For almost fifty years fans and critics have attempted to read the works of J.R.R. Tolkien through his biography. His devout Catholicism, his experiences in the trenches of World War 1, and his connections with Birmingham and Oxford have all provided inspiration for those seeking a more profound understanding of the scale and diversity of his created world. His official biography was produced by Humphrey Carpenter in 1977, and with The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, also edited by Carpenter, provides readers and researchers with invaluable insights into the man and his creativity. The main elements of Tolkien’s biography are reiterated in many other books, but the facts nevertheless remain endlessly open to interpretation and speculation.
To some extent Tolkien invited an increasingly detailed identification between himself and his work when he declared ‘I am in fact a hobbit’, thereby locating his own love of beer, a pipe, and congenial company firmly in the context of his own most famous creation. Less playfully, he also declared that he disliked and distrusted allegory. Even so, readers have consistently attempted to impose allegorical readings on The Lord of the Rings, apparently ignoring, for the most part, his intensely allegorical short story ‘Leaf by Niggle’, which demonstrates his consummate skill in the use of this form as a means of depicting some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholic eschatology. The difference in scale and topic between the epic Lord of the Rings and the fable of ‘Leaf by Niggle’ illustrates a distinction in the way Tolkien regarded the use of allegory.
The appropriation of Tolkien’s biography is frequently partial and convenient, and much of it remains untouched, though it is fascinating and at times moving. Tolkien was born of English parents of German extraction, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3rd 1892. He died in England on September 2nd 1973. As a consequence of ill health as an infant, his childhood was spent in England although his father remained in South Africa. After the death of his father in 1896, he then suffered the loss of his mother when he was only twelve. Under the guardianship of a Catholic priest, he was educated at King Edward's School, St. Philip's Grammar School, (both in Birmingham) and Oxford University. He had already met his Luthien, Edith Bratt, before he left school, but was prevented from seeing her until he came of age at twenty-one. After graduating in 1915 he joined the army and saw action in the Battle of the Somme where he was wounded. He was eventually discharged after spending most of 1917 in the hospital. During this time he began The Book of Lost Tales.
From an early age he had been fascinated by language, particularly the languages of Northern Europe, both ancient and modern. His love of mythology, fairy tales and folk-lore all contributed to the creation of those early stories. His delight in creating languages complete with detailed etymology and grammar provided the foundation for his later creation of stories which gave those created languages a place and a purpose. And so the development of the stories sprang from the languages.
Meanwhile, Tolkien’s academic career was progressing. He held positions as Reader and later Professor of English Language at Leeds from 1920 to 25; he was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford (1925-45); and Merton Professor of English Language and Literature (1945-59). He taught and researched Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and its relation to linguistially similar languages (Old Norse, Old German, and Gothic), and from this area of expertise came his seminal essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. He also studied and edited other Old English works such as The Old English Exodus, which includes the downing of Pharaoh’s army as they pursue the Israelites across the Red Sea (a context for the drowning of the Black Riders at the Ford in The Fellowship of the Ring). The Old English account of the Battle of Maldon also provided the basic material for his verse drama The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorthelm’s Son.
Besides his Old English studies, Tolkien made important contributions to the study of Middle English literature. He edited the important instructional text for anchoresses (female hermits) known as Ancrene Wisse. He also edited the medieval romances Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Sir Orfeo, and the homiletic poems Patience and Cleanness; and the beautiful Dream Vision poem Pearl, all of which belong to the alliterative revival, and so replicate in the Middle English vernacular the structural form used for verse compositions in Old English such as Beowulf.
From among these little-known texts, and from the other forms of literature that delighted him, Tolkien garnered inspiration and discovered themes, cultural markers, ideals, and character traits which he would weave into his Middle-earth stories. His love of the English countryside influenced, as he acknowledged, his creation of The Shire, but in his very early work it also influenced to creation of Tirion, and some aspects of ‘The Cottage of Lost Play’. Of course, for anyone intent on writing a Mythology for England, linking that mythology into recognizable landscapes is an obvious device. It means, however, that as part of a mythology, features such as The Mill, based on Sarehole Mill near Birmingham, become archetypes as well as symbols of nostalgia, and so attempts to define them solely in terms of places or features known to Tolkien diminish the power of his declared intention.
Other features of the landscape of Middle-earth cannot easily be associated with the modern English landscape but can be linked to Tolkien’s understanding of England’s Anglo-Saxon past. His accounts of ruined roads, fallen statues, and particularly the Greenway that runs beside Bree hill suggest his understanding of Anglo-Saxon wonder and surprise at being confronted with the remains of Roman Britain. As the incoming Germanic tribes moved across the English landscape, they too would have come across the straight lines of roads grassed over. Their observations of the ruins of Roman towns and cities led to the development of the theory often set down in Old English texts that these walls were ‘orþanc enta geweorc’, ‘the skillful work of giants’. Tolkien’s perceptive understanding of the wonder and interpretive strategies of the earliest English people is picked up in The Lord of the Rings through references to features such as the Greenway and the ruined roads. The reuse of the Old English vocabulary provides the tower of Orthanc with an additional signification as it becomes inflected with old meaning ‘skillful work’. The keepers of the trees in Fangorn forest, and perhaps also up beyond the North Downs of The Shire, are given additional mythological size and significance as ‘enta’ – ‘giants’. These imagistic and linguistic reverberations then enable him to fit his story into, or at least alongside, the real history of the English people. And this bears out his own assertion that he preferred history to allegory.
Unlike his academic career, it seems that marriage was not a major influence in Tolkien’s writing. Edith helped with copying some early manuscripts, but little trace of conventional domesticity is to be found in any of Tolkien’s major works, and almost all of his family relationships in his major books reveal tension between parents and children, or the fostering and plight of orphaned children. This may relate to his own experiences, and it may be that he regarded the married state as kind of corporeal ‘Eucatastrophe’ – the happy ending he analysed in his lecture ‘Tree and Leaf’. Representations of marriage in his works, if happy and uncomplicated, require no further attention. Farmer Maggot and his wife are domestically ‘settled’, Lobelia and Otho Sackville-Baggins seem well matched! Even Aragorn and Arwen’s story only demands attention before they are able to marry, and when that marriage has to be terminated by relinquishing life in extreme old age. Maybe the prohibition placed on Tolkien’s initial relationship with Edith made the overcoming of interdicted love particularly attractive to him as a theme, but so many folk and fairy stories as well as myths and legends deal with this, that his own experience cannot be given too much priority.
There is a great deal in Tolkien’s personal and academic biography that offers insights into his creativity, and we are fortunate that we are able to consult his letters and interviews and so gain a closer understanding of his desires, agendas, and preferences. However, these should not and cannot dictate nor prevent critics from exploring and exposing a wide range of possible interpretations of Tolkien’s works, which, because of their vast eclectic range of sources of inspiration, are intensely polysemous. While Tolkien’s biography sheds light on the relationship between the author and his works, the effect of his works: The Silmarillion and The Hobbit no less than The Lord of the Rings has passed beyond authorial control, and we must continue to interrogate our own responses to the richness and diversity of his created world.