J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) Tolkien 1892–1973
British novelist, poet, editor, critic, short story writer, and Anglo-Saxon scholar. Tolkien created a complete mythology with his works of fantasy, which narrate a timeless cosmic struggle between good and evil and have captured the imaginations of a generation. He is credited with making the fairy tale accessible to adults through his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and essay, "On Fairy Stories." His success made fantasy a popular and acceptable genre for adult writers, many of whom have imitated his example. Tolkien was born in South Africa, and moved to England at the age of four following the death of his father. Perhaps Tolkien's greatest influence was his mother, who introduced him to history, leg-ends, and the fascination of language. At an early age he began composing his own languages and later wrote stories and poems as a framework for them. Tolkien studied linguistics at Oxford, and in 1925 became Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. From 1945 until his retirement he was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and became an emeritus fellow of Oxford. His scholarly works on philology and literature are considered major contributions to both subjects. While at Oxford he made the acquaintance of novelist and critic C. S. Lewis, who was later to talk a reluctant Tolkien into submitting The Hobbit for publication. The Hobbit, based on Tolkien's private mythology and the bedtime stories he told his children during the 1930s, began the history of Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings continues the saga, having as its theme the corruption of power. The Silmarillion, which was begun in 1916 but published posthumously, forms the prologue to The Lord of the Rings. During the 1960s Tolkien was catapulted to fame as young adults discovered his books. The cult spawned clubs, journals, buttons, and graffiti, as well as societies devoted to the serious study of Tolkien and his works. Tolkien's critical reception has been less wholeheartedly enthusiastic: he has been criticized for characters, especially women, who are one-dimensional and for prose which is flat and lacking in imagery. Although the initial craze surrounding his work has ebbed, young people still respond positively to Tolkien's characters, identifying with their quests towards maturity and self awareness. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)
The publishers claim that "The Hobbit," though very unlike "Alice," resembles it in being the work of a professor at play. A more important truth is that both belong to a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own—a world that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him. Its place is with "Alice," "Flatland," "Phantastes," "The Wind in the Willows."
To define the world of "The Hobbit" is, of course, impossible, because it is new. You cannot anticipate it before you go there, as you cannot forget it once you have gone….
[This] is a children's book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. "Alice" is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; "The Hobbit," on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but "The Hobbit" may well prove a classic.
"A World for Children," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1937; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 2, 1937, p. 714.
C. S. Lewis
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