This article is by Keitha Sargent.
To get the most out of Tolkien’s works, it is important to understand a little about the man, his life, passions and views. Several things shaped the imagination from which Middle Earth emerged: his childhood in England, his experiences in the First World War, and his love for ‘Northern’ myth and literature.
Tolkien was born in South Africa to English parents. When he was 3, his father died, and in 1896 the family settled in a small village in central England. In 1966, Tolkien described the place as “a kind of lost paradise” and, for the rest of his life, it remained an ideal. Tolkien had a deep love for England, even suggesting that, thanks to a sort of race-memory, he recognised the Anglo-Saxon language when he first encountered it as a boy.
Closely related to his love for England was his distaste for the modern world. This extended even to literature. For a professor, he was remarkably ignorant of contemporary writers and used to joke “English Literature ended with Chaucer”, inverting the cliché that Chaucer was ‘father’ of the language. For Tolkien, ‘modern’ was a word with negative connotations; to him it meant industrialism, machines, overcrowding, noise and speed. In 1933, he returned to the village of his childhood and wrote bitterly that the place had been engulfed by trams, roads, and hideous housing estates.
The First World War was the historical event of Tolkien’s youth. Overshadowed by the second war, it is difficult today to grasp just how momentous an event it was for those living through it. On the first day of the Somme battle, for example, the British lost nearly 20,000 men. By the end of the war, virtually every family in Britain had lost someone. Tolkien himself fought as an Officer and took part in the Somme battle.
Finally, there was Tolkien’s love for ‘Northerness’. By this, he meant the literature, myth and language of the northern European peoples. The atmosphere of Beowulf and the Norse sagas appealed to Tolkien, and he was impressed by the grim, stoical courage of the ‘Northern’ warrior. As professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, he knew this world thoroughly. For Tolkien, the Norman conquest of 1066, which brought the Anglo-Saxon period to an end, pained him as much as if it had occurred in his own lifetime. More generally, Tolkien, though a committed Christian, saw immense value in Myth itself. He disagreed with C S Lewis’ view that myth was ultimately a lie. Instead, argued Tolkien, by creating myth, humans are expressing divine truth.
Once these facts are understood, the works begin to make sense. The Shire mixes together his love of England and preference for the simple, rural life over the urbanised, fast-paced modern world. Tolkien once said “the hobbits are just rustic English people”, adding “I am in fact a hobbit”. Like the hobbits, Tolkien had a great love for what he called the ‘homely’: simple food, beer, pubs, tobacco and crackling fires. The Shire was not so much a creation as an idealized re-creation of his rural childhood and the life he would himself have enjoyed.
And, just as the peace of the Shire is threatened by an outside power, so the England of Tolkien’s youth faced the German army. As an officer he came to admire the courage, suffering and sacrifice of the young British soldiers, many of them away from home for the first time. And Sam, The Lord of the Rings true hero, is based on the young privates he met, many from simple, agricultural backgrounds.
Finally, there is Tolkien’s interest in the Anglo-Saxons and pre-Christian, Northern European cultures. Out of this, he formed his own mythic landscape. In a sense, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings consist of two separate worlds arising from two separate parts of Tolkien’s psyche. In the background is the vast, mythic landscape of Middle Earth, formed out of his love for ancient myth and literature. And in the foreground, the Shire, based on his English childhood.
No great work emerges from a void. The writer’s imagination is moulded and shaped by the passions they develop and the experiences they undergo. This is especially true of Tolkien.
Tolkien saw immense value in myth itself. Do you agree with Tolkien that by creating myth, humans are expressing divine truth?
Do you sympathize with Tolkien’s distaste for the modern world? For you, does “modern” have negative connotations?
Has your own writing been shaped by your life experiences? If so, how?