is adapted from an essay written by Austin Olney, Tolkiens
editor at Houghton Mifflin for many years, on the occasion of
the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of
Those who know and love the works of J.R.R. Tolkien know also
that they stand on their own and need no further explication
or justification. Still, their vision is so powerful, their
complexity so engaging, and their consistency and originality
so unlike any other individual vision that one cant help
speculating on how they came into being.
Tolkiens childhood was not a happy one. He was born in
South Africa, where his father was a businessman, in a setting
far from the Shire, but he moved to England with his mother
while still an infant. As a schoolboy he discovered a love of
language and was fortunate to have two young cousins who shared
their made-up languages with him. One was "Animalic,"
which used many animal names for words (for example, "Dog
nightingale woodpecker forty" meant "You are an ass").
Tolkiens mother died when he was twelve, and at sixteen
he went to live with a couple who took in boarders one of
whom became his friend and eventually his wife. As a student
at Oxford, he struck up a friendship with C. S. Lewis, who was
later to be a fellow professor at Oxford, and with whom he shared
his thoughts about myths, languages, and storytelling. Lewis
said, "Myths are lies even though lies breathed through
silver." "No," said Tolkien, "they are not."
And they discussed such matters extensively over the years,
for when Tolkien married and he and his wife, Edith, had children,
he found that, like Lewis, he had a gift for storytelling.
John, their eldest son, often had difficulty falling asleep.
When he was lying awake his father would come and sit on his
bed and tell him tales of Carrots, a boy with red hair who climbed
into a cuckoo clock and went off on a series of strange adventures.
In this fashion Tolkien discovered that he could use his imagination,
which at this time was creating the complexities of The Silmarillion
to invent simpler stories. He had an amiably childlike sense
of humor, and as his sons grew older this manifested itself
in the noisy games he played with them and in the stories
he told Michael, his younger son, who was troubled by nightmares.
These tales were about the irrepressible villain Bill Stickers,
a huge hulk of a man who always got away with everything. His
name was taken from a notice on an Oxford gate that said "Bill
Stickers Will Be Prosecuted," and a similar name provided
the source of the righteous person who was always in pursuit
of Stickers, "Major Road Ahead."
So it was that during the 1920s and 1930s Tolkiens imagination
was running along two distinct courses that did not meet. On
one side were the stories composed for the amusement of his
children. On the other were the grander themes, sometimes Arthurian
or Celtic, but usually associated with his own legends. Meanwhile,
nothing was reaching print, beyond a few poems in an Oxford
magazine, which indicated to his colleagues that Tolkien was
amused by dragons hoards and funny little men with names
like Tom Bombadil. A harmless pastime, they felt, if a little
Something was lacking, something that would bring the two sides
of the imagination together and produce a story that was at
once heroic and mythical and at the same time tuned to the popular
imagination. He was not aware of this lack, of course; nor did
it seem particularly significant to him when the missing piece
fell into place.
It was on a summers day in the 1930s, and he was sitting
by the window in his study, laboriously marking School Certificate
exam papers. Years later he recalled: "One of the candidates
had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which
is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner),
and I wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived
a hobbit. Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually
I thought Id better find out what hobbits were like. But
thats only the beginning."
"One writes such a story," said Tolkien, "out
of the leaf-mold of the mind," and while we can still detect
the shape of a few of the leaves his alpine trek of 1911,
the goblins of the "Curdie" books of George Macdonald,
an episode in Beowulf when a cup is stolen from a sleeping dragon
this is not the essential point of Tolkiens metaphor.
One learns little by raking through the compost heap to see
what dead plants originally went into it.
Far better to observe its effect on the new and growing plants
that it is enriching. And in The Hobbit
of Tolkiens mind nurtured a rich growth with which only
a few books in childrens literature can compare.
J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973 at the age of eighty-one. It is
a long way from "In a hole in the ground there lived a
hobbit," at the beginning of The Hobbit
, to Sams
satisfied sigh at the end of The Lord of the Rings
Im back!" And fortunately Sam and all the others
a whole world, Middle-earth, full of them are
still with us more than a half century after the beginning of
it all, and indeed will be with us forever.