I am REALLY excited about today’s guest post/guest poster. I hope you’re all familiar with the lovely Mandy over at Adventures in Borkdom. Mandy is a fantastic blogger and friend, and I am incredibly honoured that she offered to do one of her Classic Authors pieces for us. If you’re not familiar with the concept, check out her posts about Hemingway here and here. Because of the nature of this piece it ended up being a little longer than a usual post so we’re splitting it in two. This is awesome news for me because it means I get to feature her twice.
Admittedly, there were many ways in which Tolkien was not like us. He was a man who mastered Latin as a child, he became a professor at Oxford University at a young age, and he preferred stories written in ancient Norse over contemporary writings. Plus, he was undoubtedly “old school” in his beliefs and behavior. He said a prayer in the ancient Gothic language the first time a tape recorder was put in front of him.
Yet, I think Tolkien was more of a regular bookish guy than what we usually consider established authors to be. He earned fame for writing during his lifetime, yet he never changed his homebody ways.
Here are ten ways that J.R.R. Tolkien was remarkably similar to us!
*All information, quotes, and paraphrases derived from Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography.
- He struggled with balancing his domestic life with his working and writing lives.
- He had a great love for words.
- He preferred fantasy over contemporary fiction.
- His spouse didn’t understand his extreme love of books.
- He found comfort and inspiration from his bookish friends and book clubs.
- He thought news and public affairs were secondary to a good book.
- He preferred escapes through his imagination over globetrotting.
- He had a silly sense of humor.
- He was a perfectionist when it came to his writing.
- He made LotR allusions in everyday conversation.
1. Queer Lodgings: Tolkien’s Struggles in Balancing a Domestic, Working, and Writing Life
The man who basically created the modern high fantasy novel was just a regular guy. And just like most regular guys and gals, he found his days full of warring priorities. He worked full time as a professor at Oxford, cared for his wife and four kids, and, when he got a chance, indulged himself in writing for fun in the wee hours of the night.
A typical day for Tolkien in the 1930s might include any and all of the following events:
Unwillingly wakes up (alone, as his wife sleeps in a separate room to avoid his
snoring and late hours), wakes up the kids (tripping over toys in the process),
and dresses in his “usual weekday outfit of flannel trousers and tweed jacket.”
(120). Bikes into town with kids to attend Mass.
Breakfast with the wife and kids; Tolkien works on a crossword puzzle. Lights
the stove in his study (they have no central heating). Shaves.
In his study, tutors a graduate student in Middle English.
Grabs his lecture notes (realizing that he forget to check them over, hopes
that everything he needs is there) and bikes into town. Barely arriving in time,
gives a lecture to undergraduates on a philological text. During the
lecture, Tolkien departs entirely from his notes and goes off on a tangent
about the relationship between Gothic and Old English. His students adore
him and his lectures.
Runs into his colleague and BFF, C.S. Lewis, in the hallway, and converses briefly
with him. Both regret that it’s not a Monday, when they typically enjoy a beer
and conversation after work.
Hops on his bike, and heads to the market, where he purchases sausages and
jokes around with the butcher. Then, he heads home, where he fits in a letter to
Lunch with the family. Discusses son Michael’s dislike of swimming lessons.
After lunch, Tolkien does some gardening while his daughter plays on the lawn.
Bikes back to campus for a faculty meeting. Meeting concerns a revision
of the department syllabus.
Rides back home for tea. After tea, works at his desk on tomorrow’s lecture
notes. Doesn’t get much work done, as Michael wants help with his Latin
Changes into a dinner jacket and black tie, and then bikes back to campus for a
faculty dinner (which he enjoys thoroughly as the food is plain and not at all
After dinner, makes his excuses for leaving early, and rides across campus to
meet up with his book club, the Coalbiters. The Coalbiters are all professors
who get together and take turns reading aloud Icelandic sagas in their original
Norse. After an hour, they pass around a whisky bottle, and discuss their
Tolkien rides home to a dark house. The family is asleep, and now Tolkien can
indulge himself. He lights up a fire, fills his pipe, and (instead of working on
the incomplete lecture notes for tomorrow) pulls out “the half-finished
manuscript of a half-finished story that he is writing to amuse himself and his
children,” (126). He suspects that it is probably a waste of time, but it amuses
him and so, he picks up a pen and continues writing the story. He will write
until two in the morning (or later).
- From Carpenter, pages 119-126
(ed. note – this was originally beautifully formatted when I received it from Mandy, but WordPress didn’t want to let it show up that way so you get each hour as a quotation. Sorry. - sj)
This was his life, and he loved it. He lived in a comfortable little suburban home where he lived a regular life. Truly, Tolkien’s adult life could be considered nondescript, “apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’ he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers,” (118).
2. Riddles in the Heart: A Love of Words
Have you ever listened to the NPR weekend program A Way with Words? You know, the radio show where listeners call in and ask about the derivation of commonplace words and the hosts are English language experts? If you haven’t, you really should. It’s the ultimate for word nerds. Tolkien would have loved it!
Tolkien was reading by the age of four, and, almost immediately, he began a long love affair with words. His mother introduced him to Latin, and Tolkien was delighted both by the meanings of words and even “the sounds and shapes, ” (29). This passion, he discovered later, was the passion for philology, the science of words. Where did this word come from, and why? Why is this word better used than that word? These were the questions that Tolkien continually asked, and he soaked up any and all language that he could find.
