A recent poll of British readers revealed Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to be their overwhelming choice as the all-time favorite British book. This news caused much clucking among the intelligentsia, who know, of course, that it is far from the greatest work of English literature. Yet even with the question of rank set aside, there is little doubt that Tolkien's epic has been enjoyed by more readers, both young and old, than any comparable set of books. Though it became something of a cult work during the 1960s, it continues to enjoy a large and varied following nearly forty years later. This is a remarkable thing, especially in our film-centered age--where, as Alistair Cooke has darkly observed, reading will soon become as quaint an art as hand-quilting. Some of my students have confessed that making their way through all 1500 pages of Tolkien's epic is their greatest intellectual achievement; it is the first time they had ever gone outside themselves long enough to master a larger world than their own small space. Others have told me, even more revealingly, that reading Tolkien makes them feel clean in ways that nothing else does. Though a stinging criticism of our cultural decadence, this is also a tribute to something morally and religiously pure in Tolkien's work. As an attempt to understand the Tolkien phenomenon more fully, I offer this distillation of Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977) as well as other reading I have done.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892. Tolkien is actually a Dutch name, but the Tolkiens had long been Anglicized. Tolkien's father, like many other young Englishmen of promise, had migrated to the British colony in hopes of make his fortune. But Tolkien's mother was unhappy living so far away from home and in such harsh circumstances. She had returned to England for the birth of her second son, Hilary, when Ronald was only three. Their father contracted yellow fever and, before Mabel Tolkien could return to Africa to care for him, he died. Thus was she left a young widow faced with the task of raising two young sons on her own.
Mrs. Tolkien returned to her native Birmingham to undertake this task, renting a cheap cottage on the edge of the ugly industrial city in a village called Sarehole Mill. The mill was no longer used for grinding wheat (instead crushing animal bones for fertilizer), but it became a mystic place for the Tolkien boys. They watched its operation for many hours, as the water tumbled over the sluice and rushed beneath the great wheel, driving the huge leather belts with their pulleys and shafts. The boys also spent happy summer days picking flowers, playing in the sand pit, and trespassing on the mushroom patch of a farmer whom them called the Black Ogre. They soon picked up the Warwickshire dialect, which included the word gamgee. A Birmingham physician named Dr. Gamgee had invented a surgical dressing from cotton wool, and the name had become a household term in the region. (Much later in life, Tolkien and his family were vacationing on the beach in Cornwall when they met an old man who was renowned for swapping gossip, giving sage advice, and issuing forth with chestnuts of wisdom. They named him Gaffer Gamgee, and the name thus became part of the family's lore, a designation for gabbling chaps of his type.)
Mabel Suffield Tolkien was a remarkable woman. She was skilled in penmanship and languages, having command of Latin, Greek, and French. She taught both disciplines to her sons, so that young Ronald could read and write proficiently before he was four. Yet her own lot in life proved exceedingly hard. She did not get much help from her family in raising these sons. Though once distinguished, the Suffields had come down in the world. Her father was, in fact, a travelling salesman. They were also Unitarians who were scandalized by Mabel's conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1900. So were the Baptist parents of her husband. Except for one Tolkien uncle who provided financial help, both families became extremely hostile to Mabel, ostracizing both her and her boys.
To become a Roman Catholic in England at the turn of the century was to perform a radically counter-cultural act. Though she had been a high-church Anglican, Mabel Tolkien was now devoted to the Church of England's historic enemy, the communion of Rome. Until recently, England was the most virulently anti-Catholic country in Europe, thanks to the ancient animosity with Catholic France and Spain, to the vexed question of Ireland, to the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament, etc. Mrs. Tolkien's conversion may thus have been meant as a declaration that her Christianity and her citizenship were not to be confused, that her faith took precedence over all other things, even her family and country. In no way was it a move not calculated for her own benefit. She sought above all to give her sons a Catholic upbringing at great personal cost, and so she relocated herself and her boys next door to the Birmingham Oratory, a large Catholic retreat house located in a suburb called Edgbaston.
The Oratory of St. Philip Neri is a congregation of secular priests living in community but without the vows of poverty or obedience to any monastic superior. Given papal approval in 1575, the Oratorians were introduced to England in 1848 by John Henry Newman following his celebrated conversion to Roman Catholicism, perhaps after his visit to the Oratory of San Girolamo in Rome. The Oratorians espouse a very Italianiate kind of Christianity--seeking to lead people to God through prayer, preaching, and the sacraments--and through the Baroque beauty of their churches. The modern "oratorio" (Handel being its most famous practitioner) grew out of the laudi spirituali sung in their devotional exercises. Chesterton's friend Hilaire Belloc was also educated at the Birmingham Oratory. Tolkien's own faith would be shaped by the Oratorians' attempt to steer a middle path between the world-denying asceticism of medieval monasticism and the self-indulgent worldliness of much modern Protestantism.
