Stanley Unwin held a not unreasonable belief about chidren’s book publishing: the best way to know if the book was good was to have a child read it first. With that in mind, and being a publisher himself, he often took manuscripts home for his son, Rayner, to read. One day, the manuscript was a fantasy story, filled with wizards, “Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went on adventures,” began Rayner’s report, complete with spelling errors. “At last, Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting time fighting goblins and wargs.
At last they got to the lonley mountain; Smaug the dragon who gawreds it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home – rich! … It is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”
Rayner received a shilling and his father, founder of George Allen & Unwin, was convinced to publish. The Hobbit, it quickly turned out, appealed to far more than the predicted age group. Published on 21 September 1937, it sold its initial print run by the end of the year. Its success heralded a new name in fantasy literature, JRR Tolkien, and a new world called Middle Earth. Readers of all ages couldn’t get enough.
Later in life, Tolkien reflected that “One writes such a story 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”. He wrote The Hobbit and his masterpiece followup The Lord of the Rings while leading a decidedly ordinary life as an Oxford don. Life was comfortable and every day pretty much the same. So the ‘leaf-mould’ that gave life to his bestselling epics had gathered in his youth, and been added to by loss, friendship, passion for languages, war and love.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien – Ronald, to family and friends – met his wife of more than 50 years in 1908, when he was 16. Edith Mary Bratt was three years his senior, a gifted pianist and a fellow lodger in the house of Mrs Faulkner in Birmingham. Their friendship, formed through secret whistles and midnight feasts, soon blossomed into romance.
Tolkien’s Catholic guardian, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, disapproved of the match. Edith was both a Protestant and a distraction as he studied for a scholarship to Oxford, so Morgan told him not to pursue the relationship until he turned 21. All communication was then prohibited after the love-struck pair were spotted several times on secret bicycle rides or chance meetings. Tolkien grew so despondent that it actually came as a relief when she moved to Cheltenham. “Thank God!” he wrote in his diary, such was his deep respect for Morgan.
The kindly priest had taken Tolkien as his ward, along with his younger brother Hilary, when they were orphaned. They had lost their father, Arthur, at ages too young to remember him properly. Arthur had been an English bank manager in Bloemfontein, South Africa – where Tolkien was born on 3 January 1892 – and died in early 1896 due to complications from rheumatic fever. At the time, his wife Mabel and the two boys were away in England.
With no wish to return to South Africa, Mabel moved to Sarehole on the outskirts of Birmingham. The effect this had on Tolkien was profound. Despite his mother struggling with a meagre income, Sarehole came to represent an ideal childhood. He was in the countryside, living a simple rural existence, able to watch the mill in action or pick mushrooms from the field of a local farmer, whom he called the ‘black ogre’. When he later wrote about the Shire, he was thinking of Sarehole.
His bliss lasted only a short time. In 1900, Mabel converted to Roman Catholicism, to the outrage of her family, who stopped financial support, and then she moved the family so the boys could be nearer King Edward’s School. Tolkien felt the loss of the countryside keenly. Then in 1904, his mother succumbed to diabetes. From then on, Tolkien, a cheerful and sociable person at heart, could sink into deep despair at the fear of everything beautiful in the world being lost.
The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, scene of the regular meetings of Inklings, Tolkien’s literary group. (Image by AWL Images / Getty Images Plus)
He found solace in his Catholicism and through fellowship. At school, he had a close group of friends – Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith and Christopher Wiseman – who made up the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (or TCBS), which met to discuss literature or share artistic endeavours. Then, when he went to Oxford in 1911 to study Classics at Exeter College, Tolkien joined the rugby, debating and essay clubs, and founded a literary club of his own, the Apolausticks.
Years later, as an Oxford professor, he was an instrumental figure in the Inklings literary group. The loose collection of academics, writers and literary enthusiasts met for conversation, readings of works-in-progress and drinking in The Eagle and Child pub.
There, Tolkien would have tested out chapters from The Lord of the Rings to an encouraging audience, not least his friend CS Lewis.
