Reuben Stiven

School: James Gillespie’s High School, Edinburgh

An inkling of greatness


Genius. Foolhardy. Terrible lecturer. All are descriptions of the father of modern fantasy.  J.R.R Tolkien created one of the most iconic works of literature and moulded our views of the fantasy genre as we know it today.

But how much do you really know about the creator of Middle Earth?

As Maria says in the Sound of Music, “Let us start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” J.R.R Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892, despite his family’s British origin. His father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, was the head of the Bloemfontein office for the British Bank, and hence the exotic birthplace. At the age of three, while all but his father were away on a family visit to England, his father died of rheumatic fever. So, his mother took him and his sister to live in King’s Heath.

Soon after, they started getting schooled by their mother, Mabel. Tolkien was an enthusiastic pupil and enjoyed many subjects such as botany and enjoyed the outdoor world immensely, but most of all he enjoyed languages and learned the basics of Latin very quickly. However, I think Tolkien’s true talent lay in his prodigious literary skills: he learned to read at age four, and to write fluently soon after.

In 1896 Tolkien and his family moved to Sare Hole, a Worcestershire village. He enjoyed exploring the areas around his home. Some of those places even inspired places in Middle-Earth, such as his Aunt Jane’s farm “Bag End”.

As Tolkien grew up, he was introduced to the concept of a constructed language by means of his cousins. With this idea in his head he began to conceptualize the basics of Elvish, work which influenced his books immensely.

At age 12 Tolkien's mother, Mabel, died of diabetes. Before her death, she had entrusted the care of her two children to a man named Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan.

Tolkien was a student at Oxford in his early years but, soon after his arrival, the war broke out. Unlike many others, Tolkien did not leave to serve in the war and stayed at Oxford.  Finally, in June 1915, he received his well-earned first-class degree. Only then did he join the army.

At this time, Tolkien had been developing a relationship with Edith Bratt and, as it became clearer that he would be sent off to France, Tolkien married her in 1916.

Tolkien’s career in the armed forces was short lived, however, as he had to return home due to “Trench Fever”.

After his return he successfully applied for a job as the reader of English Language at the University of Leeds. His career as a professor was, in his words, “exhausting and depressing work.” It was at Leeds that Tolkien met E.V. Gordon and worked with him on their rendition of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Aside from their work on “Sir Gawain”, Tolkien and Gordon founded a Viking Club, which mainly involved undergraduates reading old Norse tales and drinking beer!

Tolkien loved his children. Besides his first son, John Francis Reuel, born 16th of November 1917, Tolkien saw the birth of two more children while at Leeds: Michael Hilary Reuel (1920), and Christopher Reuel (1924).

A year after (1925) Tolkien applied for the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and, to his delight, was accepted into the post.

It was this homecoming to Magdalen College which twisted the strings of fate and brought him into contact with C.S Lewis, another professor at Oxford. Eventually he and Lewis became close friends and founded a group that was to become “The Inklings”.  The group received this name only after Edward Tangye Lean moved away in 1931 and the old group fell apart – it was at this point that the remaining members adopted The Inklings as the name for their own group at Magdalen.

Tolkien’s relationship with Lewis re-ignited his belief in Christianity, but it didn’t alter his steadfast opposition to industrialization. He hated the way people were destroying the wilderness and had strong things to say on the subject of chainsaws. “That machine is the greatest horror of our age,” Tolkien once said. This belief led him to wonder whether trees would revolt against humanity – an idea that later manifested in his writing in the form of the Ents, the fictional race of animated trees.

Tolkien died in 1973 on the 2nd of September.

All things considered, J.R.R Tolkien was an immensely influential person who affected the world of writing hugely through his famous works; The Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion and Middle-Earth as a whole. He was a well-educated professor at multiple schools, and even wrote the first lines of The Hobbit while marking exam papers (Funnily enough, I tried writing boring work to try and stimulate my teacher’s creativity, and all I got was a note saying that I used too much “narrative padding”. I’m just saying that there may be certain... similarities to Tolkien's work). But, in all seriousness, when you look at Tolkien’s life and his influence, it is incredible. I think – no, I know – that Tolkien’s books will be read for decades even centuries to come. His legacy will live on, whether through his books, or indirectly through his influence on, well... everything in our popular culture.

And, who knows, maybe the next great work inspired by him is right around the corner?

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