Tolkien's daughter Priscilla assured me, when I visited in her Oxford home during June of 1988, that this rigorously religious upbringing turned her father into a very spiky sort of Catholic, one who would not have thought very highly of a Baptist like me! He was a pre-Vatican II believer who scorned the vernacular liturgy (longing still for the Latin mass) and who had no desire for ecumenical unity. Like Chesterton, Tolkien regarded the Protestant Reformation as a terrible mistake, and he looked upon the great Anglican cathedrals as stolen Catholic property! In uncharacteristically harsh language, he called Anglicanism "a pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs." Tolkien would thus deride his friend C. S. Lewis for being an unrepentant Ulster Protestant! (Yet Ms. Tolkien also said that, whenever her father explored his imaginative world, this short-fused defensiveness about his faith fell away, as he was free to plumb the inexhaustible depths of what Lewis called "mere" Christianity.)
Tolkien remained a convinced rather than a standard-issue cradle Catholic also because he regarded his mother as a martyr. Mabel Tolkien worked so hard to see that her boys were nurtured in the Catholic faith that, weakened by her long labors, she died from diabetes in 1904, when Ronald was 12. Her death made Tolkien a pessimist and doom-monger. "Doom" is indeed a word that resounds like a fearful drumbeat throughout the Lord of the Rings. It evokes a chilling sense of both fate and judgment. The death of Tolkien's mother "filled him with a deep sense of impending loss," Carpenter declares. "It taught him that nothing is ever safe, that nothing will last, that no battle will be won forever." Tolkien was sometimes given to bouts of depression, unable to attend confession and to receive the sacrament. Yet he believed that the Crucifix stands rightly at the center of Catholic worship, both as the sign of God's own sacrifice of his Son as well as the doom that hangs over all creaturely life. That this doom bore down so soon on his own mother led Tolkien to make this comment about her when he was 21: "My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith" (31).
Mrs. Tolkien's death also meant that Tolkien and his brother were now orphans. Yet she had seen to it that they would be placed under the guardianship of the Oratory, where they were made wards of one of the priests, Father Francis X. Morgan. He was kind and humorous man, a lovable priest who had already become a central figure in the Tolkien household long before Mabel's death. He then attended to the practical details of the boys' housing and schooling and finances, and he also took them on vacations to the seashore. Ronald and Hilary served, in turn, as his altar boys when he said early morning mass, ate in the Oratory's plain refectory, and became closely linked with the community of priests who carried out the mission of the church. Even so, Tolkien had been harshly thrust out of his Edenic innocence and joy into the fallen Adamic world of grief and woe. Tolkien and Lewis would later share this deep sense of maternal loss as one of their chief commonalities. This is not to say, however, that Tolkien was a gloomy youth who went about with his mouth drawn down. On the contrary, he was as a boy what he remained as an adult: a cheerful person who loved good talk, lively friendships, and vigorous physical activity. He was a tough rugby player.
The chief of Tolkien's early joys was found in books and pictures and words. He became a gifted draftsman who, the rest of his life, kept colors and paints always close at hand; he was especially talented at landscapes and trees. Just as he regarded horses as the noblest of the animal species, so did Tolkien think trees to be the most glorious of plants--their slow growth and magnificent beauty giving them a sort of botanic divinity. He liked not only to draw trees but also to be with them, to dwell in their presence and to receive their life--climbing them, leaning against them, sitting beneath them, even talking to them. To slay trees thoughtlessly--to "hack and rack the growing green," as Gerard Manley Hopkins called it--was to commit a considerable crime. Tolkien was troubled, therefore, when someone cut down an old willow overhanging the Sarehole Mill pond and left the log to rot.
Though Tolkien's imagination was supremely visual, he would realize his images primarily in words rather than pictures. He was drawn to the sound of words no less than their meaning. He would later observe that cellar door is a gorgeous phrase, far more attractive than the word sky, and even more beautiful than the word beauty itself. Tolkien was also mesmerized by the strange phonic order that words often have. Having begun one of his childhood stories with the phrase "the green great dragon," he was told by his mother that this wouldn't do, that it should be "the great green dragon" instead. Tolkien would spend his life seeking to fathom this syntactic mystery. He was also moved by the wonder of Welsh words which he saw printed on the sides of coal trucks, finding an almost mystical enchantment in an unpronounceable name like Penrhiwceiber. French, by contrast, had little allure for him--not only because it often betokens an empty sophistication, but also because it grates upon the ear with an irritating nasality. He was drawn instead to the beauty of Celtic and Germanic languages, finding in both their sound and sense a whole new way of apprehending the world.
