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In the early pages of "The Two Towers," the second book in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, a man asks Strider, "Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?"
"A man may do both," Strider answers, and he might as well have been speaking of his creator.
Since the publication in 1938 of "The Hobbit" and the succeeding "Lord of the Rings," much ink has been spilled on the subject of what inspired Tolkien, an Oxford philologist, to create the world of Middle-earth and fill it with all manner of wonders and dreads and lots and lots of war.
The first, and most obvious, source of inspiration generally cited is Tolkien's combat experience in World War I. As an infantryman with the Lancashire Fusiliers, Tolkien served on the Somme from July to October of 1916. There he saw two of his best friends die, one in combat and the other from gangrene. It is also supposed that he witnessed great acts of personal courage and heroism (the kind that abound in "Lord of the Rings"). The Lancashire Fusiliers were awarded more Victoria Crosses - 17 - than any other regiment during the war. Tolkien's own life may have been spared when he contracted what was called "trench fever" and left the front.
But if such Tolkienian themes as the inevitability of conflict, standing up in the face of the "dark shadow" and watching out for your friends might be most obviously traced to the battlefield, that explanation is, perhaps, too neat (and a bit lazy). Tolkien disavowed the connection. He seemed particularly piqued at the notion that anyone should mistake "Lord of the Rings" as allegory. In a prologue to "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first book in the trilogy, he writes: "As for any inner meaning or `message,' it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew, it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches. ... Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels."
For some idea of the things Tolkien may have had "long before in mind," an exploration may begin - but by no means end - with his childhood.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's early years were characterized by immense upheavals and disruptions. Born in South Africa in 1892 to British parents, Tolkien was only a tot when he and his mother and brother moved back to England. Tolkien's father was expected to join his family there, but he died unexpectedly in South Africa when Tolkien was 4.
Loss Of The Idyllic
The fatherless family lived in and around Birmingham during a period when the region was undergoing dramatic change. Advancing industrialization was transforming the agrarian small-town society into an urban and suburban one. Later in his books, devastated green lands and the fouling of air, water and land would become one of the greatest themes of "Lord of the Rings," a tale whose Dark Lord is a manipulator and destroyer of the natural world.
The disruptions in Tolkien's childhood continued with the death of his mother when he was 12. He was left to the care of guardians, and, at age 16, Tolkien met Edith Bratt, also an orphan, who was 19. The two fell in love, but Tolkien was forbidden to see or correspond with her until he was 21. On his birthday that year, Tolkien wrote Edith a letter proposing marriage. The two wed while Tolkien was still a student at Oxford. Shortly after his graduation, he was summoned to war, and Tolkien was forced to leave the tranquil confines of the English countryside for a destination wild and unknown to face an enemy menacing and powerful.
Tolkien returned home following his army service. "And after this," notes authorized biographer Humphrey Carpenter in "J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography," "nothing else really happened."
Tolkien took up a teaching post at Leeds and, at age 33, he returned to Oxford, where he was professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925 through 1945 and professor of English language and literature until his retirement in 1959. He and Edith raised four children, and by all accounts seem to have enjoyed a hobbit-like existence. They rarely traveled. (Although Tolkien was considered a world expert in Old Nordic languages and literature, he never visited Scandinavia.) Tolkien remained a devout Catholic. There were no extramarital affairs, no scandals, nothing of the stuff of page-turning biography.
An Intense Imagination
But if Tolkien's outward life appeared placid, maybe even dull, it cleared the way for the development of a rich and phantasmagoric life of the mind.
As his character Strider suggests, Tolkien daily walked in legends and in the light of the green earth, and his mind was full of the spoils from his travels in both.
The actual moment of inspiration for "The Hobbit" rather famously occurred while Tolkien was marking school papers. Sifting through the pile, he came upon a blank sheet of paper and on it he scrawled, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
"Names always generate a story in my mind," Tolkien later wrote. "Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like. But that's only the beginning."
If Tolkien's moment of creative lightning cannot be precisely traced to a specific source, much of what was to follow reverberates from works of ancient literature, the sort that Tolkien was steeped in at Oxford.
In his brilliant and thoroughly engaging critical analysis "J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century," scholar Tom Shippey demonstrates Tolkien's claim that the hobbit books were derived principally from the author's love of language.
Shippey cites a letter Tolkien wrote to his American publishers in which he describes his work as, "fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. ... The invention of languages is the foundation. The `stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows."
Shippey, a fellow philologist who worked with Tolkien at Oxford and later taught his curriculum there, is the man best equipped to explore the possible derivations of Tolkien's characters and story lines. What Shippey has essentially done is to map Tolkien's imagination as carefully as Tolkien mapped Middle-earth.
"Most of Tolkien's creations in `The Hobbit' and `The Lord of the Rings' are the product of Tolkien's professional discipline," Shippey writes. "Tolkien took not only riddles, and characters, but also settings from ancient literature."
"Beowulf" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" are filled with quests and monsters and orcs and elves. Old Nordic verses that Tolkien read and translated yielded up eight of the names he chose for the dwarves in "The Hobbit" (Fili, Kili and so on) and Gandalf's name besides.
The Land Of Language
Although Tolkien had mixed feelings about the work of William Shakespeare, the Bard's plays echo aloud in the high-flown speeches of Middle-earth's nobles and the madness of kings such as Denethor ("Stir not the bitterness in the cup that I mixed for myself"). From "Macbeth," in particular, Tolkien seems to have found inspiration for his "march of the trees" in "Two Towers," an event that mirrors the battle scene in "Macbeth" in which "Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane."
Obvious to the philologist's eye only are the instances where Tolkien derived characters from language itself. Take, for example, the word "warg."
Shippey writes, "There is a word in Old Norse, vargr, which means both `wolf' and `outlaw.' In Old English there is a word wearh, which means `outcast' or `outlaw' (but not `wolf'), and a verb awyrgan, which means `to condemn,' but also `to strangle' ... and perhaps `to worry, to bite to death.' ... Tolkien's word `Warg' clearly splits the difference between Old Norse and Old English pronounciations, and his concept of them, wolves, but not just wolves, intelligent and malevolent wolves - combines the two ancient opinions."
It is a natural corollary of reading "Lord of the Rings" that the more one knows about language and linguistics, the deeper one can mine Tolkien's books. But the beauty here is that the knowledge is not necessary. Even if we don't know the derivation of the word `Warg," it speaks plainly for itself. Tolkien "thought that people ... could detect historical strata in language without knowing how they did it," Shippey writes. "Tolkien believed that languages could be intrinsically attractive, or intrinsically repulsive."
All told, Tolkien's inspiration for "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" is a synthesis of influences and circumstances as obvious as combat experience, childhood trauma, and Old Nordic poetry and as mysterious and magical as those that light the Phial of Galadriel.
Tolkien once wrote: "The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."
His quest has been fulfilled.