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The unlikely story of J.R.R. Tolkien

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J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolien Illustration by Jack Unruh

Unless you’ve been trapped on the Icebay of Forochel for the past half a century, you’ve seen a part of J.R.R. Tolkien — and not just because of those opulent trailers for New Line’s ”Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy. The man is everywhere. ”When you inhale air, it’s made up of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and other elements,” says Phish drummer Jon Fishman, who, naturally, played in a high school band called Frodo. ”Tolkien is part of the molecules you breathe in your artistic surroundings, whether or not you’ve actually ever read Tolkien.” Globally, Tolkien has sold some 100 million books, yes, and he ignited the whole fantasy genre in publishing, sure, and he enjoyed (or endured) a fantastic surge in popularity at the crest of the lysergic ’60s, but…well, it’s bigger than that.

On a grander scale, Tolkien tapped the collective geek lust for data. Cult following? You could argue that he inadvertently grandfathered the whole concept. His work didn’t generate ”fans”; it colonized the planet with people who could tell you the Quenya word for spring, or the number of miles from Bree to the foothills of Ered Mithrin. The world he created — secret tongues, weird species, lost hamlets, invisible mountains of arcana — would become the cultural locus for everything from ”Star Wars” and ”Star Trek” to Led Zeppelin stomps, ”Dungeons & Dragons,” and Myst.

Yet, like air, Tolkien is invisible. Most people have no idea what he looked like. Which is not entirely his fault. Despite rumors to the contrary, he was never some Salinger-style hermit; during Tolkien’s 34-year stretch as a professor at Oxford University, students could often see him heading into St. Aloysius Church for mass, or sharing an ale and an Icelandic saga with colleagues like C.S. Lewis, the author of ”The Chronicles of Narnia,” at a pub called the Eagle and Child, still in operation on St. Giles Street.

If he was able to dodge the blackest side of celebrity — the annihilation of self — it’s because J.R.R. Tolkien was so ordinary, so frumpy, that he just preferred sticking to the pleasures of his daily routine instead of climbing aboard some jet bound for Manhattan or Hollywood. In fact, he never even visited America; on the night in 1966 when writer Truman Capote was bedazzling Gotham with his glitz-drunk Black & White Ball, Tolkien was most likely tucked away in his study, alone, maybe fine-tuning the geography of the Imlad Morgul. As a result, the man is everywhere and nowhere — with one hairy hobbit’s foot in our world and the other a quantum leap away.

Somebody was asked to write an introduction to the Swedish edition of ”Rings,” and the man filled it with a bunch of ”presumptuous impertinence” and ”outrageous nonsense” about Tolkien’s teaching career, his family life, even his childhood. How did he come up with this stuff? ”Why should I be made an object of fiction while still alive?” Tolkien asked. An American magazine wanted to take pictures of him at his writing desk — just relax, Professor, please look natural. That sort of thing. Tolkien shot back: ”Your ideas of the natural and mine are different, since I never in any circumstances do work while being photographed, or talked to, or accompanied by anybody in the room. A photograph of me pretending to be at work would be entirely bogus.”

Besides, what was there to embellish? He was a quiet man. Polite. Fond of routine. A Catholic, he went to mass steadily and dutifully. Born to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien on Jan. 3, 1892, in South Africa. (Mabel was fond of ”Ronald,” while Arthur favored ”John” and ”Reuel” — Arthur’s own middle name — so the parents stuck all three names together.) Father, a banker, had died there of a severe hemorrhage from rheumatic fever in 1896. Mother had raised Ronald and his brother Hilary in England until 1904, when she succumbed to diabetes and the boys were left in the care of relatives and friends.

He was a veteran of the First World War, lost numerous friends, didn’t tend to talk about it. A father of four. Loyally married to a girl he met when he was 16 — Edith Bratt. (True, she was older, and Anglican, and Father Francis Morgan — Ronald’s guardian — had forbidden them to see each other for several years, and Tolkien had been in torment about it, but, well, he didn’t tend to talk about that, either….) Lending credence to the John Houseman-style stereotype of a fusty professor, he smoked a pipe and wore tweed blazers and rode around Oxford on a bicycle. After World War II, he didn’t even own a car.

He kept a diary, but if there was anything salacious in it, you weren’t likely to find out, because much of the journal was full of graceful runic symbols that only Tolkien could decipher.

Seen from the surface, his life was so humdrum and conservative that this sentence would pop up halfway through Humphrey Carpenter’s 1977 Tolkien biography: ”And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” The year in question was 1925. Tolkien was 33.

There was a story to tell, of course, but it had to do with words — something the outside world had little interest in. There were two torrid romances in Tolkien’s life: Edith and words. ”Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages,” Tolkien wrote in 1951. ”I have been at it since I could write.” Words were what escorted him into academe. He became a philologist, specializing in the history of language and literature. Words were what chaperoned him into the shires of his imagination. He was bewitched by old myths and sagas — Norse, Teutonic, Icelandic, Finnish — and in the late hours of the night, while his wife and children slept, he dabbled with a few of his own. ”When he worked on a language, he didn’t just create a language,” says Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, a professor at Saint Louis University in Missouri. ”He had to create a history for it.”

What ensued was a sort of private Genesis: Languages led to names, names to places, and places to a vast, Byzantine cosmology — maps and calendars, war stories and family trees, ancient alphabets and forgotten species. ”He realized that you can’t have languages if you don’t know who speaks them, and they have to live in a world that their words describe,” says University of Maryland professor Verlyn Flieger, another Tolkien scholar. ”And so he began to flesh out the world.”

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