Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

I use this forum to publish a variety of ongoing projects.  Here, I am working on a mini-course on Tolkien which I am to lead for my church in October.  These are the notes for my first lecture. 

 

 

Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

 

First, when I start a new class I usually tell the students who I am and what relevant background I have for the course. In this case, I admit I am an amateur when it comes to Tolkien. My specialty is philosophical theology, and most people think of Tolkien as a writer of fantasy literature. Perhaps, if they are bit more informed, they think of him as a religious fantasy writer. Religion and Lit. is not necessarily my professional expertise, but it is a longtime interest.

My first qualification, I would say, is that I wanted this course. I’ve heard for a long time that if you want something done around the church, you should volunteer to do it. With the last of the Hobbit movies coming out this December, there seems no better time to look at Tolkien.

My second qualification is my decades-long interest in fantasy literature, movies, games and so on. Tolkien really established fantasy and influenced generations of writers afterwards. Another writer of fantasy literature, great in his own way though not as grand perhaps, was C. S. Lewis. I was pleasantly surprised when I first learned that these two great religious writers were friends and collaborators. I read both Tolkien and Lewis first in the mid 1970s, during the Tolkien craze in the U.S. and like millions I loved the books. In my church youth group we did discussions of some of Lewis’ books, but never discussed Tolkien. It was much later that I first realized that Tolkien was just as much a religious writer as Lewis, although they had very different styles and strategies.

As I began my scholarly work in Religious Studies, I encountered various psychological methods of analysis, including those of Carl Jung. I learned that Jung influenced Joseph Campbell, whose work on comparative religions in turn influenced George Lucas. Tolkien’s more theoretical discussions of religion and mythology began to interest me as alternatives to the Jungian approach. More on that next week.

And getting back to my professional focus, I became interested in Tolkien as a theologian about ten years ago, when SECSOR issued a call for Tolkien papers in conjunction with the release of Peter Jackson’s Ring movies. That seems only fair, since Tolkien was not really schooled in theology yet he wrote theologically significant essays, and I’m a theologian who’s not really schooled in Tolkien yet I write about him. One thing I hope to do here is discuss some of the theological concepts developed by Tolkien, and consider whether they offer better alternatives than some of the most popular theology today. Again, more on that later.

Still, I would not dare to stand in front of a group like this, which I know to be pretty sharp, if it weren’t for my confidence that sheer enthusiasm can make up for a lot in a teacher; and I am enthusiastic about Tolkien, both as a writer and a theologian. As a first step towards a greater appreciation of Tolkien as a theologian, I’d like to start with a short summary of Tolkien’s life, and consider in particular how some of the events of his life shaped his writing and his religious thought.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3rd, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father, Arthur, was a branch manager of Lloyds Bank of Africa, having come originally from England with his wife Mabel two years earlier. The climate in South Africa was not good for mother or children and John was often sick. His father died in South Africa in 1896 of rheumatic fever, while the family was away visiting England. They then moved there permanently, first living in the small town of Sarehole Mill for four years before returning to Mabel’s hometown of Birmingham in 1900. Birmingham at that time was at the epicenter of English industrialization, and young John desperately missed the rural life he had left to move to this mechanized and dirty city. It was also about this time that he began studying languages and grammar. His mother converted to Catholicism, which estranged her from many in her family. Four years later she was dead from diabetes, leaving the parish rector, Father Morgan, as their legal guardian so that they would be raised as Catholics (1904). John was 13.

For the next four years the brothers lived with an aunt who was not emotionally close, but spent as much time as they could at school or the church with Fr. Morgan. In 1908 the boys moved out to a boarding house near the church, and John met another lodger there, a 19-year-old girl named Edith. Although she was three years older than he was, they declared their love for each other in 1909. Fr. Morgan did not approve when he found out about their relationship, and moved John Ronald to another house and forbade him from seeing her until he turned 21, at which point he would be legally an adult.

Over the next four years the two exchanged letters but never saw each other. JRR finished his schooling and won a scholarship to Oxford. On the day of this 21st birthday he wrote a letter to Edith and proposed. When she replied that she was already engaged to another man, he traveled to see her five days later and persuaded her to marry him. She converted to Catholicism a year later, and they were married Nov. 22, 1916.

JRR finished his studies at Exeter College of Oxford University, focusing on philology. After he finished his studies he joined the British army and fought in France during WWI. Originally sent to Flanders, he soon became ill and spent most of his military service in and out of hospital until he was discharged. By 1918, when the war ended, he wrote “All my close friends but one are dead.”