It is not surprising that young Tolkien did not enjoy the traditional children's books: Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, The Pied Piper, and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Like C. S. Lewis, he was moved by the Curdie books of George Macdonald. They were set in remote kingdoms where misshapen and malevolent goblins lurked beneath mountains. Though he was drawn to the Arthurian legends, Tolkien the boy found his chief delight in the Red Fairy Book of Andrew Lang. It contained the best story he had ever read, the tale of Sigurd, the warrior who slew the dragon Fafnir. It was also a story set in the far-off and nameless North--a region at once the richest and most beautiful he had ever encountered, but also the most perilous. Again with Lewis, the fierce and dark beauty of Northernness, the stark and violent world of Scandinavian myth and saga, would always be more attractive to Tolkien than the sunnier mythologies of the Mediterranean world. It fit their own early, bitter experience. When later he was to take up the study of Anglo-Saxon (and to become the foremost authority on Beowulf), Tolkien was struck, as with divine revelation, when he first encountered these lines in an old English poem called Crist by Cynewulf:
Eala Earendel engla beorthast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended.
(Hail, Ëarendel, brightest of angels/above the middle earth sent.)
Tolkien confessed that he "felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English." Tolkien interpreted Earendel as referring to John the Baptist, the precursor of Christ, but he also believed that it had been the Anglo-Saxon name for Venus, the star that presages the dawn. It figures in the Rings epic as the shining jewel set on the prow of the ship Vingilot as it sails through the night sky.
Already as a child, Tolkien was inventing languages. He and his young friends began with "Animalic," a language based on English, somewhat like pig-Latin. "Boy nightingale woodpecker forty" meant "You are an ass." Soon he concocted "Naffarin," which had its own system of sounds and grammar, thus serving as a precursor to the various Elvish tongues that Tolkien would later devise. There is no wonder that such a linguistic genius prospered at King Edward's School, where he had been sent once the Oratory school could no longer challenge him. Greek and Latin were the backbone of the King Edward's curriculum. Tolkien could read and speak Latin fluently by the time he finished this public school, and once during a debate he spoke entirely in Greek. Later in life he would break forth in fluent Gothic or Anglo-Saxon. At the end of his final year at King Edward's, he and his classmates performed a Greek play in the original tongue, and they sang the national anthem ("God Save the King") also in Greek!
Before going up to Oxford in 1911 on an Exhibition Scholarship at Exeter College, Tolkien made a summer walking tour of Switzerland. There he climbed the great crags and crevices of the Alps. Their tremendous steeps and deeps provided a wondrous outward and physical correlative to his own inward and spiritual landscape. There he also found a postcard drawing of a mountain spirit by a German artist named Madelener. He would keep it all his life long because it was the origin of one of his most important characters, the wizard Gandalf. Carpenter describes it: "It shows an old man sitting on a rock under a pine tree. He has a white beard and wears a wide-brimmed round hat and long cloak. He is talking to a white faun that is nuzzling his upturned hands, and he has a humorous but compassionate expression; there is a glimpse of rocky mountains in the distance."
Though young Tolkien was obsessed with languages and mythologies, he was no mere bookworm. He fell deeply in love with a fellow student named Edith Bratt when he was 16 and she 19. It began as a mere romance carried on in teashops, in late-night talks as they leaned out their boarding-house windows, and in what they called "the three great kisses." (Tolkien would later seek to preserve this pure and innocent world of non-genital courtship by showing the splendid erotic power of a handclasp.) Slowly their love grew into something serious. Father Morgan would have nothing of it, scorning what Hopkins calls "Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy." The priest knew that he had been entrusted with the shepherding of a genius, and he did not want him to be lost in young love. He ordered Tolkien to move from the boarding house where Bratt lived, indeed to break off the affair altogether. When Ronald and Edith began to pass notes by couriers and also to meet clandestinely, Morgan ordered that they not see each other again under any circumstances, and that they communicate by neither mail nor messages for another three years. By then Ronald would have attained his majority, Edith would be a rather ripe 24, and surely that would be the end of that.
Most of us will think it incredibly unfeeling of Father Morgan to have laid down such strictures, even as we are likely to regard young Tolkien as utterly spineless for having obeyed them. We ought to pause before leaping to such condemnations. The priest knew that young Ronald was an intellectual prodigy destined for greatness, and that he must not be distracted from such extraordinary achievement by the charms of a beautiful lass. Father Morgan may have also nursed the private hope that this deeply religious boy would himself seek holy orders. Tolkien, for his part, was not a typically rebellious youth lashing out against all constraints. He held to the old-fashioned view that authority existed to be obeyed. Nor was it a small consideration that Father Morgan served also as his surrogate parent, a kindly if stern man whom he loved and honored because he been his faithful guardian. For the next three years, therefore, Ronald and Edith had no communications whatsoever.
