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About the Author
Michael N. Stanton taught English literature at the University of Vermont. During his tenure there, he inaugurated the standard course on science fiction and fantasy literature and taught Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings every year that he was there. He has written on science fiction and fantasy literature as well as on Dickens and Melville.
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Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards
Exploring the Wonders and Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings
By Michael N. Stanton
Palgrave MillanCopyright © 2001 Michael N. Stanton
All rights reserved.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH AND LITERARY CONTEXT
These are some of the externals of Tolkien's life; we can go back and see how various elements in this sketch fit into the creation of his book.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, the elder son of Arthur and Mabel (Suffield) Tolkien, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father worked for the Bank of Africa. After a long and productive career spent largely in literary study, teaching, and writing, J. R. R. Tolkien died September 2, 1973, in the English resort town of Bournemouth.
After the birth of Tolkien's brother Hilary in 1894, Mabel Tolkien returned with the boys to England, where in February 1896 word came that their father had died. Tolkien was brought up in large part in a quiet English village called Sarehole. Sarehole was a friendly, old-fashioned sort of village; its pleasant pastoral quality and rustic inhabitants helped shape Tolkien's vision of the Shire and its inhabitants.
His childhood contained another tragic event — his mother died before he was twelve; but he cherished her memory and never forgot that she had introduced him to his Roman Catholic religious faith and to the study of languages, both of which, in very different ways, sustained him all his life. After Mabel Tolkien's death, Ronald and Hilary came under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan and were raised in the home of an aunt.
Tolkien graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, in 1915 and almost immediately went into military service in World War I as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. When he was on sick leave, recuperating from trench fever in early 1917, he committed to paper the first elements of a story cycle, parts of which later became The Silmarillion, the first bud on the great tree of Middle-earth.
From 1918 to 1920 he was one of several assistant editors on the OED, as the Oxford English Dictionary is familiarly called. From 1920 to 1925 he was first Reader (assistant professor) and then Professor of English at the University of Leeds.
From 1925 to 1945 he was a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, with the title of Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. In 1945 he changed colleges, becoming a fellow of Merton College, and Merton Professor of English Language and Literature until his retirement in 1959 (just before Oxford University revised and improved its pension program, he said ruefully). It is interesting to note that although he garnered a rich array of academic honors, Tolkien never earned a degree beyond the baccalaureate.
He married Edith Bratt in 1916, and they had three sons and a daughter (to whom he wrote a delightful "Father Christmas" letter each year; these are now collected and published); he was a devout Roman Catholic in a country and an institution notable for anti-Catholic bias; he was a good friend of C. S. Lewis and other Oxonians of his day.
We can go back and see how any or all of this is relevant to The Lord of the Rings.
His date of birth: it is important to keep in mind that Tolkien was a grown man before World War I even began. His thought and sensibilities were products, to some extent, of late Victorian culture. They were formed in an age that was, if not more innocent than ours, then certainly more hopeful. Tolkien discounted most biographical data but thought it important to emphasize that "I was born in 1892 and lived ... in 'the Shire' in a pre-mechanical age."
The war experience: as Tolkien writes in the "Foreword" to The Lord of the Rings: "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." World War I exacted a terrible cost on Tolkien's generation, and there is a sense in which The Lord of the Rings is an anti-war story, among the many other kinds of story it is. At the same time it is necessary to avoid, resist, and indeed combat purely allegorical readings of it: Mordor is not Nazi Germany, Tom Bombadil's little province is not Switzerland, and so on. Tolkien speaks of "applicability" (I, xi; 11) — the behavior of evil is drearily alike in various times and places; all power struggles have some features in common.
The editing of the OED and the professorships: The Lord of the Rings is in a basic sense about language. The quality of one's language is a point of moral reference in the tale: Elvish is mellifluous and beautiful (it is meant to be, to our ears); Elves are good. Orkish is harsh and guttural; Orcs are evil. The relationship between great moral worth and beauty of speech is implicitly causal: the Elves have done and suffered much in the long ages of Middle-earth; they have acquired wisdom and nobility and poetry, and thus their languages have developed into instruments of great expressiveness. The Orcs, twisted creatures made in the dark, have no more intelligence than cunning amounts to, and are brutal and treacherous to boot; their grating tongue expresses these qualities.
The stories of Middle-earth began from love of language. Tolkien said, "The invention of language is the foundation. ... To me a name comes first and the story follows." For Tolkien, in the word was the beginning. It is well to consider how deep this goes; to invent an imaginary country or planet has its creative difficulties, to be sure, but to invent a language, with vocabulary, sounds, rules of grammar and syntax, and idiom, is a profound operation psychologically.
