14. Surprisingly, he grew up in England’s industrial heartland
Given where Tolkien’s heroic hobbits live, you’d think that Tolkien grew up in some rural idyll with a village green and a cricket pitch. This picture, however, is inaccurate. After moving to Britain in 1895, Tolkien first lived in a dull suburb of Birmingham, one of the largest industrial centers in the UK. The family eventually settled in what was then the village of Sarehole, very much in the countryside but barely 4 miles from the soot-blackened centre of the city. Nonetheless, Tolkien’s experiences growing up in this strange hinterland between city and countryside directly informed his creation of Hobbiton.
Sarehole Mill (above) is the model for ‘the great mill’ in The Hobbit. Despite its close proximity to Birmingham, Sarehole still had snatches of woodland which are thought to have fired the young boy’s imagination, eventually resulting in The Old Forest of Middle Earth (though that also owes a lot to the forests of medieval literature and history). Make no mistake – Sarehole certainly wasn’t the suburbs. But Tolkien didn’t enjoy the pastoral childhood of, say, Thomas Hardy, and spent large parts of his time in Birmingham itself, where he attended King Edward’s School and served as an altar boy.
13. Despite his religious beliefs, Tolkien’s work inspired a Satanist to burn down churches in Norway
Kristian Vikernes, like many alienated young people, felt an instinctive lure to Tolkien’s rich world of fantasy literature. There is nothing strange about that, but Vikernes’s interpretation was rather unique: ‘I felt a natural attraction to Sauron… I could easily identify with the fury of the “dark forces”, and enjoyed their existence very much because they were making a boring and peaceful world dangerous and exciting’, he explained. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s incorporation of Norse mythology and Germanic literature simultaneously fed Vikernes’s growing racist and anti-Christian ideology, with disastrous and deadly consequences for Norway and one of his closest friends.
Vikernes (above, being sentenced) formed the band Burzum, meaning ‘darkness’ in Black Speech, the language of Mordor. He took the stage-name Count Grishnackh after an orc, and set about fighting against the real-world counterpart of the heroes of Lord of the Rings, Christianity. Vikernes burned down several churches in Norway and preached hate against all non-white races, inspired by what he saw as a race war in Tolkien’s work. He also murdered his friend, Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, because he felt this was the Germanic-pagan way of settling a feud. Poor Tolkien would have been disgusted with this super-fan’s actions.
12. Being bitten by a baboon spider in South Africa is believed by some to have inspired the character of Shelob
Shelob, like Aragog in Harry Potter, is a name guaranteed to put the fear of God into any arachnophobe. She has all the horrifying characteristics of a spider that anyone scared of arachnids will tell you about: dangerous to people, devilishly cunning, intelligent, and absolutely evil. And massive, as all spiders seem to those who fear them. It’s therefore not surprising to learn that Tolkien himself had a checkered history with our eight-legged friends. As a toddler growing up in South Africa (see below), the young Tolkien was once bitten by the nightmarish Baboon Spider (above).
Tolkien however denied that there was any link between the incident and the creation of Shelob: ‘people are welcome to the notion… [but] I can only say that I remember nothing about it, should not know it if I had not been told; and I do not dislike spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them. I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath!’ His son, Michael, to whom he told the original Middle Earth bedtime stories, however, was mortally terrified of spiders, which may account for the characteristics of Shelob.
11. So many people rang him about Lord of the Rings that Tolkien permanently disconnected his telephone
As we have seen, Tolkien saw himself as a professional academic first, literary legend second. Inevitably, however, his two lives overlapped, no matter how hard he tried to keep them separate. Tolkien had to grow accustomed to receiving strange gifts from his adoring fans, such as a drinking goblet inscribed with the words on the One Ring, and was good-humored if rather bemused by his fiction’s popularity. He variously called his fans ‘lunatics’ and ‘my deplorable cultus‘, and once remarked that ‘many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I’m not’.
Perhaps he should have taken heed of his children’s firm line of questioning about his bedtime stories back in the 1920s. For whilst Tolkien was happy to receive correspondence and gifts, one thing he couldn’t abide was super-fans impinging on his working life. He was led to curse Alexander Graham Bell when the telephone at his office in Merton College started to ring throughout the day as fans sought for an explanation of a specific aspect of The Lord of the Rings or the meaning of an Elvish word. The only solution was to chuck the phone away altogether.
10. Tolkien was devoted to his wife, Ethel, and their shared gravestone has an in-joke engraved on it
Tolkien met Ethel Mary Bratt (1889-1971) in 1909. He was then 16 years old, and she 19, and they met when Tolkien and his brother, Hilary, moved into the Edgbaston boarding house where Edith already lived. She, too, was an orphan, and the pair soon fell in love, passing afternoons together in tearooms where they delighted in practical jokes such as dropping lumps of sugar onto the hats of passers-by. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s Catholic guardian, Friar Francis Xavier Morgan, saw Edith as a distraction for his talented young charge, and so forbade them to meet again until Tolkien turned 21.
