by Mike Woods
TOLKIEN is one of the great figures, not just of the fantasy genre, but of 20th century literature. The Lord of the Rings won the BBC’s Big Read contest at the weekend and in the Waterstone’s Books of the Century poll in 1997, his epic masterpiece gained many more votes than any other title.
Peter Jackson’s superb films have created a surge of interest in Middle Earth – the final instalment of the trilogy, the Return of the King, opens in Edinburgh cinemas tomorrow – and Tolkien’s books sell thousands of copies every month.
Since its publication in 1954, the story of how Frodo Baggins and his fellowship stood against the might of Sauron, the Dark Lord has enthralled more than 100 million readers.
Almost single-handedly, Tolkien created the modern fantasy fiction genre, drawing on tales from the Norse and other northern European traditions to fashion new myths of magic, derring-do and fighting against evil.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) may seem like an unlikely figure to have become the father of modern fantasy.
A learned authority on English literature, specialising in Old and Middle English at Oxford, his great interest in language led him to invent several of his own tongues.
His most famous books, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) were begun as he invented worlds and races around languages such as the Elvish dialects Quenya and Sindarin.
It is not just his fascination with linguistics which inspired his work, however. Various childhood experiences are represented in the books. An encounter with a large, scary spider in Africa could well have sparked the creation of the horrifying Shelob.
The contrast between rural Sarehole, where Tolkien spent much of his early years, and the dark, industrial districts of Birmingham, where he went to school is echoed in the humble, peaceful Shire in which the Hobbits’ tale begins and their hatred of the chaotic, filthy smithies and fortresses of Isengard and Mordor.
As Ray Mears pointed out in his exciting Big Read argument for The Lord of the Rings, it was a later episode in Tolkien’s life that would prove to have the most profound and formative effect on him.
AS a young man, he fought in the Great War, and while surrounded by the violence, fear and misery of fighting in the trenches, he noticed something unexpected. Rather than be dehumanised by the conditions at the front and the perpetual danger, many of his comrades found reserves of courage, dignity and loyalty that moved him.
Many of the soldiers were not trained killers but ordinary men who longed for home but applied themselves to the task at hand with exemplary valour.
The members of the Fellowship of the Ring include simple Hobbits as well as more experienced warriors, and yet it is Sam, Merry, Pippin and Frodo upon whom the quest depends.
A number of critics have tried to draw even closer comparisons between the plot and themes of the trilogy and events in the real world.
Is the struggle between the evil, industrialised power in the East supposed to represent Nazi Germany? Could the One Ring be a symbol of nuclear weaponry, the ultimate destructive force?
Tolkien himself denied any such allegories, and in fact ideas such as good versus evil, the importance of sacrifice and the perils of falling in love with power are eternal and appear in many of the great stories and legends of various cultures.
Trying to tie The Lord of the Rings too tightly to any one idea is mistaken – the scope and grandeur of the narrative, the poetry of Tolkien’s writing and the vivid alternative reality, so richly depicted and peopled with such life and variety, go beyond mere parables.
In many ways, of course, writing was a way for Tolkien to escape the realities of life. His earliest fantasy musings were written in “huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire,” as he wrote in a private letter.
Following the 1918 ceasefire, he entered the more reserved, tranquil world of academia and his imagination was saturated in the British, Norse and gothic poetry from which much of our literature grew.
His gift for storytelling was nurtured by the annual letters he wrote for his children. They were illustrated, and ostensibly from Santa Claus (they were collected and published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters) and he also told them bedtime stories.
At Oxford, he developed close friendships with some other writers, including CS Lewis, author of the Narnia series. They formed a group known as The Inklings, and met to read from their works in progress. Around this time, while ploughing through marking exam papers, and for no reason he could later remember, he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”
His innate curiosity led him to wonder what a Hobbit was, and what kind of hole he might inhabit.
This led to The Hobbit, a tale for children which hinted at the world of Middle Earth which was more fully explored in his later works.
The Lord of the Rings is not a children’s book. It retains the sense of awe and mystery which great fairy tales enjoy, but is a far lengthier and more serious work.
A BBC radio adaptation and the release of a pirated paperback edition in the 1960s led to a sudden and massive increase in the appeal of Tolkien’s work.
Surprised by his new wealth, and bemused by the way in which his vision was popularised among the underground, alternative culture, Tolkien nevertheless continued writing and produced academic works as well as more fiction.
Even the more obscure and difficult collections such as The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales were popular, proving that the public had developed an insatiable appetite for his tales.
It is The Lord of the Rings which remains his most popular work. Our world can often seem unstable and frightening, and Tolkien had seen it described in the Old English poem Crist of Cynewulf as “middangeard” or the middle world between Heaven and Hell. Perhaps this explains its continuing popularity – the message that fellowship can help us endure when life is hard. As Gimli the dwarf says: “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”