But that was Tolkien's métier: he had invented a couple of languages before he reached his teens, and during his career he invented at least a dozen others, based on or influenced by languages he had learned or was learning. He knew at least four languages before he reached the British equivalent of high school.
This is a roster of the languages Tolkien knew or studied, besides Greek, Latin, Lombardic, and Gothic:
among Germanic tongues: Old Norse or Old Icelandic; modern Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish; Old English or Anglo-Saxon; several dialects of Middle English; modern German and Dutch;
among Romance languages: French, Spanish, Italian;
in other language groups: modern and medieval Welsh, Russian, Finnish. (The two greatest influences on his development of Elvish languages were Welsh and Finnish.)
All these facts to the contrary notwithstanding, there is probably only limited usefulness in looking at the life to read the story, although Tolkien's relationship with C. S. Lewis should be mentioned. He and Tolkien were good friends for many years, even though they grew apart in the later years of Lewis's life. Tolkien always maintained that it was Lewis's faith in the worth of The Lord of the Rings and his insistence that Tolkien continue with it that led him eventually to complete the work.
As a mature man, Tolkien was flagrantly ordinary: dowdy clothes except for the occasional brilliant waistcoat, plain food, a dull house, unremarkable pictures on the wall. In the ordinary acceptation of the terms, he had very little use for fashion or taste.
Everything was going on inside, in the imagination: he never cared to travel because he already had, so to speak. "One writes such a story [as The Lord of the Rings]," he said, "not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed ... 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. ..."
Despite this diffidence, he was apparently a fascinating teacher: Anglo-Saxon is not the most glamorous of academic subjects, but one of his students, J. I. M. Stewart (Michael Innes), later wrote, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall, in which he was the bard and we were the feasting, listening guests."
He was also a notable scholar; he wrote the pioneering criticism of the Old English poem Beowulf, in which he was one of the first to treat the poem as a work of art, and a highly wrought one at that, instead of as a gold mine for pedantic linguists. He edited with E. V. Gordon and others a number of medieval texts. And The Lord of the Rings is itself a highly literary text, as later remarks will suggest.
Still, he completed less work than he might have, for among his salient personality traits, he was both a procrastinator and a perfectionist. That is one reason why The Lord of the Rings took seventeen years to get itself written and published, and why The Silmarillion did not see print until after his death, when his son Christopher took it in hand, after Tolkien had been working on it for sixty years.
WHEN DID HOBBITS FIRST APPEAR?
Elves had figured in Tolkien's imaginative work from the outset. The Hobbits, by contrast, came rather late. They appeared in the late 1920s or early 1930s when Tolkien was correcting a very dull set of exam papers; distractedly, he wrote at the top of one, "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
As he said, the name came first, then the story. He began to develop notions of what Hobbits were, what sort of a place they lived in, what adventures might be most surprising to them or one of them; the result was The Hobbit, published in 1937.
Tolkien, speaking of The Hobbit, always tried to correct two misconceptions:
It was not written simply for children, but it contained "'asides' to juvenile readers," as Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter calls them: Tolkien "came to dislike them, and even to believe that any deliberate talking down to children is a great mistake in a story." Indeed, the condescension and preciosity that mar The Hobbit are largely absent from The Lord of the Rings, so he profited from the lesson. As Tolkien told another inquirer, if The Hobbit seemed "dressed up as 'for children,' in style or manner, I regret it. So do the children."
Hobbits are not little people: they are not to be confused with the miniature elves and fays who hide in cowslips, nor with leprechauns, nor with any other race of beings whose essence is cuteness. They are indeed people; Tolkien's conception of them arises from his knowledge of country life. He said, "The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imaginations — not the small reach of their courage or latent power."
Although this study means to focus almost exclusively on The Lord of the Rings, a few words on its connection to The Hobbit may be appropriate here. The continuity between the earlier and the later work is really rather slight. The Ring that Bilbo found or won under the mountain becomes the One Ring. The Hobbits themselves, and Gollum, and Gandalf, provide links; but the dissimilarities are more numerous than the similarities: the locales are different, most of the characters are different (in The Lord of the Rings the race of Dwarves has but two representatives), the realization of landscape and setting is vastly different. The nature of the plot is different: what happens to Bilbo in the earlier work is a series of discrete adventures; the fate of Frodo and the others in the later book is part of a single worldwide struggle.
Most of all, as what Tolkien said would suggest, the tone is different: there is more seriousness in The Lord of the Rings, there is more sense of moral implications. There is no sense of "playful intimacy" with imaginary children around an imaginary fireside. Characters who appear in both books, like Gandalf, seem to have one less dimension (at least) in The Hobbit.