On the night before his 21st birthday in 1912, Tolkien wrote Edith a letter requesting her hand in marriage. Edith was betrothed to another man, believing herself to have been forgotten by her former lover, but instantly broke it off to accept Tolkien’s proposal. They remained devoted to one another for the next 59 years until Edith’s death. The strange names on their shared headstone are a reference to Tolkien’s tale of Beren and Lúthien, a story he wrote about a mortal man’s adventures during his love affair with the immortal elf Lúthien, based on his own relationship with Edith.
9. His fiction was loved by the Nazis, but Tolkien described Hitler as ‘that ruddy little ignoramus’
The same Germanic mythology and legend in Tolkien’s work that Kristian Vikernes so loved was equally appealing to the Nazi Party, which similarly drew on a semi-legendary Germanic past to justify their view of Aryans as the superior race. In 1938, the German publisher Rütten & Loening asked permission to produce a German version of The Hobbit, and infuriated Tolkien by asking whether he was of Aryan origin. Tolkien’s response to his English publisher was unequivocal: ‘I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any color to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.’
His reply to the German publisher itself was equally defiant. ‘If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people’. He eventually consented to the German edition, but not because of any change of heart about Nazi ideology. In a letter to Michael Tolkien on June 9, 1941, Tolkien revealed that he had ‘a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler’ for his manipulation of the Germanic mythology and legends so dear to him.
8. He provided many of the illustrations for his books himself
An often overlooked part of Tolkien’s genius is his artistic ability. Perhaps because the writing is so good, surprisingly few people realize that Tolkien actually illustrated his books himself. No less an authority than Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher, has said that the art his father produced is essential to understanding his written work. Tolkien’s art actually predates his writing, and he first began to paint images from Middle Earth during his days at Exeter College. He called these pictures of imaginary realms ‘ishnesses’, and never showed them to anyone beyond his close family and friends.
To back up Christopher’s claim about the links between Tolkien’s art and writing, the original manuscript of The Hobbit was fully illustrated. When it was accepted for publication, Tolkien successfully convinced his publisher to include his illustrations, and the first edition had no fewer than 12 pictures and maps. The Lord of the Rings was only not illustrated because Tolkien’s drawings would have been too expensive to publish. Nonetheless, his illustrations did appear on the dust jackets of the three volumes. Equally adept with both pencil and paintbrush, Tolkien was a far greater artist than he ever realized.
7. Despite his fame, Tolkien was a lecturer at Oxford University for most of his life
If you’d written something as successful as The Lord of the Rings, were famous around the world, and pretty wealthy, you’d probably retire, right? Not Tolkien. He stuck to his laborious day job of teaching students at Oxford until he retired in 1959, aged 67. Oxford has a reputation for exacting standards amongst both students and staff, and Merton College in particular, where he taught between 1945 and 1959, is renowned even at Oxford for demanding a lot from its members. Merton’s common nickname, ‘where fun goes to die’, is certainly hard-won.
Tolkien was a much-loved lecturer. According to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, his lectures on Beowulf were legendary. ‘He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon, commencing with a great cry of Hwæt! (the first word)’. Alas, though, even amongst his entranced students, his extracurricular activities were not forgotten. W.H. Auden once described to Tolkien ‘what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.’
6. He was able to invent so many languages because he was an expert philologist
One of the many strings to Tolkien’s bow as a specialist in medieval literature was his expertise in philology. Philology is the study of the history of languages, and involves years of research into the very meanings of individual words. He knew 13 existing languages, and a bewildering number of extinct dialects such as Old English, Latin, Old Norse, and Medieval Welsh. Before becoming a professor, he produced A Middle English Vocabulary, an essential reference guide for people learning the language. In fact, he was so good at languages, that he made them up for fun in his free time.
Tolkien invented his first language cipher, Nevbosh, when he was just 13, and first language, Naffarin, shortly thereafter. This hobby, which he called glossopoeia, proved to be unexpectedly useful in later life. Tolkien developed a way of writing coded letters to Edith from the muddy trenches of Belgium to stop them being censored, and when he came to write his fiction, his ability to invent languages for the characters of Middle Earth made the stories irresistibly immersive. About a dozen are included in The Lord of the Rings, two of which are complete. Tolkien also invented 9 scripts for writing.
