Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The 120th Brithday of J.R. R. Tolkien

It was 120 years ago today that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province, part of South Africa).  The son of a bank manager and a professor versed in the English language, he would become one of the most famous English writers of all time. In fact, it is quite possible that J. R. R. Tolkien is the most famous fantasy writer of any nationality. Both The Hobbit  and The Lord of the Rings number among the best selling books of all time.

Born in South Africa, Mr. Tolkien spent the majority of his childhood in England. It was while his mother, brother, and himself were visiting family in England that his father died from rheumatic fever in South Africa. The family lived for a brief time with Tolkien's maternal grandparents in Kings Heath, Birmingham, then moved to Sarehole, Worcestershire. The environs of Sarehole would prove to have a lasting impact on young Tolkien, influencing the fictional Shire of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Tolkien studied at Exeter College, Oxford, initially studying Classics before changing to English Language and Literature. During World War I he served in the Lancashire Fusiliers, eventually being invalided to England after contracting trench fever. In 1920 he became a Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds. He eventually became the youngest man to ever become a professor there. In 1925 he became a Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1945 he became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford.

It is perhaps fitting that J. R. R. Tolkien was born on the anniversary of the birth of Jacob Grimm, the German philologist and mythologist. Although known to the public at large as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Mr. Tolkien was also an influential philologist and mythologist in his own right. Indeed, in many respects he was almost as influential as Jacob Grimm himself.  His lecture Beowulf: The Monster and The Critics may well be the most influential work on the poem of all time. In 1936 there was a tendency for scholars downplay the fantastic elements (such as Grendel and the dragon) in Beowulf in favour of viewing the poem merely as a source of  Germanic tribal history. Mr Tokien not only argued that the fantastic elements were a necessary part of the poem, but also encouraged its study as a work of literature than merely a source of history. If Beowulf is today regarded as the first great narrative of the English language, it is largely J. R. R. Tolkien we owe for that.

While J. R. R. Tolkien would make many other contributes to Anglo-Saxon philology and the study of the English language, it is for his fiction that he is best known. Published in 1937, The Hobbit proved to be a success, so much so that its publisher asked Mr. Tolkien for a sequel. That sequel would eventually prove even more wildly successful than The Hobbit. The first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, was published in 1954. While The Hobbit was almost an immediate success, it would take time for The Lord of the Rings to become the phenomenon it is now. While it sold well in hardback, The Lord of the Rings would not be published in paperback until the Sixties. Following its publication in the Fifties and into the early Sixties, The Lord of the Rings was primarily read by fantasy and science fiction fans.

To a large degree this would change because of the unauthorised publication of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. In 1965 Donald A. Wollheim of Ace Books believed he had found a loophole in American copyright law whereby Lord of the Rings was not protected under copyright in the United States. Ace Books then published an unauthorised edition of the novel. Both Mr.Tolkien and his fans were outraged with Ace Books to the point that Ace Books withdrew their edition from circulation and paid a royalty payment to Mr. Tolkien. In the meantime Ballantine Books published an authorised edition. Regardless, the unauthorised edition of Lord of the Rings fuelled interest in the novel to the point that it became a fad. By 1967 The Lord of the Rings was particularly popular with the hippie subculture in the United States. Fortunately The Lord of the Rings would not remain the province of fantasy fans and hippies for long, and in the end the book would become the third best selling book of all time worldwide (surpassed only by A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).

 Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well J.R. R. Tolkien's other works, would have a lasting impact on Anglo-American pop culture. It was largely because of the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings that the fantasy genre experienced phenomenal grown in the Seventies and Eighties. It was because of The Lord of the Rings that such novels as The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle and  such fantasy series as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson met with success. Of course, there would be outright imitations of The Lord of the Rings as well, the most notable (and perhaps the worst) being the Shannara series by Terry Brooks. The first role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons owed a good deal to The Lord of the Rings, as did many of its successors. Even rock music would be influenced by The Lord of the Rings, with bands from Led Zeppelin to Rush drawing inspiration from the novel. The novel was also adapted as three major motion pictures (or there volumes in one long motion picture, if you prefer) and has provided the inspiration for several role playing games.

I must confess that I have not escaped the influence of Tolkien myself, having read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as various other Tolkien works. As a lad my first reading material tended to be comic books and reprints of old pulp magazine novels (such as Doc Savage and The Shadow). My interest in works that often contained fantastic elements led me to reading science fiction, but even as a child  I didn't always find the genre satisfying. Too often science fiction novels tended to be dry reading material, concentrating more on science and technology than characterisation or action. The Lord of the Rings opened up a new world for me, not only featuring a well developed fantasy world, but three dimensional characters as well. While I had already read Robert E. Howard's fantasy stories before I read The Lord of the Rings, it would be Tolkien would lead me to read the works of such fantasists as Michael Moorcock, Lord Dusany, Lloyd Alexander, and others.

Mr. Tolkien would prove to be an influence on me beyond my tastes in fiction. It did not take me long after I developed an interest in Old English literature and Anglo-Saxon history that I learned of Mr. Tolkien's contribution to their study. While we'd studied portions of Beowulf (in translation, of course) in school, it was Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics that led me to a true appreciation of the poem. With regards to the study of Old English literature, I must say that I owe a good deal to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Today, 120 years after his death, J. R. R. Tolkien remains one of the best selling of all time. An Oxford professor who studied Old English language and literature, his works are now studied at universities world wide. His influence can be seen in everything from literature to movies to music. The son of a bank manager born on Jacob Grimm's birthday went much further than any student of Old English literature and language could ever hope to.

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