It was in such groups that a younger Tolkien demonstrated his exemplary talents for language and philology. He had a natural skill for picking up languages, and a passion for inventing his own. Tolkien loved the sounds of words, whether in Greek or Gothic, Welsh or Finnish, Old Norse or Anglo- Saxon. He read greedily, but nothing struck him as much as a couplet in the Old English poem the Crist of Cynewulf: “Hail Earendel brightest of angels, above the Middle Earth sent unto men.” These words formed the cornerstone for much of his early writing as he conceived his own Middle Earth.
Despite hours spent writing or inventing languages, socialising or studying (he did too little of the latter in his first years at Oxford), Tolkien eagerly counted the days until his 21st birthday.
After nearly three years apart, he intended to write to Edith to renew their relationship. As midnight struck on 3 January 1913, he put pen to paper: “How long will it be before we can be joined together before God and the world?”
But when he got her reply, it seemed Edith had moved on. She was engaged to someone else. “I began to doubt you Ronald and to think you would cease to care for me,” she wrote, but added that had changed now she received Tolkien’s letter. With the hope of winning her heart again, he travelled to Cheltenham on 8 January. The two walked and talked for hours, and by the end Edith had pledged to break off her engagement and marry Tolkien.
The woman he loved was back in his life. She converted to Catholicism and moved to Warwick for him, while he switched from studying classics to English language and literature so as to better suit his interest in philology.
Tolkien had cause to be optimistic – until World War I broke out. While friends and contemporaries rushed to sign up to fight, Tolkien hoped to finish his degree first. It was not a popular move, but he realised he could undertake military training in Oxford at the same time. He also worked on his own language, Quenya. By 1915, Tolkien had achieved a first and enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. After months of further training, and only when it became clear he was about to be deployed to France, did he marry Edith, on 22 March 1916.
His battalion was bound for the Western Front in time to relieve depleted forces at the Somme. Tolkien spent some four months in and out of the trenches, enduring what he called the “animal horror” of war, before contracting a fever and being sent back to England.
Tolkein’s tales for the ages
Tolkien couldn’t be described as the world’s most prolific author, but his books enjoy long-lasting and constantly renewing love.
JRR Tolkien began work on what would become The Silmarillion during World War I, but it would still not be finished at the time of his death at the age of 81 on 2 September 1973. He published The Hobbit two years before World War II, and it took another 17 years after that for his long-awaited sequel, The Lord of the Rings, to hit the shelves.
While he accomplished extraordinary things with his writing, Tolkien led an ordinary life in many ways, even after becoming a world-famous author. He tried to respond to as many fan letters as he could, and initially his number remained in the telephone directory – so fans from across the globe would ring at all hours to ask him for details about the minutiae of his mythology.
And with son Christopher publishing his father’s work ever since – not to mention Peter Jackson’s blockbuster movies – there’s an enduring fascination in these great works of fantasy and Middle Earth.
Bilbo the hobbit reluctantly joins an expedition to retrieve the fabulous treasure of the dwarves being hoarded in the Lonely Mountain by the dragon, Smaug. The party of dwarves was led by the wizard Bladorthin and the chief dwarf Gandalf; they were the original names of Gandalf the Grey and Thorin Oakenshield respectively. The Hobbit was developed from stories Tolkien told to entertain his children and the book launched him to fame when first published in 1937. It sold out quickly and had to be swiftly reprinted, this time with several coloured illustrations from Tolkien himself.
Tolkien considered this, not The Lord of the Rings, to be his masterpiece. The Silmarillion charts the creation of the Universe and the ancient peoples of the First Age, but he never finished tinkering and rewriting over the five decades from its inception. There were so many versions to correlate – and conflicting, confusing details to rectify and craft into a narrative – that Tolkien never knew how to complete the book. It fell to his son Christopher to take on the job after his death and was eventually published in 1977.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Usually divided into three volumes, Tolkien meant The Lord of the Rings to be a single work that followed the quest to destroy the One Ring and see the King of Gondor return at the end of the Third Age.