Tolkien’s parents, Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield, were both dead by the time he was only 12. Arthur worked as a bank clerk and lived with his family in South Africa, but tragedy struck in 1896 while Mabel and the children were visiting family in England. Arthur died of a hemorrhage, leaving the family so poor that they had to stay where they were. Mabel was so hard-up, in fact, that she had to tutor the children herself at home. Mabel herself died in 1904, leaving Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary orphaned and near-destitute.
But these tragic and straightened circumstances proved the making of the man. For Mabel was a talented linguist, whose language lessons gave Tolkien a lifelong interest in languages, determining both his academic career and, in turn, the tales of Middle Earth. Mabel’s grief at Arthur’s death also saw her convert to Catholicism (see above), which remained a crucial part of Tolkien’s life and way of seeing the world. The boys’ appointed guardian, Francis Xavier Morgan, was a studious Catholic priest who ensured that education was paramount, and it was at his insistence that Tolkien took the entrance exam for Oxford.
This will no doubt come as a shock. The man with a lifelong love of all things medieval, whose set his fantasy fiction in what is clearly the chilly climate of northern Europe, spent the first few years of his life in the heat of Bloemfontein, South Africa. This fact is so little-known that even modern residents of the town are shocked when intrepid Tolkien fans ask them where the family lived. He left shortly after his fourth birthday, but the disastrous move his family made led to the straightened circumstances discussed above that determined the course of his life.
The main incident of note in Tolkien’s Bloemfontein childhood was the attack of the baboon spider (above), but another adventure saw him briefly kidnapped. A young servant at the Tolkien residence thought him such a beautiful child that he took him back to his kraal (a large farm) to show him off to his family. The servant returned Tolkien to his relieved family the next morning. Looking for Tolkien in Bloemfontein is only for the superfans, however, as Tolkien’s house was mostly destroyed by floods in the 1920s, and only a small plaque remains… in the wrong location.
3. As well as the landscapes of medieval literature, Tolkien was also influenced by his time in Switzerland
We’ve covered all but one of Tolkien’s key influences, and here’s the final one. In 1911, the 19-year-old Tolkien took a rare walking holiday in the Swiss Alps. In a group of 12, Tolkien hiked from Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, enjoying the glorious scenery of snow-capped peaks, thick forest, and vast lakes which has inspired so many writers over the years. But where he left something of a breadcrumb-trail for his literary and Warwickshire influences, Tolkien actually acknowledged the importance of the Swiss Alps in a letter to his son, Michael, in 1967.
In the letter, Tolkien expressed delight that his son had visited a place so dear to him, and so important for Middle Earth. ‘From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains, the journey…including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods…is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911′. The Silberhorn peak was also ‘the Silvertine [peak above the dwarven city of Moria] of my dreams’. Tolkien’s holiday in Switzerland was a rare treat in an impoverished, if studious, childhood, and so it is little wonder that it had such an effect on him.
2. Despite dying in 1973, new Tolkien work continues to be published
Though he is still most famous for The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien wrote many other poems, short stories, and novels based in Middle Earth. Some of these were published in his lifetime, but when he died in 1973 he left behind a vast collection of unpublished work of which his son, Christopher Tolkien, was left in charge. In the intervening 45 years, Christopher has dedicated his life to the mammoth task of publishing these scribblings for the first time. Many Tolkien fans however grumble that he is like Smaug sitting jealously on a pile of treasure.
In Christopher’s defense, many of the manuscripts are in note form or incomplete, and require a lot of work to meet his father’s exacting standards. For example, Tolkien’s handwritten translation of Beowulf was completed in the 1920s, but he never made any plans to publish it, and went back to correct certain parts over the next half-century. Christopher thus had the difficult task of deciding which corrections to include, and whether his father would have wanted it to see the light of day at all. Having 10 new things published after your death isn’t bad going at all, either.
Given that Tolkien spent most of his life in Oxford, a city dominated by an ancient university which is not keen on change, it is unsurprising that so many sites dear to Tolkien remain. If you’re a Tolkien fan, visiting the city thus must be top of your bucket list. His undergraduate college, Exeter, is over 700 years old, and has a monument to him in its chapel. You can also visit the colleges that he taught at – Pembroke (once home to Dr Johnson, and where Tolkien wrote The Hobbit), and Merton (the oldest college at nearly 800 years old).
Tolkien’s homes at 20 Northmoor Road and 76 Sandfield Road have commemorative plaques, but can only be viewed from the street. The Bodleian Library, where he conducted his phenomenal research and formulated ideas for Middle Earth, is however open to the public. Most appealingly, The Eagle and Child pub is still open for business, and you can sit in The Rabbit Room where The Inklings used to meet and view some relics. But moreover, the city was a place so dear to Tolkien that he chose to be buried there, and his grave is frequented by Middle Earth-pilgrims.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: