Opportunities for promotion led Arthur Reuel Tolkien to South Africa sometime around 1890, where the bank clerk became manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa. Tolkein’s fiancée Mabel joined him in the Orange Free State in 1891, and the couple was married that April. The first of two boys arrived the following year. They called him John Ronald Reuel.
Mabel returned to England shortly after the birth of their second son, believing the climate to be healthier. She may have been right. Arthur died unexpectedly in South Africa, never rejoining his family. The older boy was four that year, the family’s departure leaving him with “slight but vivid” memories of Africa. One of them involved an encounter with an enormous, hairy, spider.
The family lived for a time next to a rail line, south of Birmingham. John always had an interest in languages, even before he began to invent words. It must have fired the young boy’s linguistic imagination to see the Welsh coal trucks go by, with names like “Nantyglo“, “Penrhiwceiber” and “Senghenydd” painted on their sides.
Finances were difficult for the family, becoming worse when Mabel succumbed to diabetes when John was only 12.
A Father Francis looked after the boys’ spiritual and educational development at King Edward’s school, where J.R.R. mastered Latin and Greek, becoming competent in a number of other languages, as well. He would make up entire languages for fun, while he and several buddies met regularly after school as the “TCBS” (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), exchanging and criticizing each other’s literary work.
Tolkein discovered Christ II by Cynewulf in the course of these studies, one of only four surviving works by the 9th century Old English poet. One couplet captured his imagination. “Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast, Ofer middangeard monnum sended” – Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men.
Tolkien served briefly on the Western Front in WWI, before contracting a typhus-like infection called “trench fever”. He convalesced back in England, serving out the rest of the war in Home Duty. Most of his TCBS friends had been killed in action by this time, and he wrote of his experiences in their memory. “…in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire“.
It’s easy to see these early experiences in his first works, the notes he called his “Legendarium”: the Deep Elves, the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond.
Tolkien took a professorship at Oxford after the war, where one day he found himself correcting papers. He found that one of his students had left a page blank. Who knows what possessed him, but he wrote on the page “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit“. In typical Tolkien fashion, he then had to find out what a “Hobbit” was, why it lived in a hole, and on, and on.
Tolkien’s musings grew into a tale he told his kids. It grew from there when the publishing firm George, Allen and Unwin got hands on an incomplete typescript, and encouraged the professor to finish his work. J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale was published on this day in 1937, under the title “The Hobbit“.
The Hobbit was so successful that the publisher asked if Tolkein had similar material available for publication. By this time, Tolkien’s Legendarium had taken a more complete form which he was calling his “Qenya Silmarillion”. Tolkien submitted the work to mixed reviews. the prevailing sense being that the work was not commercially viable.
The author was disappointed by the setback, but agreed to take up the challenge of writing “The New Hobbit”. It took 16 years of coaxing and prodding to accelerate the snail’s pace of this unhurried writer, by the now-grown son of one of the publishers, Rayner Unwin. Tolkien even offered the work to a rival publisher at one point, but they backed off the project on realizing the scope and size of the work.
J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale developed into far more than a children’s story, published in three parts in 1954-1955 under the title “Lord of the Rings“. Early misgivings that the project would be a financial loss, soon evaporated.
Author and publisher alike had greatly underestimated the public appeal of Tolkien’s work. To date, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit have sold well over 300 million copies. But for exchange issues related to a rising dollar and plunging foreign currencies, the Peter Jackson Hobbit film trilogy of 2012 would have grossed $1 billion at the world-wide box office.
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