How JRR Tolkien Came to Create The Lord of the Rings1
By Spencer Stokell
How JRR Tolkien Came to Create The Lord of the Rings
When JRR Tolkien was writing his epic, ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ he was by no means aware of the cultural significance his work would eventually have. And yet, it is impossible to think of the high fantasy genre without his name quickly coming to the forefront of one’s mind. Many works have been inspired by his tale, from the coming-of-age story of Harry Potter to the magical realms of Spellfury. Tolkien created a timeless masterpiece – a living world that many believe to be unparalleled. Indeed, it is the second-highest selling book in the world (The Bible being it’s only superior), but the story was by no means created overnight. On the contrary, we must look to Tolkien’s early life if we wish to gain an understanding of how Tolkien went about creating his greatest work.
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Ronald Tolkien was born in 1892 in Blomfontein, South Africa. He was the first of two children. At the age of three, he, his brother, and his mother moved to England. His father was to meet them there, but he was taken by rheumatic fever before he could do so. In 1904, his mother also died, and he was transferred to the guardianship of Father Francis Xavier Morgan at the Birmingham Oratory. It was here he would spend the remainder of his childhood. Many speculate the nearby tower of Perrott’s Folly to have been a huge inspiration on the young Tolkien. In 1911, he visited Switzerland (this visit would later prove an integral part of his later works) and began classes at Exeter College, Oxford, but with the start of World War I, he was inevitably steered away from this life. In 1915, Tolkien joined the British Army as a Second Lieutenant, and he began his path to a very different future.
Tolkien despised the terrible conditions and mentality of trench warfare. He was deployed to France in 1916 and served as a signals officer in northern France. After only four months, Tolkien caught trench fever. He was hospitalized with the disease and was returned to England, marking the end of his active duty in the war. However, it was at this point he that he would start to lay the foundation for his greatest work.
While recovering in a cottage in Staffordshire, Tolkien began to write. What is important to understand about his work is that he did not start with ‘There were hobbits in a Shire.’ On the contrary, his initial works were more fables and histories of imaginary kingdoms than fairytale narratives. These pieces read like lessons from textbooks for non-existent children to learn of their past. Many of these stories were collected by his son Christopher after his death in a volume entitled ‘The Silmarillion.’
Upon his recovery and the war’s conclusion, Tolkien returned to the academic life. In 1920, he became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds, returning to his Oxford roots in 1925 as The Professor of Anglo-Saxon. Ten years later, he would shake the academic world with his lecture ‘Beowolf: The Monsters and the Critics.’ His deep connection to storytelling surfaced throughout his lecture and established the literature as a deep, multi-layered tale among the academic community.
With countless hours dedicated to his fictional realm, Tolkien began to apply what he had created more liberally to other, more fleeting works. While grading papers for his class, he was suddenly struck with a line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” He scribbled this onto a blank piece of paper and used it as a framework for a fairy-tale for his children. As the tale developed, his interest did as well, and in 1932, he created The Hobbit. Largely inspired by his trip to Switzerland in his early life, the tale followed Bilbo Baggins and his companions on a quest for treasure (occupying a timeframe long after the events of his Silmarillion works).
After ‘The Hobbit’s publication in 1937, Tolkien’s publisher, Allen and Unwin, requested a sequel. He initially submitted his manuscripts for The Silmarillion, but Stanley Unwin rejected them, suggesting that audiences wanted to read more about hobbits. It was with this rejection that he began his second story built upon his mythological foundations. It would be called ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Tolkien wrote the book from 1937 to 1949. Many cite World War II as a large influence on ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ but Tolkien himself dismissed this in his lifetime, referencing instead his experiences in World War I.
During the years he worked on the book, he was a member of a literary discussion group called ‘The Inklings.’ Members of this group included biographer Roger Lancelyn Green, philosopher Owen Barfield, and fictional author C.S. Lewis. The Inklings would meet at C.S.Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College on Thursdays and read to each other their works in progress. It was here he would find the support and criticism he needed to complete his work. The book, having been deemed too big to publish as one volume, was released from 1954-1955 as three separate books, and quickly rose to become the cultural icon it is today.
JRR Tolkien spent close to 40 years laying down and revising the framework for his epic. Even now, after his death, works continue to be uncovered and released, offering new insights into his fantastical, vast world. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is not only one of the highest selling books of all time, but one of the most devoutly crafted tales humanity has ever collectively created. It continues to inspire new generations of authors, poets, and artists, and has become a cornerstone of western culture.
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Spencer Stokell is a freelance writer living in the forested Northern California. Having left high school at the age of 17 to work in film, he wrote for various LA publications before returning to his home county in 2009. He currently edits and publishes The NewCal Liberator, an experimental, user-driven newspaper.