Inside the Mind of J.R.R. Tolkien

Caleb Pirtle III studies the mind, the writings, the world of fantasy that surrounded a man who many regard as the “Father of Fantasy.” He wrote about mythical worlds just so he would have the privilege of creating languages that didn’t exist for a land that didn’t exist. But both seemed so real.

J. R. R. Tolkien had no intention of playing god, but he did, creating worlds and inventing languages and populating a place he called Middle Earth with souls both good and bad, souls both heroic and condemned, courageous and doomed, who would forever live within the dark corners and imagination of mankind.

J.R.R. Tolkien in World War I

With all humility intact, Tolkien considered himself to be a poet, philologist, and university professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford.  He took his job seriously. He viewed himself as a scholar. He regarded writing fantasy fiction as a nothing more than a hobby.  And he was not quite like any other professor on the Oxford campus.

He would often come barging into the lecture hall, dressed in chain mail armor, and bellowing the opening lines of Beowulf as loudly as he could. One of his students said that Tolkien “could turn a lecture room into a mead hall.”

His father died when Tolkien was too young to remember him. His mother died when he was twelve. He grew to manhood under the roof of a Catholic priest and served as a second lieutenant with the British Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. The depth of his Catholic conviction and the horrors of a bloody war he witnessed would have a profound effect on writing. He would remember: “Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute … One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression … By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, began his career after the way by working on the Oxford English Dictionary, concentrating on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. He became intrigued with languages, new, old, ancient, even those forgotten. And he was particularly fascinated with Finnish, which would one day form the basis for Quenya, a language he would give to his elves in a fantasy world that existed only within the mind of Tolkien. He would always say that languages were firmly embedded in the heart of both The Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings. He admitted that his stories were written for one primary reason – to give him an opportunity to create, invent, rearrange, and present the beauty of unfamiliar words spoken by unfamiliar tongues.

Ian McKellen in “Lord of the Rings”

As early as 1917, Tolkien was working on his epic, The Silmarillion, a work he would never really finish. He continuously re-wrote it, rejected portions of it, and re-vised the manuscript until the day he died. Tolkien, quite godlike, was building worlds. He was devising and developing languages. He was giving life to characters birthed in mythology and legend and ramblings from mad men who told rumors of worlds unknown to mankind.

He would say of his characters and tales: “They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. … Yet always I had the sense of recording what was already “there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing.’

It was sometime after 1930 when he was grading a student’s exam paper that Tolkien, for no reason at all, wrote in the margin: In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. He said, “Names always generated a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that was only the beginning.”

Tolkien never thought that his fairy tale, The Hobbit, would be either well read or well received. It was, after all, a simple little adventure story for children where good defeated evil and everyone lived happily ever after.  It became a literary sensation, so popular that his publisher asked for a sequel.

Against his better judgment, J. R. R. Tolkien began work on Lord of the Rings. In his mind, it, too, would be a simple little fairy tale for children. But the story became darker and darker. He peeled back layer after layer of a mythical world. The triumph of good over evil was no longer resolute or absolute. His biography says: “Even in the mission’s success, there is not an obvious happy ending. There is a feeling of permanent change; nothing can remain as it is. As well as being a fascinating story line, the book deals with many issues of how people respond to certain choices and the influence of power and ego.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

The novel, written in three volumes, was far different from The Hobbit in both scope and dimension. It possessed unprecedented depth. There had been fantasy stories and books written before, but nothing to compare with Lord of the Rings. It took Tolkien more than ten years to complete the primary narrative and appendices for the epic. But in the work, long and grueling, he laid the groundwork and built the foundation for all fantasy writers who would follow him.

So much of the genius of J. R. R. Tolkien can be found tucked away within the lines of his novels.

  • I wish life was not so short, he thought, languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.
  • He should not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.
  • It’s like things that are in the world. Hopes fail. And end comes. We have only a little time to wait now.
  • All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”
  • There is nothing like looking if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.
  • It is the job that is never started that takes longest to finish.
  • I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, not the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.
  • The wise speak only of what they know.
  • Courage is found in unlikely places.
  • When things are in danger, someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
  • Fair speech may hide a foul heart.
  • I have no help to send; therefore I must go myself.
  • Hope is not victory.
  • The wide world is all about you. You can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.

Tolkien forever defied anyone who thought his novels were cloaked with allegorical references or consequences. He said, “I dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader.” His history wasn’t real. Then again, who can say it wasn’t? The Middle Earth certainly seemed real to me.


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