During this time his career was beginning to take off. Privately, he had begun writing poems years earlier, and began work on the Simarillion in 1917. Professionally he worked as a tutor and on the New English Dictionary, particularly the letter “W”. Years later, when an editor attempted to tell him that spelling “dwarves” with a “v” was not proper according to the Oxford dictionary, he replied, “I WROTE the Oxford English Dictionary!” This was also a time when he learned a great deal about language, as he researched the etymology of words back to Old English and other roots.

In 1920 he became a Reader at Leeds University, and in 1925 he was elected Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, beating out his former tutor. The position required at least 21 lectures a year; his second year he gave 136, and eventually settled down to 72 a year through the end of the 1930s. So he wasn’t lazy.

May 11, 1926 Tolkien met C.S. Lewis. Lewis is said to have been warned never to trust a Catholic or a philologist, and Tolkien was concerned that Lewis might oppose his efforts to improve the linguistics portion of the college syllabus; but the two became friends because of their shared interests in good beer and good stories. At the time they met, Lewis was not religious; his conversations with Tolkien and mutual friend Hugo Dyson led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity in 1931. Lewis’ ongoing suspicion of Catholicism did somewhat strain their lifelong friendship at times.

In 1932 Tolkien, Lewis and several others formed a literary club, calling themselves The Inklings. This group met weekly to share meals, give public readings of ongoing projects (and offer criticism), and generally socialize.

One biographer remarked that after this point in Tolkien’s life, nothing much happened. That’s “nothing,” of course, aside from writing some of the most widely read and beloved books in the English language, with combined sales of over 250 million copies and still going. But at this point, the story becomes less about what made J.R.R. Tolkien, and more about what J.R.R. Tolkien made. In addition to his scholarly work, he had been writing fantasy first for himself, and then for his children; but he never intended to publish most of it. He was a respected scholar and a popular and busy lecturer, working far harder than his job demanded; he was a husband and father; and he met weekly with the Inklings. And that is where it probably would have remained, except for an event that Tolkien recounted years later in a letter to a friend. He said that around 1930 he was grading exams for secondary school students to earn some extra money, when finding a blank page in the exam book and feeling bored he scribbled, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And there he left it, he said, for a very long time; but eventually he began to wonder himself what a hobbit was and what they were up to, so he began writing a story to find out where it would lead. While he was working on that he wrote, in 1936, probably his most important non-fiction work, his essay on Beowulf titled, “The Monsters and the Critics.” This lecture is credited with revitalizing and revolutionizing Beowulf studies, and today we can see it as a statement of Tolkien’s own intentions as a writer. He shared early work on “The Hobbit” with Lewis, who urged him to publish. The tipping point came when a former student who worked for Allen and Unwin Publishers showed it to a coworker, who urged him to finish it. It was then reviewed by the resident reader of children’s literature, Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son Raynor, who gave it a very favorable review and said it did not need any changes. And at that point, Tolkien began the transition from obscure but respected scholar to world-renowned author.

The Hobbit received favorable reviews, including one written by C. S. Lewis that predicted that the work could become a classic. And as Rayor Unwin had predicted, children enjoyed the book and found it very exciting. As a result it sold very well, and soon Allen and Unwin were pressing him to write “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien, on the other hand, wanted to publish The Simarillion, which is a collection of tales describing the creation of Middle Earth. The work does not have the easy style of The Hobbit, or the narrative unity; and worst of all, it has NO HOBBITS. Instead, Tolkien began work on a sequel to The Hobbit which also picked up on some of the themes of The Simarillion, the struggle against Melkor the evil rebel against the creator God, and so on. This work turned into the massive Lord of the Rings. This is published as a three-part story, though the parts themselves are actually separate volumes so it could appropriately be said to be a six volume series. The story of Bilbo’s obtaining the magic ring, which had been a fairly short affair in the original telling, was expanded and the character of Gollum added to The Hobbit to tie it closer to the story Tolkien wanted to tell. While The Hobbit is a fairly straightforward fairy story about a rather stuffy, middle-class, nebbish who gets dragged off by a wizard and his dwarf friends on an adventure (and in the process becomes something more), The Lord of the Rings is a tale of four simple hobbits who are swept up into not only a world war, but a cosmic struggle of the agents of good against an evil that has existed since the creation of the world.   As it was written during the time of World War II and the Cold War, many readers sought to see it as an analogy or political allegory; but Tolkien vigorously denied this. He wanted it to be received as whatever the reader’s imagination said, so each person could apply it to his or her life. At the same time, while it was not explicitly or obviously Christian the way Lewis’ Narnia tales were, religious themes are integral to the book. The religious undertones and the epic scope of the work make Tolkien the figure he is. In the USSR, there were people called Tolkienisti who read smuggled books in secret. While it is likely the Soviets would have disapproved of fairy tales like The Hobbit, I have a hard time believing people would have risked persecution to read Tolkien were it not for the substance and sustenance they found in The Lord of the Rings.

In 1965, the American firm Ace Publishing released an unauthorized edition of The Lord of the Rings. Although publishers generally were expected to respect international copyrights, Ace had decided that since The Lord of the Rings wasn’t registered in the U.S. it would treat the work as public domain. Tolkien reacted by quickly reaching a deal with another American publisher, Ballentine, to publish the authorized version, and then made efforts to promote the authorized edition and to encourage his readers not to buy from Ace. Tolkien readers are a loyal and basically moral group, and proved willing to pay a bit more for an authorized version that paid the author royalties. Eventually Ace was forced to capitulate and pay royalties. The upshot of the lawsuits and publicity was that Tolkien became an internationally known author, and sales soared. It was the beginning of the Tolkien boom.

After this, even works that had been passed over by publishers began to attract attention. Hobbits or no, anything by Tolkien was likely to attract a readership. There was even consideration to finally publishing Tolkien’s own personal favorite, as far as I can tell, The Simarillion, although it remained unpublished and he continued to work on it until the end of his life. He passed away in 1973, while his son Christopher continued to edit and publish his father’s previously unpublished works for years after.

If I made it this far and didn’t run out of time or have to skip oodles of material, I am surprised. However, let me close by trying to sum up what I think a survey of Tolkien’s biography reveals about him as a man:

PICTURE OF TOLKIEN

 

As we look at Tolkien’s life, we can see how events made him the man he was.

  1. As a child,
  2. He showed an early interest in language, making up his own as a game. He also showed an interest in fantasy and fairy stories.
  3. Also, he was born in South Africa, but the dry climate did not suit him. His happiest memories were his young childhood in rural England. Shehole became the model for The Shire. By contrast, he hated the large, industrial city of Birmingham.
  4. He had a strong appreciation for nature and an aversion to technology that harmed the environment, such as cars and later trains.
  5. He lost both his parents at a young age. He knew suffering and loss.
  6. His mother converted to Catholicism, and was estranged from much of her family as a result. He learned that you may have to give up something for faith, because faith is important.
  7. As a teenager (to age 21),
  8. He was raised by Fr. Morgan. His aunt, in whose home he and his brother lived in the years after their mother’s death, was cold and distant; Fr. Morgan was engaged and supportive. Tolkien’s faith and his studies were a shelter and escape from an unpleasant home situation.
  9. His long separation from Edith and their eventual marriage shows his devotion and commitment.
  10. As an adult,
  11. He was a patriot, and he knew the horrors and loss of war.
  12. He was a perfectionist; he worked harder than he had to as a scholar and a teacher, and as a writer he generally had to be prodded to publish because he was unsure if his work was really ready.
  13. He was a devout Catholic.
  14. He was devoted to his family, writing regular stories for his children. His marriage to Edith lasted more than fifty years, until she passed away in 1971.

 

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4 Responses to “Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Just out of curiosity, has Tolkien written any memoirs?

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Probably the closest you will find would be the collection of personal letters he wrote during his life, many of which have been gathered and published. There you will find many personal statements of his own perception of himself, his task in life and so on.

      • Nemo Says:

        C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien were both writers of religious literature, but we seem to know much more about Lewis’ personal life than Tolkien’s. I wonder why..

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, there’s a lot of material I left out. I am preparing a four-lesson series on Tolkien for an adult Sunday School class at my church. My primary interest is theological, with a strong interest also in mythic and religious themes in imaginative literature; so I focused on those events that seem most related to Tolkien’s development as an author. Also, the class is an hour at most, so I don’t have unlimited time.

        My primary source was I am in Fact a Hobbit by Perry C. Bramlett, with additional material from The Christian World of The Hobbit and The Gospel According to Tolkien.

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