In a sign that they didn’t think it would sell well, publishers George Allen & Unwin offered Tolkien a half-share in profits once production expenses had been paid off, and split the novel in three to boost sales. Such caution was not needed as The Lord of the Rings became a bestseller.
Most of his men were wiped out, and more distressing news came when he heard that two of his closest friends from his school club, the TCBS, had been killed. Just before Geoffrey Smith was hit by a shell, he wrote to Tolkien the poignant words: “May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.”
Tolkien took this to heart and decided it was time – that he had gathered enough ‘leaf-mould’ – to write a grand mythology on which to ground his invented languages. This marked the beginning of what has since been called his ‘legendarium’ (works relating to Middle Earth and the broader world) and the beginning of the book he would never complete, The Silmarillion.
Ongoing illnesses prevented Tolkien from returning to the Western Front, so time was spent writing or with Edith, by now pregnant with their first child, John. They would have two more sons, Michael and Christopher, and a daughter, Priscilla. When Tolkien was stationed in Hull in 1917, they went for a walk in the woods near Roos and, stopping in a grove filled with hemlock, Edith danced for him. He never forgot that moment as it inspired his beloved romance of Beren, a man, and Lúthien, an elf. Those names can now be seen on the headstone Tolkien and Edith share.
After the war, Tolkien worked on the New English Dictionary – concentrating on the letter W – and as professor in English Language at Leeds. He returned to Oxford in 1925 as professor of Anglo- Saxon at Pembroke College, specialising in Old and Middle English. Until his retirement in 1959, he worked tirelessly: tutoring undergrads, preparing classes, and giving lectures, most notably his seminal talk on Beowulf. His academic publication record was far from impressive, but he was more focused on his teaching. He was required to give at least 36 lectures a year, but he did not feel that covered the subject adequately so, in one year, he gave 136.
Tolkien was sitting in his study at home on Northmoor Road, marking an examination paper, when he came across a blank page. Without thinking, he scribbled down the line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. He didn’t know what a hobbit was, or why it lived in a hole, but he wanted to know more.
He jotted down a story that he thought his children would enjoy, and that became an embryonic manuscript of The Hobbit. It got passed around his friends in the Inklings until a copy found its way to an employee of George Allen & Unwin publishers named Susan Dagnall, who immediately saw its potential and passed it to Stanley Unwin. From there, it went to Unwin’s savvy son, Rayner.
The gravestone of Tolkien and his wife Edith includes the names Luthien and Beren, the in-love elf and man whose story was a recurring motif of Tolkien’s work. (Photo by Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images)
Its success prompted George Unwin & Allen to ask Tolkien for a sequel. It couldn’t be The Silmarillion as he hoped – there weren’t any hobbits in that – so he began drafting a new story without any idea of what it would be about. By the time it was eventually finished, The Lord of the Rings had taken Tolkien a full 12 years to write and another five to get published. World War II had been declared and won (Tolkien called Hitler a “ruddy little ignoramus”), his children grew up and left home, and he changed professorships from Pembroke to Merton College.
All the while, he was changing details, such as the hero’s name to Frodo from Bingo Bolger-Baggins, or adding layers of mythology that had never been seen in a fantasy novel before. Tolkien took worldbuilding to new heights, as tall as the book’s two towers themselves. It was no longer a children’s book.
When he finally delivered The Lord of the Rings to the publishers, it was accompanied with a note, saying: “It is written in my life blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.”
Yet The Lord of the Rings had taken so much time and was so weighty that Stanley Unwin had grown unsure about whether to proceed with publishing it. The decisive opinion, as with The Hobbit almost two decades earlier, fell to Rayner, now, of course, an adult.
He described the novel as a “brilliant and gripping story”, and argued for its publication, despite the risk of it possibly losing money. It was a work of genius, said Rayner, and that was enough for his father. Again.
Jonny Wilkes is a freelance journalist specialising in history.
This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed