Tolkien for Dummies, Part 1

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is the man behind orcs, elves, swords and sorceries, and is the father of modern fantasy literature. But before we explore Middle-Earth, let’s consider the life and legacy of the man himself.

Background

In 1891, Arthur Reuel Tolkien was anxiously waiting for Mabe Suffield in Capetown, South Africa to get married. Three years earlier, Arthur had asked to marry Mabel, but her father disapproved due to her young age. So, they continued their relationship by secretly sending each other letters and meeting at dinner parties. Finally, at the age of 21, Arthur Tolkien married Mabel Suffield in Cape Town Cathedral in 1891.a Arthur worked very hard at the Bank of Africa and Mabel worked very hard to endure the miserable heat and lifestyle of Capetown. Soon after settling in the town she became pregnant. On January 3rd, 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born. Mabel wrote to her mother-in-law that “the infant looked like a fairy when dressed up in white frills and like an elf when very much undressed.”b  He was primarily called Ronald, but some of his friends referred to him as “Tollers.”

Shaping the Myth

There were some rare events in his early life that began to shape his literary genius. His childhood days in South Africa did not leave too many impressionable moments in his mind, since he was still very little when he lived there, but a few of the incidents remind us of some of the well-known scenes in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

In one of the few stories remembered by a grown Tolkien, he recalls how as he was beginning to walk he stumbled into a tarantula. It bit him, and he ran in terror across the garden until the nurse snatched him up and sucked out the poison. His biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, observed: “In his stories he wrote more than once of monstrous spiders with venomous bites.” What do we see in The Two TowersWe see a giant venomous spider that the little Hobbit needs to overcome. Even his very early experiences began to stir the literary juices of Tolkien.

A point that all Tolkien’s biographers make of his early childhood is an emphasis on the heat. His young brother, Hillary, did quite well in the South African weather, but Ronald Tolkien and his mother struggled greatly with the weather. This led Mabel, their mother to go back to Birmingham, England, and leave Arthur behind in South Africa working. This is a crucial point in the life of Tolkien, because once they moved everything would change. Whereas Ronald’s health improved in England, his father’s health declined rapidly in South Africa. In November 1895, he contracted rheumatic fever. By January, when Mabel was preparing to return to South Africa to visit him, she received a telegram informing her that Arthur had suffered a severe hemorrhage and that she should expect the worst. On February 15th, 1896, he was dead.

Ronald Tolkien was very little and did not have many memories of his father’s death later on, but his mother Mabel suffered greatly. Though Arthur was a banker, the money he left “was scarcely sufficient to maintain Mabel and the two children even at the lowest standard of living.”c And it is here where we begin to see that Tolkien would have not been the genius he ended up being were it not for his mother’s perseverance in providing an education for her children. She began homeschooling her children. She taught them reading, writing, English, French, and Latin (which was Ronald’s favorite language at the time). He proved to be an excellent student. He learned to read at four and soon began to write. He was an excellent artist and was fascinated by the trees in his town.d

One of the things Ronald recalls is his hobbit-esque times he had with his brother picking flowers and mushrooms at a farmer’s yard. Later he would write that he spent lovely summers just “picking flowers and trespassing and we had to go over the white ogres’ land.”e Of course, you remember this scene in the first book when Sam and Frodo are leaving the Shire and trespass the land of one of the farmers. This is a personal story illustrating the shaping of what would one day become one of the greatest trilogies in the western world.

During this time there is an event taking place that is very important in shaping Tolkien as a writer and more specifically as a religious writer. Mabel had spent many years in the Anglo-Catholic Church, and for various reasons, namely due to the help offered by a local Roman Catholic parish, she converted to Roman Catholicism. Mark Horne in his biography of Tolkien writes:

Mabel’s conversion to Roman Catholicism was the cause of another kind of family loss for the Tolkien boys. While there is no record of any of Mabel’s Methodist siblings and other relatives disowning her Unitarian father, they did ostracize Mabel for her religion and cut off what financial help they were giving to her and her two boys. According to some accounts, the anger and opposition, in addition to impoverishing her, also hurt her health. But, she remained steadfast and gave instruction to her children.f

This is a sad moment in the life of Ronald Tolkien. Not only did he not have a father-figure, but now he lost the extended family.g And his mother suffered an even greater loss. But the Catholic parish was good to the Tolkiens. Mabel entrusted the boys to the church’s care. Tolkien grew in his understanding of orthodoxy, and this began to shape the person of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Later, his mother died in a little cottage all alone, and Tolkien viewed her death as the death of a martyr who sacrificed her life for his own life, and who gave everything she had for his sake. This sacrificial theme plays a role in the Lord of the Rings. In the Trilogy, we begin to see that Tolkien is represented by the hobbits. The hobbits need to sacrifice their lives of joy and peace at the Shire for the sake of others. They abandon their loved ones and family members. I think the death of his mother plays a big role in forming this motif in the Trilogy.h

  1. Arthur Tolkien was 13 years older than Mabel Suffield when he proposed to marry her when she was 18. See http://www.planet-tolkien.com/modules/tolkien/biography.php  (back)
  2. Ibid.  (back)
  3. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, a Biography, 17.  (back)
  4. This is how Tolkien views machinery in his Middle-Earth. Horne elaborates:

    The basics of Tolkien’s love for trees and nature over his dislike for machinery were set early in his life. Later, the reader finds virtually all mention of “machinery” in The Lord of the Rings is associated with villains like Saruman and Sauron in the pursuit of power and the enslavement of others. 

    The trees in Tolkien’s world are the Ents. They are the ancient giant, talking trees who become important allies in the fight against evil. The ancient rises to war against the present menace.  (back)

  5. Youtube Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien  (back)
  6. Mark Horne, J.R.R. Tolkien, a Biography  (back)
  7. Horne adds this interesting note: “Interestingly, as we have already seen in the case of the death of his father, orphans have been historically highly represented in creative fields. An examination of 699 persons to whom the Encyclopedia Britannica had given more than one column’s worth of space shows that, in this sample from different nations and times, “a quarter had lost one parent before the age of 10, more than two thirds before age 15, and half before they were 21.”  (back)
  8. Of course, Tolkien’s Roman Catholic background and its strong emphasis on the crucifixion of Jesus also plays a role in his thinking.  (back)
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