J. R. R. Tolkien Analysis

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The novels that J. R. R. Tolkien (TAHL-keen) produced represent only a small part of the complicated matrix from which they evolved. During Tolkien’s lifetime, he published three volumes of novellas and short stories, Farmer Giles of Ham (1949), Tree and Leaf (1964), and Smith of Wootton Major (1967). Some of these tales had originally been bedtime stories for his own children, such as those in the posthumously published The Father Christmas Letters (1976) and Roverandom (1998). The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth (1980) both contain stories Tolkien composed early in his life, material that sets the stage for the events in his novels. His poetry collections, Songs for the Philologists (1936), The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962), and The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle (1967), link Tolkien’s poetic formulations of Middle-earth’s themes with the historical and linguistic themes of which both his professional work and much of his dreams were made, “the nameless North of Sigurd of the Völsungs, and the prince of all dragons.” Tolkien’s academic publications dealt with the history of the English language and Middle English literature: A Middle English Vocabulary (1922) and editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1925; with E. V. Gordon) and the Ancrene Wisse (1962). His seminal essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936) and his only play, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (pb. 1953), offer fresh interpretations of ancient English epic poems.

Tolkien’s novels have been adapted for cinema and television, and many, though not all, of his fragmentary stories, articles, and letters have been published since his death. His histories of Middle-earth, a remarkable invented mythology comprising chronicles, tales, maps, and poems, were edited as a series by his son, Christopher Tolkien. Volumes include The Book of Lost Tales, The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-Earth, and The Lost Road, and Other Writings.

Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction dismayed most of his fellow scholars at the University of Oxford as much as it delighted most of his general readers. Such reactions sprang from their recognition of his vast linguistic talent, which underlay both his professional achievements and his mythical universe. Tolkien led two lives at once, quietly working as an Oxford tutor, examiner, editor, and lecturer while concurrently Middle-earth and its mythology were taking shape within his imagination.

For twenty years after he took first-class honors in English language and literature at Oxford, Tolkien’s teaching and linguistic studies buttressed his scholarly reputation. Editing the fourteenth century text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon helped bring Tolkien the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925. His lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” approached the Anglo-Saxon epic poem from an entirely new perspective and is considered a landmark in criticism of Western Germanic literature. As he was shaping his linguistic career, however, Tolkien was also formulating an imaginary language that, as early as 1917, had led him to explore its antecedents, its mythology, and its history, all of which he molded into the tales of The Silmarillion. Over the years, he shared these stories with friends, but he never finished putting them into a unified structure.

His preoccupation with Middle-earth and the practical demands of his teaching distracted Tolkien from scholarship, and between his celebrated essay On Fairy Stories in 1939 and his edition of the Middle English Ancrene Wisse in 1962, Tolkien published only fiction, a circumstance acknowledged with polite forbearance by most of Oxford’s scholarly community, although his novels eventually met with astonishing popular success. The Hobbit, originally a children’s story, was published in 1937 after a six-year gestation, and by 1949, The Lord of the Rings was complete. Its sales, though steadily increasing...

(The entire section is 2,736 words.)