Tolkien prospered at Oxford. There he learned the glories of good talk, strong ale, male company, and a freshly-fueled pipe. He was by no means bookish. Like other Oxonians, he adopted their curious slang and indulged what would become a lifelong love of rather boorish practical jokes. Having already mastered Greek and Latin in public school, he became bored with them at Oxford, much preferring his independent labors in the Germanic languages. He came, as we have seen, to have an almost mystical regard for words. He regarded articulate breath as our greatest gift, the one thing animals lack: speech. In Tolkien's view, no word is ever arbitrary or merely accidental. As he will show in the Fellowship of the Ring, even a seemingly nonsensical nursery rhyme like "Hey, diddle diddle" may have originally served as a drinking song. Words come into being because they reveal, in irreplaceable and non-duplicable ways, the nature of things. Like Adam in Eden naming the animals that the Lord God brings before him, words give life to the created order. A tree is not truly a tree until someone names it. A star is no mere ball of matter moving in a mathematical course; it is also a created wonder which the word star uniquely reveals. Things thus call forth their names from us, beckoning us to give them their true existence with words.
This is an ontological view of language: it arises out of the very nature of things and is thus intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the cosmos. Here Tolkien stands in direct opposition to the standard post-modernist view that words are signs that reveal nothing but their differences from other signs, and thus their origin in the human desire to impose order on chaos. Hence Ferdinand Saussure's widely-accepted claim: "Language is a system of arbitrary signs.... There is no reason for preferring Soeur to sister, Ochs to boeuf, etc.... Because the sign is arbitrary, it follows no other law than that of tradition, and because it is based on tradition, it is arbitrary." For Tolkien, by contrast, language is our fundamental way into the real. As a Christian, moreover, Tolkien believed that our logoi (words) are rooted in Logos (the Word) who has become flesh in Jesus Christ. Mythologies are supreme examples of this ontological character of speech. They disclose--through characters and events and images--the fundamental order of things, an order which we are meant not to invent so much as to find out. Tolkien thus believed that he had not devised his magnificent mythology so much as he had discovered it. Once when asked what a certain passage meant, he replied: "I don't know; I'll try to find out." "Always I had the sense," he declared, "of recording what was already 'there.'" The tales arose in his mind, he confessed, "as 'given' things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew" (92). Tolkien came to regard Gandalf and his other central characters not as fictional but historical persons!
This notion may strike us as a little cracked unless we see what a sophisticated understanding of language lies behind it. Tolkien despised the notion, popularized by the German anthropologist Max Müller, that mythologies are diseased languages. Müller, not unlike the theologian Rudolf Bultmann, wanted to get beyond fuzzy and "primitive" myths to the more precise abstractions of modern science. Müller would thus have read the myth of Thorr, the Norse god of thunder, as a prescientific attempt to explain the phenomenon that we now know to result from the mere clashing of hot and cold air. Tolkien argued that Müller got things exactly backward: modern languages are diseased mythologies. In the ancient world, men did not seek to abstract natural events from their human and divine (or demonic) contexts: they saw all four realms as interwoven into a complex multilayered whole.
In his essay "On Fäerie Stories," Tolkien argues that the word Thorr was probably borne as ancient Norsemen experienced three things at once: human rage in the form of a bellowing hot-tempered, ox-stout farmer; the raucous noise of lightning and thunder; and the divine wrath before which we are all judged and found wanting. Owen Barfield, the one real philosopher among the Inklings, made a similar point about the Latin spiritus and the Greek pneuma. Unlike our one-dimensional word spirit, these words mean wind-breath-spirit simultaneously. For ancient Greeks and Romans to have uttered such words was to have experienced the reality of a natural force, plus the invisible sign of human life, as well the nearness and power of divine reality. It is this original metaphoric and mythological richness that we have largely lost in most modern languages. Their scientific abstractions are decayed myths and metaphors. (George Orwell argued that the terrible political price of such rootless locutions is that almost any evil can be justgified in their name.)
Tolkien's high regard for ancient languages also gave him a high regard for ancient poetry. Like both Chesterton and Lewis, he remained almost completely opaque to the free-verse experimentalism of modern poetry, even that of his fellow Christian T. S. Eliot. He much preferred Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poems like Beowulf, The Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the last of which he translated into a much-admired modern English version. Among later bards, he was drawn to the 19th century Catholic poet Francis Thompson, and he especially admired (as did C. S. Lewis) the work of William Morris. Like Tolkien himself, Morris sought to retell the ancient English and Icelandic sagas. Tolkien's own poetry thus indulges in poetic inversions and archaisms, in drumbeat rhythms and regular rhymes, that sound all too much like jingling to us. The poet John Heath-Stubbs calls it verse rather than poetry:
Earendel sprang up from the Ocean's cupIt was not the power of words alone that sustained Tolkien during his years at Oxford. He was also buoyed by three friendships he had made at King Edward's School and that continued as the group split into their Cambridge and Oxford studies. Tolkien and his friends had discovered the wonder of shared books and ideas, of loves and dreams, as they met for daily talk at a local Birmingham tea club called the Barrows. Thus did they give themselves a comically Latinate name--the Tea Club Barrovian Society--which they shortened to TCBS. These four young men were united not only in their thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin literature, but also in their common conviction that they were destined to kindle a new spiritual light for England. They shared C. S. Lewis' thesis that philia is the only love that is not diminished when it is divided. As one of them confessed, they felt "four times their intellectual size" whenever they met. More perhaps even than his Oxford tutors, these three friends helped shape Tolkien's sense of himself as having a unique talent and vocation.
