkien also wrote several shorter works during his lifetime. These included poetry related to his ‘legendarium’; Tree and Leaf, a mock-medieval story, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book. But Tolkien’s success with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings led to his accolade as ‘the father of modern fantasy literature,’ otherwise known as High Fantasy. However, rather than venturing too far into the fascinating labyrinth of ancient myths and languages, which some are keen to do, we may conclude that the enduring greatness of Tolkien’s fantasy literature for many lies in its exploration of the changing realities of a world being made modern. It is not allegorical in doing this, but it reflects those realities woven into a reimagining of fairy stories, sagas and folk tales.




J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977, 1982, 2016), London: HarperCollinsPubishers.

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press.

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