By Brian Gottesman
Most mental_floss readers probably know and love him best as the father of The Lord of the Rings. But there are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don’t know about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Here are a couple of facts we think are precious.
1. He had a flair for the dramatic.
As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a tenured professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn’t the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He was known to begin classes by barging into the lecture hall, sometimes in era-appropriate chain mail armor, and bellowing the opening lines of Beowulf at the top of his lungs. As one of his students put it, “He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall.”
2. He didn’t share your enthusiasm for Hobbits.
Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. It always irked him that his scholarly works went largely unknown by the general public, who flocked to his fantasy writings. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien’s attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn’t believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose! He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he thought incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have probably been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.
3. He loved his day job.
To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.
4. He was quite the romantic (and he’s got the nerdy gravestone to prove it).
At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien’s instructions, their shared gravestone has the names “Beren” and “Luthien” engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.
5. His relationship with C.S. Lewis was not all it’s cracked up to be.
Tolkien’s fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien’s wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled and ultimately soured over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis’s anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American widow at the time). Although the two did reconcile to some degree late in life, Tolkien never did learn to appreciate Lewis’s writings, which he thought were childish and poorly conceived.
6. He enjoyed clubbing.
Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings — a literary discussion group.
7. He wasn’t blowing smoke about those war scenes.
Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien’s time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him that forced him to return home. Many of his closest friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writings.
8. He invented languages for fun.
A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem “Bagmē Blomā” (“Flower of the Trees”) might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.
9. He’s been published almost as prolifically posthumously as alive.
Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien’s most famous posthumous publication is Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.
10. He wasn’t nearly as fond of Nazis as they were of him.
Tolkien’s academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an “Aryan.” Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: “I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler … Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
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