In the gloom of the mid-world's rim;
From the door of Night as a ray of light
Leapt over the twilight brim,
And launching his bark like a silver spark
From the golden-fading sand
Down the sunlit breath of Day's fiery death
He sped from Westerland.
It was a blow almost beyond bearing when two of these three friends were killed in the "animal horror" (as Tolkien called it) of World War I. After finishing at Oxford in 1915, Tolkien himself left for the French front, almost immediately to be involved in the Battle of the Somme. He was spared almost certain death only because he contracted trench fever and sent back to England. Like Karl Barth, Virginia Woolf, and many others, Tolkien sensed that a radical rearrangement of human life had occurred in this prematurely named Great War. Here humanity had taken a decisive step toward the Abyss. It was the beginning of what Pope John Paul II has called "the century and culture of death." As George Will has observed, more people have been killed in this century than in all previous centuries combined. For the first time in Western warfare, civilian populations were not spared, as everything was laid waste in the new practice of total war. Unlike Lewis, Tolkien was permanently affected by his war experience. If his mother's death had taught Tolkien that something is terribly awry with the world in general, this war brought home to him the special wretchedness of modern life, with its all-powerful means for utterly destructive ends. The Lord of the Rings has war and the weapon of total coercion as its central subject, unlike anything comparable in Lewis's books.
Yet even amidst the bloated corpses with their dreadfully staring eyes, Tolkien found strange hope. Though he despised commanding officers who assumed a superior air of authority, he deeply admired the privates and NCO's who played their part without fuss or fury. Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee are indeed hobbitic versions of these common soldiers who slogged ahead without hope of glory or even victory. Tolkien also felt a special vocation to realize the slain dreams and hopes of his two TCBS comrades who had been killed. One of them, G. B. Smith, had written shortly before his death this remarkable confession to Tolkien:
My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight ... there will still be left a member of the great TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot put an end to the immortal four! .... 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.Several months before Tolkien crossed the channel to war, he had revived his old love for Edith Bratt. He feared that she might have married in the meantime, but she had no other love than John Ronald, and they thus resumed their old relation where it had left off. In an age when the only approved way of consummating romantic love lay in marriage, they were wed shortly before Tolkien shipped out. On their honeymoon, he began to work on a new mythology that had been rolling in the back of his mind. It had to do with silmarils, the three great jewels of the elves that were stolen from the blessed realm of Valinor by the evil creature Morgoth, and with the subsequent wars in which the elves try to regain them. It would require an entire mythological system to explain it all; hence his lifelong project called The Silmarillion. Edith had not gone up to Oxford or Cambridge (which of course women still could not do) after finishing public school. Instead, she worked as a secretary, unable to earn a living as the gifted pianist she was. But she proved to be an excellent nurse who brought her war-sick husband back to health. He would never forget their early happiness, especially their long walks in a hemlock wood as he recovered from trench fever. "Her hair was raven," he wrote, "her skin clear, her eyes bright, and she could sing--and dance"(97). Tolkien later insisted that the name Luthien be inscribed on Edith's tombstone. She was the elven-maiden who had sacrificed her immortality to marry the mortal Beren, much as Edith Bratt had given up her own ambitions to marry Tolkien. At his death in 1973, his children engraved the name Beren on his own marker.
Edith Bratt Tolkien sacrificed a great deal, in fact, to be Tolkien's wife. He called her "little one," and he sometimes treated her as a child. For example, he simply insisted that she become a Catholic before their marriage, never explaining how she might come to share his deep intellectual reverence for the Church of Rome. She grew to resent having to make confession before attending mass, regarding these as outward duties more than inward necessities. Later when Tolkien became an Oxford professor, she felt terribly inadequate, often even speechless, among other professorial wives with considerably greater education and cultural achievement than hers. She became known as the "wife who did not call" and who was thus excluded from the "at homes" which other Oxford wives hosted. Worse still was Edith's resentment of Tolkien's need for male intellectual companions, especially C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings. She saw that he came truly alive only among such friends. Though Edith bore him three sons and a daughter, and though they raised them amidst happy familial life, she and Tolkien came to dwell in virtually separate spheres--occupying different bedrooms and keeping their own hours. Tolkien had a Johnsonian dread of sleep, and he would often labor very late, partly because he could not work at his desk without interruption until Edith had gone to bed. Yet Tolkien felt such a huge debt for the sacrifices Edith had made in his behalf that, when he retired from Oxford, he insisted that they live in a rather nondescript seaside resort near Bournemouth. He knew she would be happy there, even though it meant nearly total isolation from his scholarly friends. She remained for him the orphan girl who had rescued the orphan boy from an immense loneliness and sadness. Hence Tolkien's poignant remembrance of her: "For ever (especially when alone) we still met in woodland glade and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting" (98).
