What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?
- Sam Gamgee
The man who created Middle-Earth was a hobbit himself, he liked to say.
“I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking. I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was, also, a class-conscious conservative, a father of four, an unswervingly devout Catholic, a clubby sort who loved smoking and drinking with his fellow Oxford academics and writers, and a first-rate scholar who was happiest in his overcrammed study. Here in his hobbit-hole, he would both ponder the roots of language and invent his own, with its own mythology. When you live in Middle-Earth, why go anywhere else?
For the rest of us, Middle-Earth may be more of a challenge. If you’ve read Lord of the Rings a dozen times, maybe you accept the place on faith. More earthbound readers have a harder time putting it in time and space; it’s a world too old to be modern and too modern to be truly old, a land filled with royalty, castles, moats, vast ruined landscapes and untrammeled green spaces, yet populated with fantastical creatures — elves, hobbits, dwarves, ents, orcs, trolls, dragons, wizards, and men — who speak in 19th Century English and have modern habits and conveniences, like afternoon tea and kitchen matches.
Another planet, as some readers thought? No, it was this world, a fallen world, said Tolkien, who according to biographer Humphrey Carpenter firmly believed there had once been an Eden, and seemed to believe in Middle-Earth, too. He would talk of his major book, said Carpenter, “not as a work of fiction, but as a chronicle of actual events,” seeing himself not so much its maker as its discoverer and historian.
Living in a forgotten time was what he did for a living. A philologist at Oxford University, he was an expert in the study of the roots of the English language and its early literature. In the beginning was the word and in the word was a mystery; to decipher an ancient text like Beowulf is to imagine yourself into the world where it was written — a world of heroic warriors doing battle with monsters.
This mystical attraction to words would lead him not only to become a linguistic polymath, but to invent his own private language, with its own alphabet, which he used in writing his diary. Consequently, he also started writing a history about the kind of land where those words might be formed: a place which combined elements of the Middle and Modern English worlds. He began at the beginning: the creation. It’s title was The Silmarillion, and he wouldn’t live to see it published, despite toiling away at it to the end of his life.
Success, as it sometimes does, came in the form of a spin-off. During the early 1930s, Tolkien was earning a little extra money with a boring job grading papers for a school examination. When he came upon a blank page, a sentence popped into his head: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It would be the first line of a story, written as bedtime fare for his children, about a “halfling,” a fat, hairy-footed, three-foot creature named Bilbo Baggins with a talent for thievery. At the behest of the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo joins a gaggle of dwarves in a journey to retrieve stolen jewels from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, he steals a ring from the slimy half-beast Gollum; a ring whose power to make the wearer invisible leads to Smaug’s destruction and a multi-ethnic battle to defend the realm of the Elvenking.
Tolkien hoped the success of The Hobbit would lead to a publication deal for his major work. But The Silmarillion wasn’t sequel material. He needed something that would take The Hobbit further. he wrote himself a note: “Make return of ring a motive.”