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J.R.R. Tolkien Biography And Visits

Merton College, Oxford

The history of English literature, inspite of the seriousness with which it is now treated, is actually the history of a relaxed art form with low expectations. It was in this relaxed environment that potentially explosive issues could be aired without anyone getting too worked up. These issues usually involved religion, with The Bible being the most influential book in English literature. The Bible surrounded as it was by an impenetrable barrier of reverence was impossible to explore in any direct way. Indeed for many centuries The Bible, only available in Latin, was a book that ordinary people were actively discouraged from reading. So if you were going to talk about issues surrounding religion the whole thing had to be approached obliquely. This was done in the seemingly harmless area of stories, poems or popular plays, which at the time nobody thought had to be taken too seriously. The work of J.R.R. Tolkien can certainly be viewed in this way. A devout Roman Catholic after converting at a young age, Tolkien's religion was a conservative one that valued stability. And Tolkien, it has to be said, was on the conservative wing of this conservative religion. In the 1960s even the famously cautious Roman Catholic hierarchy felt compelled to make some changes to move with the times - replacing Latin elements of church services with English for example. These were changes which Tolkien opposed. This means we can assume he was quite a stick in the mud! But in his children's stories, in this safe place that seemingly didn't really matter, there was a different tale to tell, as is the case in so much of English literature.


Tolkien's father Arthur worked for Lloyds Bank in Birmingham, until he decided that his prospects might be better working for the Bank of South Africa. So Arthur moved to Africa with his wife Mabel. Their first child John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein on 3rd January 1892, with a brother, Hilary, following in February 1894. The boys spent their early years in South Africa, until John's declining health made relocation back to Britain seem sensible. In April 1895 Mabel Tolkien made the trip home with the two boys, while Arthur stayed on working for the bank, hoping to follow his family when his career allowed. But Arthur fell ill with rheumatic fever. Following a brief period of recovery, his condition worsened, and he died in early 1896, leaving Mabel to bring the boys up alone in the village of Sarehole on the outskirts of Mosely near Birmingham. This was an attractive rural area, and Tolkien enjoyed himself, being schooled at home and playing in the local countryside. In many ways Sarehole would become the Shire in stories Tolkien would later write. The Great Mill in the fictional village of Hobbiton, next to the bridge over the Bywater, was inspired by Sarehole Mill - now a museum.

When Tolkien reached secondary school age he was sent to King Edward's Grammar School in Birmingham. This required a move to a new house in Mosely nearer the school. The family did not like their new urban home. Their unhappiness was compounded by money worries, which had followed Mabel's decision to convert to Catholicism. Prejudice against catholics was still strong in England in the 1900s, and both her late husband's family, and Mabel's own family expressed their displeasure by cutting off financial support. Only the continued help of one uncle who resisted family pressure allowed Tolkien to stay on at his school. The family also found support at the Birmingham Oratory, where Father Francis Xavier Morgan took the converts under his wing. Family support had been traded for the support of a religious community, and when Mabel died from diabetes in November 1904, Morgan took over as the boys' guardian. He supervised Tolkien's school career at King Edward's, delayed a young love affair with orphan Edith Bratt, insisting that the youngsters grow up a bit, and saw his charge through to Exeter College, Oxford to study Anglo Saxon language, literature and history. Soon after he started at Oxford, the very unflightly Tolkien followed through on his promise to wait for Edith Bratt. Proposing to Edith, she accepted, but only after being obliged to convert to Catholicism, which carried the high price of Edith's estrangement from her family. Tolkien was still a young man but he was already showing signs of the intense conservatism that would mark out his personality. Aside from his devout and rigid religious views, he already detested modern housing, choosing to take a house in Warwick because it looked old. It was characteristic of him that money from an academic prize went on books by William Morris, an industrialist who had a great nostalgia for pre industrial times.


Magdelen College, Oxford

In 1914, while Tolkien was still at Oxford, the First World War broke out in Europe. Tolkien carried out army training while studying for his degree, awarded with first class honours in June 1915. After further training, and marriage to Edith in March 1916, Tolkien was sent to fight in France, as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Tolkien survived the Somme, but sustained shrapnel injuries and caught trench fever. At the end of 1915 he was invalided home, and during a long stay in hospital wrote poems and stories. Making a good recovery, work followed on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and then as a teacher at Leeds University. Finally in 1925 events came full circle with a return to Oxford to take up a professorship of Anglo Saxon studies at Merton College. Here Tolkien enjoyed his work, carried on with his earnest religious observance, brought up his four children, and went in for the clubbable social life of Oxford dons. He formed the Coalbiters Club, named after the Icelandic term "kolbitar" which described people who got so close to the fire during north European winters that they seemed to be eating the coal. A don at Magdelen College called Clive Staples Lewis joined Tolkien's club, which soon dropped its Coalbiter name in favour of "the Inklings". The Inklings then met from the mid 1930s until the end of the 1940s, usually in C.S. Lewis's rooms at Magdelen College. It was at these meetings that club members would read passages from whatever writing they were working on. It was here that Tolkien began testing the stories he was now writing about Middle Earth. Sometime after 1930 and before 1935 work began on The Hobbit, though the author himself wasn't sure of the exact date. Publication followed, on September 21st 1937, and the book was an immediate success, the first edition selling out by Christmas. Publisher Stanley Unwin asked for a follow up, and in response Tolkien sent him Farmer Giles of Ham, and The Silmarillion. These books were not received favourably, Unwin insisting that people wanted to know more about hobbits. So work began on the book that would become The Lord of the Rings. It was written against the background of World War Two in which Tolkien's sons John, Michael and Christopher were fighting.