After the war ended and Tolkien settled into marriage, he soon began to ascend the academic ladder--first as a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary (the century-long compilation of the history of every English word), then as a tutor in English at Leeds University, and finally as Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College in Oxford. This last appointment came when Tolkien was only 32, and he held it for 35 years. C. S. Lewis, in contrast, was never given a professorship at Oxford, remaining a tutor until, near the end of his life, Cambridge finally made him a professor. Tolkien was a good but not a great teacher. He was given to an indistinct articulation that made his lectures hard to understand. Nor was he adept at explaining himself in clear terms, finding it difficult to scale down his massive learning into proportions his students could comprehend. But he was passionate about Anglo-Saxon and gifted at bringing his subject alive. His recitations of Beowulf were so celebrated that W. H. Auden described them as being spoken in the voice of Gandalf. Another listener declared that Tolkien "could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting, listening guests" (133). Tolkien remained constitutionally immune to critical theory, believing that literary interpretation could never be turned into a science and thus made part of the curriculum. He held that literature interprets itself, rather much as God reveals himself--in sheer mystery and power. Like Charles Williams, whom he otherwise thought to have not one but several loose screws, Tolkien regarded the great literary texts as events to be experienced largely through reading them aloud. Linguistic and historical study provide the only true aid for understanding literary texts, Tolkien believed, revealing their original setting as well as showing how the author used words, even as language also made its own constructive use of the author.
Tolkien's life was as rich intellectually as it was plain practically. There was nothing Gothic about it. The Tolkiens lived in a succession of Oxford neighborhoods, occupying houses which had undistiguished paintings on the wall and electrified coals in the hearth. W. H. Auden was appalled at the drabness of the furnishings. Tolkien attended morning mass in a nondescript Catholic church, and he spent much of his time supplementing his income by doing the mind-numbing work of an external examiner for English essays written at other British universities. Yet Tolkien believed that inward contentment amidst outward plainness is the perennial call of Christians living in a fallen world--to be satisfied with whatever surroundings we find ourselves in, whatever clothes are decent, whatever food is nourishing. He thus lamented the grab-and-get mentality of modern life. He was greatly grieved at the destruction of his childhood haunts by suburban development, and he so lamented the proliferation of highways that he neither owned nor drove a car after the Second War. As the fierce opponent of all things hurried and space-shrinking, he scrawled these words across an income tax return: "Not a penny for Concorde."
Though Lewis and Tolkien were joined in their scorn for the chronological snobbery which assumes all modern things are superior to ancient things, they were divided about other matters. Lewis never shared Tolkien's Gallophobia, for instance. It entailed a hatred not only of French cooking but also of the Norman Conquest! He felt that 1066 had meant the end of a flourishing Anglo-Saxon culture and its replacement by French and Italian influences that were almost wholly inimical to English literature. Lewis, by contrast, was the great master of English Renaissance literature in all of its Latinizing glory. Tolkien also disliked Lewis's Narnia books, perhaps because he dashed them off so quickly, without developing a careful mythology as their basis. To The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Tolkien gave this derisive subtitle: "Nymphs and their Ways, or The Love Life of a Faun." Tolkien was no less critical of Lewis' popular forays into theology, thinking him totally unqualified to make pronouncements on complex matters in which he was not deeply learned. When Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters became bestsellers, Tolkien labelled Lewis "Everyman's theologian." Tolkien also found Charles Williams' work to be wholly alien in its Platonizing supernaturalism, and he lamented its pernicious influence on Lewis, especially in That Hideous Strength.
But it was Joy Davidman's dominating presence in Lewis's later life that Tolkien resented most deeply. She was not only an American but a divorcee whom Lewis, no sooner than first meeting her in 1954, insisted on making a central member of the Inklings circle. Tolkien was unaccustomed to regarding women as his intellectual equal. When Joy Lewis died in 1961, Tolkien did not attend the funeral nor call on Lewis afterwards. Yet Lewis never seemed offended at this breach in their friendship. Though he scorned Tolkien's poetry in private, he gave lavish public praise to the Lord of the Rings, and he wrote a moving obituary that the Times later published at Tolkien's death. Yet Tolkien never forgot his enormous debt to Lewis. When "Jack" died in 1963, "Tollers" wrote this moving confession to his daughter Priscilla: "So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age--like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots." Though Tolkien declined to contribute to a posthumous volume of essays honoring Lewis, he spent many hours pondering Lewis's last book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.
