Friday, January 3, 2014

Celebrating J.R.R. Tolkien

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State in what is now the Republic of South Africa. The son of an English banker and homemaker, Ronald's (as he was called by his family) father passed away when he was three years old on an extended visit to England. The sudden loss of a livelihood for the family meant Ronald's family would not return to Africa, and soon found themselves living with maternal grandparents in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath. 

The Tolkien monogram
As a boy, Tolkien would often venture off and explore the hills and valleys of the Midlands of England, with these childhood adventures undoubtedly leaving a lasting and indelible impact on his imagination. When a monetary gift enabled young Ronald to attend the King Edward's School in Birmingham, his mother relocated the family to that city and gave the young student an important opportunity to learn at a very prestigious school. Already attending a Roman Catholic church (mother Mabel had been received into the Catholic faith in 1900) Tolkien soon came under the guidance of one of the priests of the Birmingham Oratory and a Catholic education would always have considerable weight on the thinking of Tolkien. He remained a devout Roman Catholic until the end of his days.

J.R.R. Tolkien in a Great War uniform of the British Army.
When he was just 16 years old, Ronald met Edith Mary Bratt, the 19 year old daughter of a Handsworth shoemaker. Shortly before his 21st birthday, Ronald wrote her a letter and proposed marriage. Already betrothed to another, Edith never-the-less returned the ring to her previous suitor and the couple were married on the 22nd of March 1916. Although there had already been two years of the "War To End All Wars", Tolkien elected to finish his degree before taking a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, a local infantry regiment. He was later transferred to the 11th Service Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in 1916 and after arriving in France was moved again, this time to the front where he participated in the massive Somme Offensive.

He would not be there long though. In late October 1916 Tolkien contracted trench fever, a lice-borne illness that was endemic to those horrible conditions. This may have been a blessing in disguise because it was at the Somme and specifically Beaumont Hamel that Tolkien would lose many of the friends with whom he had joined the army. It was also during his recovery that he started work on stories that would later become the First Age of Middle-Earth, which included many massive and catastrophic battles between the forces of good and evil.

After the war and his recovery, Tolkien took a job with the Oxford English Dictionary before finding an academic position as a Reader (Lecturer) at the University of Leeds in 1920. Five years later he moved south to Oxford and was named the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and a Fellow of Pembroke College. It was at Oxford that he would encounter that less-than-exciting student paper on which he wrote: "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." The finished manuscript of The Hobbit would eventually find its way into the hands of publisher Stanley Unwin (with the help of a favourable review by Stanley's son, Rayner) and onto book shelves by September 1937. 

Tolkien in Oxford during his later years
The Hobbit would go on to significant acclaim and when Mr. Unwin asked for a sequel, Tolkien set about completing the manuscripts for what would eventually become the darker and more mature The Lord of the Rings. This volume used one of the minor items found in The Hobbit as its key plot device and ended with the dark lord Sauron overthrown by the combined forces of good led by the wizard Gandalf, Frodo Baggins of the Shire (another Hobbit) and the rightful claimant to the throne of two ancient kingdoms. Originally intended as a one volume book, it was subsequently divided into three separate volumes with the final volume The Return of the King released in October 1955. In subsequent years The Lord of the Rings would garner astonishing levels of popularity and is currently the second best-selling single volume book of all time, behind only Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. It has also been subsequently transformed into films (both live-action and animated), comic books, theatre shows and other media.
The Eagle and Child in Oxford was the pub where the Inklings would often meet to talk about their books. Photo by Author.
In 1977, four years after his death on September 2nd 1973, The Silmarillion, a collection of the tales of Tolkien's First Age of Middle-Earth, was edited by his son Christopher and Canadian Guy Gavriel Kay, and released for readers. This volume, much more dense and historical than The Lord of the Rings never-the-less remains my favourite book. In late 2011 while visiting Oxford, I had the good fortune of having a pint in one of the pubs where Tolkien's group of friends, the "Inklings", met regularly to discuss literature and religion among other things. It was a highlight of my time living in England and I'll be certainly be raising a pint of Ale for him again tonight, as I celebrate what would be J.R.R. Tolkien's 122nd birthday. 
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king

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