On this day (Sep 2) 1973, J.R.R. TOLKIEN, the man considered by literary circles to be the ‘Father of Modern or High Fantasy Literature’, died at the age of 81. Born in South Africa on 03 Jan 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was raised in England and graduated from Exeter College at Oxford in 1915. After serving as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers during World War I, his first job as a civilian was working on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin for the Oxford English Dictionary.
In 1920, he became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds, where he produced a Middle English Vocabulary. In addition, while working with E. V. Gordon, he created a definitive translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which became an academic standard for many years).
In 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, a position he held from 1925-1945. During this time, while grading exams, a distracted Tolkien wrote something across the top of a paper. The single line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” not only inspired but would eventually become “The Hobbit”, a novel published in 1937.
In 1945, Tolkien was appointed Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. Between 1954 and 1955, he wrote a sequel to The Hobbit entitled, The Lord of the Rings. Also set in the fictional Middle Earth, the trilogy followed the adventures of a noble hobbit named Frodo Baggins who, joined by companions, a wizard, and various races living in Middle Earth, embarked on a quest to destroy a powerful and evil ring which could destroy everyone and everything.
“The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien admitted, began as an exercise in “linguistic esthetics” as well as an illustration of his theory on fairy tales. Then the story itself captured him.
The Lord of the Rings became a best-selling classic and has been adapted for radio, television and film, as well as video games and music. In December 2001, director Peter Jackson brought the trilogy to the big screen, subsequently earning a total of 30 Oscar nominations for all three films, and winning 17 Academy Awards including the Best Picture award for the final installment, Return of the King.
Married to Edith May Bratt on 22 Mar 1916, Tolkien and his wife would have four children. A devoted husband and father, he was also a close friend to C.S. Lewis, whom he first met at Oxford. In May 1927, Tolkien enrolled Lewis in a club called ‘Coalbiters’, which read Icelandic sagas in the original Old Norse.
In his later years, the increasing fame from his work made the quiet, academic Tolkien uncomfortable. Repeatedly approached and contacted, he was forced to remove his name from the public directory and moved with his wife to Bournemouth. A devout Roman Catholic with Conservative political views, he disliked his work being referred to as a cult phenomenon or any inference that he was a ‘cult figure’ himself.
On 01 Jan 1972, Tolkien was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honour’s List by Queen Elizabeth II. On 28 Mar 1972, he received the insignia of the Order at Buckingham Palace.
An obituary, published in The New York Times on 03 September 1972, referred to Tolkien as the “Creator of a World”, stating, “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien cast a spell over tens of thousands of Americans in the nineteen-sixties with his 500,000-word trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” in essence a fantasy of the war between ultimate good and ultimate evil.”
Perhaps the best epitaph for this man is: ” A linguist, scholar, and author of “The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien ws a gentle, blue-eyed, donnish-appearing man who favored tweeds, smoked a pipe and liked to take walks and ride an old bicycle.”
For me, he was an endearing storyteller whose likeness and personality I always see in one of his characters. A kind and gentle wizard known by different names to different people. Stormcrow. Mithrandir. Gandalf. Or, Tolkien. They are one and the same to me…and perhaps other fans as well.