Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Tolkien and the Creation of the "Lord of the Rings"

I just recently finished Humphrey Carpenter's excellent biography of J.R.R. Tolkien and there were several things that struck me about Tolkien's life that I had not known before (or maybe had just forgotten for several years ago I did read Carpenter's book on the Inklings, an informal literary club that included C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Warren Lewis, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, and others at various times, for a research paper that I did on Lewis). For instance, though I recalled that Tolkien served in WWI I didn't know that he had actually experienced the horror that was trench warfare. Moreover, it was a pleasure to read about Tolkien's actual scholarship such as his translations of important medieval works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, his philological contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary, and his critical reflections on the epic poem Beowulf to name just a few.

But of course Tolkien is most famous for Lord of the Rings and what I discovered is that it was his philological acumen and interests that we have to thank for what is in my mind one of the greatest pieces of modern literature. You see one day Tolkien was reading Crist, an Old English Anglo-Saxon poem when he was struck by the following line:

"Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth to men sent"

Here wrapped up in this tiny line was as Carpenter notes "the beginning of Tolkien's own mythology" for Tolkien was so intrigued by this obscure reference to Earendel (this later of course becoming Earendil in the LOR whose light aided Frodo in surviving the attacks of Shelob) that he felt it deserved to have its own language so Tolkien created one which he came to call Quenya (later to become one of the Elvin languages) complete with its own linguistic rules (grammar, syntax, phonology, etc). This language was essentially an amalgamation of the many languages Tolkien was familiar with but was in large part derived from Finnish which when Tolkien discovered this language said: "it was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me." But as Tolkien continued to develop this language he soon realized that the language itself needed its own context or rather its own mythology. This mythology then became the basis for Tolkien's Silmarillion which is of course the mythological milieu of LOR. (Later in life Tolkien noted that another motivation for creating the Silmarillion was that he always felt England had lacked a proper mythology and so created his own "English" mythology as a means of correcting what was to his mind a severe cultural deficiency.)

The next component in the eventual creation of LOR occurred one day in the early 1930's when during another mundane round of grading student exams Tolkien abruptly wrote on a blank space in one of these exams "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." This spontaneous notion combined with various elements from stories he had told his children over the years became the genesis of The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Interestingly, though Tolkien didn't necessarily intend The Hobbit to take place in the mythological world of the Silmarillion various references and allusions from his mythology slipped in (such as the character of the Necromancer for instance). Tolkien then published The Hobbit in 1937 to remarkable success such so that the publisher immediately requested a sequel to which Tolkien readily agreed.

However, Tolkien sent them a manuscript copy of his Silmarillion which due to a misunderstanding the publisher rejected which set Tolkien to work on "A Long Expected Party" the first chapter of what was supposed to be a sequel to The Hobbit. But the "sequel" quickly took on a life of its own becoming something altogether different, more complex, dark even. What also became apparent was that whereas The Hobbit had a smattering of references here and there to the Silmarillion this new work had as its subtext the mythology of the Silmarillion. (In fact Tolkien tried in vain to publish the Silmarillion along with the LOR believing it to be a necessary companion volume; unfortunately the Silmarillion was never published during Tolkien's lifetime to his great disappointment since he always considered it his best work.) Amazingly, Tolkien's publisher was truly long-suffering as it took him sixteen years to finally complete what became LOR. Unfortunately, the work's length prompted the publisher to force a division of the work into three parts which Tolkien reluctantly went along with. The result was the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954 to great critical success. The other two volumes followed shortly thereafter and were received likewise by both the public and critics alike.

Thus, thanks to Tolkien's skills and interests in philology we have been graced with this great piece of modern literature. And so that's my brief account of how LOR came to be. No posts for several days because when the military tells you it's your last mission it never is.

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