THE WRITING AND PUBLISHING HISTORY
As is true throughout Tolkien's created mythology, pieces of this tale existed from the earliest parts of his career; bits of The Lord of the Rings pre-dated Tolkien's conscious effort to tell a really long story. The success of The Hobbit for the Christmas season of 1937 led his publisher Allen and Unwin to encourage Tolkien to write a follow-up tale. The composition of The Lord of the Rings as such began soon after The Hobbit came out. Finally, seventeen years and 600,000 words later, it appeared in 1954 and 1955. It is not a trilogy, by the way, since that implies that each volume can stand alone, can be read separately and make sense. It is rather a long fiction in three volumes (which is the way novels by authors like Dickens were published in the nineteenth century). The three-volume format is a publisher's convenience: not only does it make the reader's task less unwieldy, it also assures three separate sets of reviews. After several chapters, beginning with "A Long-Expected Party" (all approved by young Rayner Unwin), it became clear that the story was changing direction. Humphrey Carpenter says, "Tolkien had not really wanted to write any more stories like The Hobbit; he had wanted to get on with the serious business of his mythology."
At all events, the war, academic duties, career changes, and perhaps a sheer inability to see where the story was going (see Tolkien's remarks below) prevented his completing even a first draft until late 1947. Then the story had to be revised, "indeed largely rewritten backward" (I, ix; 9) and fair copied. Tolkien and the firm of Allen and Unwin also had had some misunderstandings; Tolkien let the firm of Collins read the typescript, but they eventually declined it, and Tolkien wound up back with Allen and Unwin. Rayner Unwin had always had faith in the story but it was clearly not going to be the juvenile best-seller that The Hobbit had been. The firm agreed to publish The Lord of the Rings as a kind of prestige item, believing it would sell a few thousand copies at best. Thus they made a financial arrangement rather unusual in modern publishing: instead of the usual royalty agreement where the author gets a percentage on every copy sold from the first on, usually 10 or 15 percent, Tolkien would get nothing until production costs were recovered — then he and the publisher would go 50–50.
Some of the reasons that the writing process was so protracted have been mentioned; the process itself is of considerable interest. Tolkien speaks of the unfolding of the book not as if he were planning it, much less writing it, but as though it were happening to him. He writes, "the essential Quest started at once. But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me." Tom Bombadil he knew of already, and he had heard rumor of the Mines of Moria, and of the Riders of Rohan. But Strider and the town of Bree, the Golden Wood of Lothlórien, and the Forest of Fangorn (among other things) were completely new. The strangest thing was that Saruman had not yet occurred to him and therefore he did not know why Gandalf had not shown up as promised!
And much more in the same vein. Authors often talk about their creations in this way, and to Tolkien's imagination, he was almost literally in Middle-earth.
At any rate, the book was well reviewed and enjoyed a modest reputation in England and America in hardcover until 1965, when the pirated Ace paperback edition appeared in the United States. Houghton Mifflin held the U.S. copyright to Tolkien's works, and court battles and lawsuits gained The Lord of the Rings much valuable publicity, at which point — autumn 1965 — Ballantine Books, by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin, put out the authorized paperback with authorial revisions.
A rapid growth in sales thereafter was both a result of the interest stirred by the legal warfare and a stimulus to further interest as word spread among readers. In the first ten months after the Ballantine paperback edition appeared, 250,000 copies were sold.
In the late 1960s Tolkien, his book, and its characters became cult figures on American campuses. "Frodo Lives!" buttons and graffiti were everywhere; the Tolkien Society was formed at Harvard; the Tolkien Journal began publication. There were maps and posters and calendars. By now of course, with millions of readers, The Lord of the Rings can no longer be regarded as a cult text, if the word "cult" means a small band of eccentric devotees. The influence of Tolkien's fantasy can perhaps be indicated by two rather obnoxious facts: it has spawned a host of (mostly meretricious) imitators, and it has become the subject of academic literary criticism.
Excerpted from Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards by Michael N. Stanton. Copyright © 2001 Michael N. Stanton. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Millan.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Backgrounds,
Chapter 2: Geography, History, Theme,
Chapter 3: The Fellowship of the Ring: Prologue and Book I,
Chapter 4: The Fellowship of the Ring: Book II,
Chapter 5: A Short Interlude,
Chapter 6: The Two Towers: Book III,
Chapter 7: The Two Towers: Book IV,
Chapter 8: The Return of the King: Book V,
Chapter 9: The Return of the King: Book VI,
Chapter 10: The Elves,
Chapter 11: The Dwarves,
Chapter 12: The Ents,
Chapter 13: Humankind,
Chapter 14: Darkness, Evil, and Forms of the Enemy,
Chapter 15: On Languages,
Chapter 16: Mind, Spirit, and Dream in The Lord of the Rings,