He studied Latin, Greek, Old English, Middle English, Finnish, French, German, Welsh, and more. Then, he began writing his own languages. As an adolescent, he began creating his Elvish languages, based upon his studies of the Finnish language.
Tolkien continued to love words throughout his life, making a career out of it, and eventually basing an entire fictional series upon it. He even contributed to the “W” section of the Oxford English Dictionary (apparently his entry for “wasp” was particularly awesome). Tolkien was the greatest of Word Nerds.
3. Dragons over Drama
Tolkien was always a lover of high fantasy. As a child, he thought Alice in Wonderland was okay, but he really wasn’t into other popular children’s books, such as Treasure Island or the works of Hans Christian Anderson. No, he wanted dragons, goblins, and fairies.
He was “pleased by the ‘Curdie’ books of George Macdonald, which were set in a remote kingdom where misshapen and malevolent goblins lurked beneath the mountains. The Arthurian legends also excited him. But most of all he found delight in the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang, especially the Red Fairy Book (ed. note – this was my favourite of the Fairy Books too! - sj), for tucked away in its closing pages was the tale of Sigurd who slew the dragon Fafnir: a strange and powerful tale set in the nameless North,” (30). Tolkien explains: “I desired dragons with a profound desire [....] of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril,” (30).
As he grew older, he began to despise the writings of Shakespeare and other “modern” writers (modern, meaning post-Chaucer), which he was forced to read in school. “In later years he especially remembered ‘the bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill”: I longed to devise a setting by which the trees might really march to war,’” (35). Note: in Macbeth, the Great Birnam Wood moves to high Dunsinane hill by way of soldiers cutting down boughs and branches in an attempt at camouflage as they move in to attack Macbeth. This was prophesied, but Macbeth was expecting something more like Ents. This began Tolkien’s aversion to drama.
His preferred reading was Beowulf (a warrior, two monsters, and a dragon!), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (a knight in search of “a mysterious giant who is to deal him a terrible axeblow”), the Norse Eddas (heroic and mythological tales from Iceland), and one single contemporary novel: The House of the Wolfings by William Morris.
“Morris’s view of literature coincided with his own. [...] The House of the Wolfings is set in a land which is threatened by an invading force of Romans. Written partly in prose and partly in verse, it centres on a House or family-tribe that dwells by a great river in a clearing of a forest named Mirkwood, a name taken from ancient Germanic geography and legent. [...] Its style is highly idiosyncratic, heavily laden with archaisms and poetic inversions in an attempt to create the aura of ancient legend. Clearly Tolkien took note of this,” (78).
Interesting sidenote: Tolkien was not a fan of his best buddy’s Narnia stories. “It really won’t do! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun’!” (204). Not as cool as dragons and elves.
4. What Really Happens when a Took Marries a Baggins
Tolkien and his wife Edith weren’t exactly alike. They had a solid relationship, were very fond and loving of one another, but they were pretty different in most ways. Tolkien was very imaginative and bookish, while Edith was very practical and domestic. And so, he often dealt with what most of us ravenous readers have to deal with in our personal relationships: having our reading obsessions misunderstood by our loved ones.
Their differences were hard to overcome at the beginning of their marriage:
“Ronald [Tolkien] would have to tolerate Edith’s absorption in the daily details of life, trivial as they might seem to him. She would have to make an effort to understand his preoccupation with his books and his languages, selfish as it might appear to her. Neither of them entirely succeeded,” (74).
However, Tolkien did attempt to include Edith in his literary loves throughout their marriage:
“she inevitably shared in the family’s interest when he was writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and although she was not well acquainted with the details of his books and did not have a deep understanding of them, he did not shut her out from this side of his life,” (160-161).
5. Many Meetings: Book Clubs and Bookish Friendships
Like most book lovers, Tolkien found comfort and inspiration in the company of other bookish types. He was a member of different book and writing clubs throughout his life, and made sure to always fit in time for these friends.
As an adolescent, he was a member of T.C.B.S. (Tea Club Barrovian Society), a clique of boys who hung out at their school library. In a similar fashion to the “Dead Poet’s Society,” these boys got together to drink tea and discuss books, art, music, and read poetry. They were the closest of friends, and supported each other in their individual academic pursuits as they grew into adults. As one member stated, “they felt ‘four times the intellectual size’ when they were together,” (81). Sadly, the group was disbanded by tragedy, as two of the four young men died in WWI.
Once Tolkien gained professorship, first at Leeds, and then at Oxford, he created a few reading clubs. There was the Viking Club at Leeds, comprised of Tolkien and a bunch of undergraduates, who joined together to “drink large quantities of beer, read sagas, and sing comic songs,” (112). Then, when Tolkien moved on to Oxford, he created the Coalbiters, a group of professors who read aloud Icelandic sagas. The purpose of the group was to encourage his friends to read Icelandic literature in its original language (which all but Tolkien struggled with).
Eventually, the Coalbiters had read all of the sagas and the Eddas, and so they disbanded. Tolkien’s energies were then put into The Inklings, a group of writing friends (all male and Christian) who met weekly in a pub, drinking tea and smoking pipes, and reading manuscripts. They would listen, provide criticism, and then eventually the talk would spill into other areas of interest. This group would be one of Tolkien’s first audiences for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and they truly encouraged and supported his writing.
That’s all for today, but make sure to check back on Thursday when Mandy tells us more about how Tolkien was just like us!