Sunday, January 4, 2015

BIRTHDAY: Jan. 3–J. R. R. Tolkien, CBE, Oxonian

On the 14 shelves for J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at
 Blackwell's, Oxford, Feb. 10, 2015 (660th anniversary
 of the St. Scholastica Day riots), Tolkien dominated.
See note at end about the 9 pm toast on January 3, 2016.

This day in 1892 was born J[ohn] R[onald] R[euel] Tolkien in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He was known in the family as Ronald.

His parents were English. His father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, was sent to South Africa  to head up the local branch of a British bank.

Arthur and his wife Mabel parented two boys. The second was Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien, born two years after Ronald in 1894.

Their stay in South Africa was in the 18-year interlude between the two Boer Wars, the second having its roots in the disastrous Jameson Raid supported by Oxonian Cecil Rhodes.

The Tolkiens' time in South Africa did not end well:
  • Ronald as an infant was bitten in their garden by a large baboon spider. He later said he didn't remember it. But we know that being bitten by a spider is how Spider Man originated.
  • More seriously, when Ronald was three, the family went back to England to see their relatives, leaving their father behind to follow them. But during the interval before he could get away from South Africa he was killed by rheumatic fever.
  • Tolkien's mother Mabel, suddenly destitute, took her children to live with her parents in Birmingham. 
On the other hand, Mabel as a result homeschooled her two boys, stressing botany. This does not seem to have been a bad thing for Ronald! His favorite subjects were languages, and his mother taught him the rudiments of Latin early in life. He could read by the age of four and could write fluently soon afterwards. He said he disliked Treasure Island and thought Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was "amusing but disturbing".

Birmingham Days

J. R. R. Tolkien and his book The Hobbit (1937).
For a decade (1900-1911) he was enrolled at King Edward's School in Birmingham, with a brief sojourn at St. Philip's School.

His mother Mabel became Roman Catholic in 1900, despite the opposition of her Baptist relatives. They joined her late husband's relatives in stopping all financial assistance to her, thereby earning the timeless contempt of Tolkien's fans.

In 1904, when Tolkien was 12, his mother Mabel –only 34–died of acute diabetes. Ronald and his brother were now 100 percent orphans. Prior to her death, Tolkien's mother wisely, it seems, placed both of her sons under the guardianship of her close friend Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. Young Tolkien had great respect for Fr. Morgan.

Tolkien was enrolled in the St. Edward's School Officers Training Corps and became a cadet. He was part of the school contingent that lined the route for the 1910 procession to Westminster Abbey to crown King George V. While still in his early teens, Tolkien's cousins Mary and Marjorie Inceldon introduced him to their made-up language, Animalic. He joined Mary and others in the invention of a more complex language called Nevbosh. Then Tolkien invented his own language, Naffarin.

In 1911, at King Edward's School, Tolkien and three friends formed a semi-secret society, the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society, referring to tea-drinking at Barrow's Stores near the school). That year, Tolkien went with a dozen friends on a summer holiday, hiking in Switzerland from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. He said that memories of this holiday served as the basis for his description of the hike of Bilbo Baggins and company across the Misty Mountains in The Lord of the Rings.

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Ronald Tolkien met Edith Mary Bratt, three years older, when he and his brother Hilary moved into a Birmingham boarding house. Fr. Morgan, as Ronald's guardian, viewed Edith as the reason for Tolkien's having done poorly on some exams at St. Edward's, and objected especially to Tolkien's being involved with an older, Protestant woman. He prohibited Tolkien from meeting or even corresponding with her until he was 21.

Tolkien opted to obey this prohibition. He wrote later:
I had to choose between disobeying and grieving (or deceiving) a guardian who had been a father to me, more than most fathers ...  I don't regret my decision, though it was very hard on my lover. The effects were not wholly good: I fell back into folly and slackness and misspent a good deal of my first year at college.
Oxford Undergraduate

Tolkien was admitted to Oxford, residing at Exeter College, Oxford. He initially studied Classics but switched in 1913 to English Language and Literature, graduating in 1915 with First Class Honours. During his studies Tolkien read an Old English poem by Cynewulf, containing these two lines of poetry:
Hail Earendel brightest of angels Over Middle Earth sent to men.
This couplet, says Garrison Keillor in The Writer's Almanac, was a seed that grew into books about Middle Earth characters.

On the evening of his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote to Edith to say he never stopped loving her. He  asked her to marry him.

Edith replied that she had already accepted another proposal. Tolkien immediately went to see her. By the end of the day, Edith had agreed to accept Tolkien's proposal. Following their engagement, Edith announced she was converting to Catholicism at Tolkien's insistence, thereby - like Tolkien's mother - losing financial support from her own family. No one can say the Tolkiens took the easy way.

Edith Bratt and Ronald Tolkien were married at St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church, Warwick, in March 1916. Tolkien, cut off from assistance from all relatives, was a NINJA - No Income, No Job nor Assets.

World War I Service

In 1914 the U.K. had entered the Great War. Tolkien's relatives expected him to volunteer at once for the British Army, and professed shock that he would be so unpatriotic as to delay enlisting until after completing his degree.

After graduation, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He trained for eleven months and then boarded a troop transport for France, where he was assigned as a signals officer to the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, which had taken many casualties in  heavy fighting.

At the end of June 1916, Lieutenant Tolkien joined his unit near Amiens, commanding men drawn mainly from Lancashire's mining, milling, and weaving towns. Tolkien felt close to them, but was forbidden by military protocol from developing friendships with them. Tolkien later lamented:
The most improper job of any man... is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.
Tolkien's time in combat meant Edith lived with the fear, as in every military family, that a knock on the door at any time could mean news of their warrior's death. (My grandmother got such a knock on the door announcing the loss in action of her bomber-pilot son, my uncle Willem.) To get around the British Army postal censorship, the Tolkiens developed a secret code for his letters home.

In October 1916, Tolkien came down with trench fever, a disease carried by the lice common in the trenches. Tolkien was sent home to England to recover, finding that many of his dearest school friends had been killed in service, including two members of the T.C.B.S. at St. Edward's School.

By the time that Tolkien returned to England, Tolkien's battalion was wiped out. He said: "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."

Weak and emaciated from disease, Tolkien spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties, and he began writing. In 1917-1918 his illness persisted, but he was able to do enough service at army bases to earn promotion to Lieutenant. At this time, Edith gave birth to their first child, John Francis Reuel Tolkien.

Postwar Career at Leeds and Oxford

After the war ended, Tolkien worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, mainly Germanic words beginning with W.

In 1920, he was appointed Reader in English at the University of Leeds, where he produced A Middle English Vocabulary and a definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon, both standard works among academics.

Tolkien then obtained a plum career appointment, serving from 1925 to 1945 as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1945-1958 he became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.

Tolkien's six-years-younger friend and fellow Oxford don C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) during these years organized meetings in his rooms at University College to discuss literature. The group was called the Inklings, and Tolkien attended. (Tolkien lived for a time at 20 Northmoor Road in North Oxford).

However, Tolkien wasn't always a C. S. Lewis fan. He didn't like the first Narnia book. He complained that it was untidy and eclectic - combining Father Christmas with an evil witch and including talking animals and children in the same story. Luckily, the audience for literature is broad enough to appreciate the geniuses of both tight-trimming Tolkien and sprawling Lewis.

Once, grading exams, Tolkien discovered a student had left blank a page in his examination booklet. Tolkien impulsively wrote on the page, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." This line turned into a bedtime story that he told his children, and then it became The Hobbit in 1937. The book is #81 in the timeline of the exciting new collection of 100 children's classics (1600-2000) put together by The Grolier Club in Manhattan.

Tolkien's writing about Middle Earth led to The Lord of the Rings in 1955, which includes a half-Elven character named Earendil the Mariner.

Honors and Death

Tolkien was honored as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II on March 28, 1972.

He died the following year.

After Tolkien's death, his son Christopher published some books based on his father's extensive notes and unpublished manuscripts. One is called The Silmarillion. These books, along with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings form a coherent fantasy world called Arda, within which is Middle Earth, and which Tolkien called legendarium. The great success of Tolkien's books led to a popular resurgence of the genre, making Tolkien a modern icon of fantasy or "high fantasy" literature.

Remembrance at 9 pm January 3, 2016

At 9pm your local time, the Tolkien Society invites Tolkien fans to raise a glass and toast the birthday of this much-loved author. The toast is simply:
The Professor! 
All you need to do is stand, raise a glass of your choice of drink (not necessarily alcoholic), and say the words “The Professor” before taking a sip (or swig, if that’s more appropriate for your drink). Sit and enjoy the rest of your drink. Let us and others know what you’ll be drinking and where in the comments below, on Twitter (using #TolkienBirthdayToast) or Facebook. Note that the Society does not condone drinking alcohol if it endangers the health or safety of the drinker or others, or contravenes the law.

More Oxford bios.