How J.R.R. Tolkien Made Fantasy A Reality

JRR Tolkien's bust at Oxford (Image: Julian Nitzsche/ Creative Commons)
On J.R.R. Tolkien's 126th anniversary, the British author remains the cornerstone of immersive fantasy fiction.

When Frodo and Sam marched through the Dead Marshes on their way to Mount Doom, J.R.R. Tolkien was in the trenches of Northern France, after fighting the Battle of the Somme in World War I.

When Gimli glimpsed Galadriel in the forest of Lothlórien, Tolkien was watching his wife dance in a glade in Yorkshire.

And when Sam married Rose and watched Frodo depart for the sea, Tolkien was himself in Britain – glad he would not have to cross the sea again to fight in Europe. Knowing that stories can have happy endings without ending.

It might seem obvious to link events in a book of fantasy to real events in the author’s life. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien took his fantasy quite seriously. Indeed, he found parallels in life that could be adapted to fiction. For him, the purpose of fiction was not to reflect these realities; rather, to subvert them, rising above them to create a happy ending that the real world cannot provide.

As he wrote, in an essay “On Fairie Stories”:

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.

Soldiers of the unit Tolkien served in – the 1st Battalion, The Lancashire Fusiliers

Tolkien’s fantasy is a serious business. Every detail is meticulous – he even made his own languages and grammar; one each for prominent races in the world of Middle Earth. These languages have histories, families and derivations. Valar, the language of the gods, precedes all. From there, stemmed Oromëan of the elves, Aulëan of the Dwarves, Melkian of the early orcs and the Black Speech of Mordor. In 1937, the same year as he published the Hobbit, he released ‘Lhammas’ – a treatise of all the languages spoken in Middle Earth.

You can find a dictionary for each of these today – and even apps to translate them. Some ardent fans even speak Tolkien’s constructed tongues!

How deep was Tolkien’s world? There are too many examples to cite, but one from The Fellowship of the Ring stands out. A dwarf and an elf, Gimli and Legolas, are returning along with the rest of the eponymous Fellowship from the Elven realm of Lothlórien. Galadriel, the Lady of the Forest, had given each of them powerful, magical gifts to aid them in their quest.

In Middle Earth’s politics, a dwarf and an elf are not supposed to get along. And Gimli and Legolas haven’t really. But the dwarf was struck the Galadriel’s beauty – and she, in turn, saw into his heart and found a good soul. She approached him last and knew not what gift to give. The dwarf simply asked her for a single hair from her golden head. And she gave him three.

Gimli narrated this story to Legolas, who could only smile deeply in return. The significance of the three hairs was known to Legolas (and to Tolkien), but readers waited 20 years to find out. The Silmarillion was published in 1977, four years after Tolkien’s death. It tells the mythology of Middle Earth’s earliest moments, many years before the events of Lord of the Rings.

Here, we learn that Fëanor, a great Elven legend who created the Silmarils, once asked Galadriel (who is quite timeless) for a single strand of her hair. But Galadriel peered into his soul and saw darkness, and so she refused. Thrice he asked, and thrice he was refused. But many years and stories later, Gimli – a dwarf and an inferior creature according to the Middle-Earth hierarchy – asks for the same hair. And Galadriel gives him thrice that.

In a single gesture, the timeless tension between Elf and Dwarf is ended with aplomb. It’s the kind of magic that could only happen in fantasy. Tolkien’s world is a masterpiece of these plots – which run books, legends and infinities deep. Middle-Earth has a history much older than the events of the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, and delving deep into it would give you as much to read as if you looked at the Judeo-Christian origin myths themselves. Tolkien was prolific – and profound.

Given this background, Tolkien’s own reality adds another dimension to the events in Lord Of The Rings. He lost his father at the age of three, and his mother, at 12. When he met Edith, his wife-to-be, they were both orphans. They married in a small ceremony during Lent, mere months before he was sent to fight in France.

At the Somme, Tolkien saw countless men die. As he later wrote:

Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then … it was like a death.

He lost three out of four of his closest friends during the war, all members of the Tea Club Barrovian Society. Tolkien himself was lucky – he developed trench fever and was sent back to Britain for static duties. His wife shifted to the nearest town to Tolkien’s deployment, in Yorkshire. They often had chances to meet and one day, in a glade, he saw his wife dance for him.

The memory struck. And he later wrote the love story of Lúthien and Beren keeping himself and Edith in mind. It was 1917 when he completed ‘The Tale of Tinúviel” – which contained the story of a mortal who fell in love with an immortal elf. It was one of Tolkien’s longest fascinations, and he constantly revised the story until his death. He never released it, but he references it in many of his future works.

Tolkien’s gravestone at Wolvercot cemetery (Image: Twooars/ GNU Free Documentation License)

When Tolkien was buried alongside his wife, their tombstones bore the names Beren and Lúthien. And this year, in May 2017, his grandson finally completed and released the story of man and elf in love.

Tolkien’s world created among the greatest fantasy world’s ever written. The romance of sinking into his works almost parallels his own. But the tragedies of Middle-earth can also make you shed a tear and want a grudging distance from the horrors of war. Foreboding takes up much of the time before a battle – for Tolkien had seen war, and knew he was lucky to walk away.

The film adaptation of Lord Of The Rings put a visual face and environment to the world of Middle Earth. But for many years, Tolkien’s readers relied on their imaginations. Indeed, an early proposal for a film was to star the Beatles in leading roles – but Tolkien turned it down.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are classics and need no introduction. The current fantasy work that has enchanted the world, Game of Thrones, owes much of its legacy to Lord of the Rings.  Indeed, its author, George R. R. Martin, wanted his world to be more real than Tolkien’s fairy tale, combining it with the “gloom of historical fiction.”

Game of Thrones is an internet phenomenon like never before, and for non-followers, the social media frenzy between each episode can leave you feeling out of the loop.

Never fear. There is always a good moment to re-read the Lord of the Rings, the father of modern fantasy. Or go before it, to its prequel, The Hobbit. Or before even that, to the Silmarillion – where you can immerse yourself in the waters of a deep and beautiful mythology. And once you’ve passed these, a reading of ‘Beren and Lúthien’ will complete your journey through Tolkien’s world.

Perhaps, you may even learn to speak Elvish. At which point, you could ask, as Tolkien once was, “Is it true?” to which he replied, in his inimitable sense, “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

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