About the very deepest matters they were very deeply agreed. They both believed that the Middle Ages were a far more humane and civilized time than our own, and that its class hierarchy was not evil. Tolkien argued, in good medieval fashion, that each person ought to belong to a specific "estate," whether high or low. Knowing one's station in life frees one from false ambition. Tolkien himself was liberated from all social and intellectual conceit. As a monarchist he voted a straight Tory ticket, and yet he got on well with the college servants at Oxford--unlike some of their alleged political allies--always seeking better wages for them. Yet he opposed democracy as an attempt to mechanize and formalize equality. He feared that modern egalitarianism results not in universalizing humility but in materialistic slavery. Though there was a good deal of historical nostalgia Tolkien's reverence for the old feudal and hierarchical society, he also believed that respect for one's superiors is spiritually bracing: "Touching your cap to the Squire may be damn bad for the Squire, but it's damn good for you." This love for ancient patriarchal cultures caused Tolkien to share Lewis's passion for Norse mythology and Icelandic sagas as well as the early literature of England. It inspired them to create a similar literature of their own. They thus wittily named themselves and their friends the Inklings, gathering weekly in each other's college rooms, or else at the Whitehorse pub (later it was the Eagle and Child, which they nicknamed the Bird and Baby), to drink beer and to read and criticize each other's work.
Their chief "inkling" concerned the continuing validity and vitality of the Christian gospel amidst a secular age. Indeed, it was largely through Tolkien's influence that Lewis returned to the church as a confessing Christian. Largely through his own reading and thinking, Lewis had abandoned his earlier skepticism and had come to believe, albeit reluctantly, in God. Yet as a theist, Lewis could believe in Jesus of Nazareth only as a noble ethical example whom we are meant to follow: not as the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ, the very Son of God. These latter notions are but myths. Like all other myths, the biblical stories are beautiful deceits, mere wish-fulfillments, lovely lies--even if they are "lies breathed through silver." In a late-night conversation during the spring of 1929, as they walked up and down in the deer park of Magdalen College, Tolkien explained to Lewis that myths are not the dream-wishes that lonely men project onto an empty universe to cheer themselves up. The great mythic repetitions of dying and rising gods, of heroes battling the forces of evil despite their own defeat, are signs of something transcendently significant. Our universal myth-making urge is an anthropological indication that we create because we have been created. We are thus re-enacting the most fundamental order of the cosmos, discerning the basic pattern of all things: life-through-death. However misguided pagan myths may sometimes be they point toward the Truth.
Tolkien gave his argument careful exposition in his Andrew Lang Lecture of 1937, "On Faerie Stories." There he argued that mythic tales grope toward the Hope which, in the story of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Jesus Christ, finally enters space and time to become historical reality, God's own myth-made-fact. Even the most "unrealistic" quality of fairy stories--their happy endings--point to this truth. They end not in universal failure and ultimate defeat but in eucatastrophe, a good calamity. This disaster acknowledges the reality of death and destruction, but it reveals the finality of Joy--"Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief" (86). Tolkien called these fairy-tale endings "a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world." The Gospel is the ultimate fairy-story because it contains "the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe"--the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "There is no other tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.... To reject it leads either to sadness or wrath" (88-89). Lewis was so convinced of this argument, as Tolkien laid it out in 1929, that it led to his own re-conversion to Christian faith.
Though Tollkien spent a lifetime working out an elaborate mythology to embody this carefully thought-out theology, he never regarded himself as a man set apart. He believed firmly in his own abilities as a scholar and author, but he did not consider his talents as particularly important for the well-being of society at large. Quite to the contrary, he felt himself to be yet another ordinary weak man, a feeble member of the human species. Such refusal to take himself too seriously gave Tolkien a tremendous comic sense, with a special liking for costume parties and practical jokes. Once on a carnival occasion, he impersonated a polar bear, and another time he dressed up as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, chasing an astonished neighbor down the road with an axe. He also engaged in a swimming contest while wearing a Panama hat and smoking his pipe. Later in life he would startle unsuspecting shopkeepers by displaying his extra set of false teeth amidst the handful of change he held out to them. And he endlessly regaled his own children with tales about characters whose names were taken from incongruous road signs and notices: BILL STICKERS WILL BE PROSECUTED provided the name of an irrepressible villain, and MAJOR ROAD AHEAD revealed his righteous pursuer.