Cheddar Gorge, said to be the inspiration for Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings

It was in this book that you might say Tolkien went on his greatest journey. Set free by the fact that he was writing a "children's story" it was possible to write about all kinds of issues which otherwise had to be left alone. In his preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien was to argue that his books had nothing to do with commenting on the outside world in an allegorical kind of way. This seems disingenuous when you read the books themselves. In the real world Tolkien's main preoccupation was with change. He did not like modern life, and felt a strong attraction to a religion which greatly valued unchanging tradition. It is fitting then that from the beginning of The Lord of the Rings the idea of change is very important. The book opens in the Shire, an imagined rural community of hobbits, small furry footed fellows who like eating, drinking, smoking pipe weed, and living the simple farming life. The Shire is a depiction of a place which is resistant to change. The Shire, however, is not simply an idealisation of an older and better world. There is much small mindedness in hobbit society. Maps of the Shire show mostly white space beyond its borders. And even within the Shire, hobbits from one area will judge hobbits a few miles down the road as strange folk. It is not surprising that one or two hobbits feel restless in what is in some respects a stultifying little community. There's old Bilbo Baggins for example, the hero of Tolkien's first book The Hobbit. He went on a long journey in that book, and never really settled down into insular Shire society afterwards. By the time The Lord of the Rings begins Bilbo is an old hobbit of one hundred and eleven, who is still fighting a battle with the idea of change. Bilbo owns a mysterious magic ring which he picked up on his travels. This ring, as it turns out, has various dark powers, one of which is to keep its owner from ageing. Bilbo is one hundred and eleven but looks much younger. While this might seem like a good thing, the endless youth provided by the ring actually presents itself as a failure to move on. Bilbo makes an important personal step when he manages to heed the advice of his wizard friend Gandalf, and hand the ring to his adopted heir, Frodo Baggins.


Ironically the ring then brings great change to Frodo's life. Gandalf explains to him that the ring is being sought by dark forces, hoping to use its powers to enslave Middle Earth. Frodo and a couple of friends set off on a journey designed to keep the ring out of enemy hands. On his journey change remains an overriding theme, and many examples could be quoted. One of the most revealing is provided by an argument between the good wizard Gandalf, and Saruman the White, leader of Gandalf's wizarding order. Saruman, the wisest of wizards, has turned to the dark side and gone over to the enemy. Inspite of Tolkien's claims that his stories have nothing to do with commenting on real issues, the furious row between the wizards is virtually the row between a traditional religious outlook and the advance of science. Gandalf objects to the fact that Saruman's once pure white cloak is now multi-coloured. With a scientific sophistication Saruman replies that white can be many things: "white cloth may be dyed. The white page can be over written, and the white light can be broken" (P248). The image of white light in particular is a very scientific one. Isaac Newton had shown in the eighteenth century that white light is actually made up of coloured light. These constituent colours can be viewed by passing white light through a prism. Gandalf objects that "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is leaves the path of wisdom" (P248). This is the philosophy of a man who instinctively shies away from the modern scientific world. But we should remember that Gandalf is called the grey, with connotations of boredom and colourless, and ultimately of a combination of black and white. Steady old Gandalf does not simply represent good any more than treacherous and changeable Saruman simply represents evil. So rather than presenting change as a bad thing, the idea of change in The Lord of the Rings is sophisticated and complex, which it was not in Tolkien's life. You might say that Tolkien shines the white light of his ordinary life through the prism of his books, and it emerges as many colours. The Lord of the Rings was massively successful when it was published in 1954. Ironically it became a cult, particularly in the hippie counter culture of the 1960s. Tolkien of course was appalled, since a less hippie like man cannot be imagined. But it just goes to show how different and open was the view of change in Tolkien's books compared with his life.



Merton Street, Oxford

Tolkien and Mabel went to Bournmouth in 1959, following retirement from teaching. But after Mabel's death in 1971, Merton College stepped in to help its famous old professor, giving him college owned accommodation and live-in help in Merton Street. In these last years, according to biographer Michael Coren, Tolkien actually started watching a little television, something he had never done before. It was a small step towards living in the modern world, something he had always been reluctant to do. Tolkien died on September 2nd 1973 following a chest infection. He left behind a collection of stories which demonstrates how writers found freedom in the realm of a literature which seemingly does not really matter. When universities start taking literature seriously something is of course lost. Perhaps the closest parallel we now have to Tolkien's children's stories of the 1940s is the internet. This is a place where people discuss things like UFO sightings and compare notes on alien abductions, and twitter about what they had for lunch. It can't be taken too seriously. So just as children's stories were the best place for Tolkien to express himself, maybe the internet is best place to write about him.