He also wrote finely illustrated Christmas letters that were left in the chimney or brought by the postman, and that purported to recount recent events at the North Pole. One of the stories he wrote for his children grew into book length, and it was published in 1937 as The Hobbit. It became a surprise bestseller, and the publishers demanded more fiction from Tolkien. Eagerly he gave them his huge and still-developing manuscript of The Silmarillion. They were perplexed and put off by the telephone-directory dullness of this massive mythological chronicle. They demanded more hobbits! Tolkien hit upon the idea of introducing a new hobbit, Bilbo's son, as the center of the story, and of giving the ring Bilbo had found a moral rather than a magical significance. Thus would he be able to tie the bourgeois snugness (and smugness) of the Bagginses to the vast spiritual landscape of The Silmarillion. Whereas Bilbo had accidentally strayed into that world, his son Frodo (at first called Bingo) would be drawn into it, both ethically and religiously. Slowly the connection between the two realms dawned on Tolkien, and he hurriedly jotted it down: "Make return of ring a motive.... The Ring: [he added later] whence its origin? Necromancer? Not very dangerous, when used for good purpose. But it exacts its penalty. You must either lose it, or yourself" (186).
The idea was one thing, its realization quite another. Not until 1954, sixteen years later, were the first two volumes of the Rings published. The Second War had erupted in the meantime, and (as C. S. Lewis observed) "real events began, horribly, to conform to the pattern [Tolkien] had invented" (190). But there were other less weightier reasons for the delay. In addition to the burden of his academic work, Tolkien's own perfectionism and procrastination were the chief impediments--not to mention his tendency to chase linguistic hares. At the end of Book III he became "dead stuck" and did not touch the manuscript for six months. At Lewis's instigation Tolkien resumed work on it in 1944, reading it aloud to the Inklings at their weekly pub-gathering. But he went stale again in 1945, didn't finish the story line until 1947, and completed final revisions and appendices only in 1949--typing the successive drafts with two fingers, the machine balanced on his attic bed, since there was no room on his desk. Thus did he spend twelve of his best years writing The Lord of the Rings, finishing it as he approached his 60th birthday. But then there was a long haggle over the actual printing, the publisher insisting on three volumes rather than one, and refusing to include The Silmarillion alongside them. Even then Tolkien was not wholly satisfied. He preferred The War of the Ring as the title of the last volume, fearing that The Return of the King gave away the plot.
The reviews were mixed. W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis praised the books extravagantly, while Edwin Muir and Edmund Wilson damned them as mere juvenilia. There may have been a bit of professional jealousy in Muir's scorn, since Tolkien had been uncharacteristically spiteful toward Muir when he stood for election as the Oxford professor of poetry. Wilson complained that the characters were not men but mere boys who knew nothing of women and who thus were merely masquerading as heroes. Readers ignored the critics. By the hundreds of thousands they bought and read the books, turning an elderly, obscure, and financially-straitened Oxford professor into a wealthy man and world celebrity. Fan letters and gifts came pouring in. Americans telephoned in the middle of the night, oblivious to the six-to-eight hour time difference. Visitors began to arrive without appointment and to snap photographs through the windows of the Tolkien house. A Tolkien cult soon arose, and it was rumored among California hippies that he had composed The Rings while smoking marijuana and things even more potent. Graffiti were scrawled in odd places: "Frodo Lives" and "J. R. R. Tolkien is hobbit-forming." Demands for film versions and translations arrived from near and far. Yet Tolkien never lost his sense of irony about it all. "Being a cult figure in one's own lifetime," he wrote, "is not at all unpleasant. However, I do not find that it tends to puff one up; in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense" (232). Tolkien was unselfish with his new-found wealth, giving a substantial portion of it (anonymously) to his parish church in the Oxford suburb of Headington, though resenting the large portion eaten up in taxes. He also provided generously for his children, even while still recording his own expenditures for postage stamps and razor blades.
Tolkien took early retirement from Oxford and moved to an obscure resort on the coast near Bournemouth, where only his friends and associates could locate him. After Mabel Tolkien's death in 1971, he was often a lonely though still an active man. He was awarded an honorary doctorate at Oxford in 1972--for his work in philology, not in fantasy. He continued in desultory fashion to revise The Silmarillion until finally he saw that his son Christopher--who had become an expert in his father's fiction--would have to complete it for publication. Christopher Tolkien would in fact spend the next 25 years living away from the public eye in France while editing and publishing his father's other works in nine fat volumes, until his own death in the late 1990s. Tolkien himself died on September 2, 1973, at the age of 81. He was buried beside his wife in a plain grave located in the Catholic section of an Oxford public cemetery called Wolvercote, among Polish emigrés.
Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University, is a Tolkien expert and has studied Christian literary classics and the Inklings (the close group of Oxford literary masters including C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Tolkien). He taught for 26 years at Wake Forest University, where he won awards for distinguished teaching. His publications include "Traveling the One Road: The Lord of the Rings as a 'Pre-Christian' Classic," Christian Century 110, 6 (February 24, 1993): 208-11.