J.R.R. Tolkien: Learning from His Life and Writings
J.R.R. Tolkien has had generations of readers. They are attracted by his magical stories and his wonderful way of telling them.
The Hobbit, and his Lord of the Rings Trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King). and his characters, Frodo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo Baggins, and the sinister Gollum, will live in the minds of readers until the end of time. What made J. R. R. Tolkien such a popular and well-respected author? Can we claim him as a distinctively Christian author?
Tolkien’s Early Influences
Tolkien sounds like a German name, and indeed it is. His ancestors immigrated to England from Saxony in the mid-1700s. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 while his British father served as a bank manager there. At age three, he returned with his mother and brother to Britain for an extended visit, but while there his father died in South Africa. Without an income, Tolkien’s mother moved in with her parents in a village near Birmingham. His childhood mental images of the idyllic region, as it was at the time, influenced Tolkien in a powerful way and scenes of those places appeared often in his tales.
Tolkien was homeschooled in his early years. He loved the study of plants but was particularly attracted to languages in his formative years. He could read and write by age four and had acquired a rudimentary understanding of Latin by then. His homeschooling ended when he was 12 when his mother died of Type 1 diabetes. Tolkien’s mother put him and his brother under the guardianship of a Catholic priest, Francis Xavier Morgan. before she passed away at age 34.
His education continued at King Edward’s School and St. Philip’s School in Birmingham. During this time, and in ensuing years, he was captivated by languages. He graduated with first-class honors from Exeter College, Oxford in 1915. The teaching he received from his mother, and later education experiences, were major influences in his life.
Terrors of War
One of the greatest influences in Tolkien’s writings was his experiences in World War 1. At King Edward’s school, he was a cadet in the school’s Officer Training Corps and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant after he received his Oxford degree. Tolkien was engaged in major conflicts at the Battle of the Somme and saw horrific sights that sparked battle scenes in his later books.
But more than just scenes, Tolkien was influenced by the great conflict between good and evil, the human cost of it all, and the eternal consequences.
Tolkien lost many of his best friends in the Great War. Lice helped Tolkien. He became very ill with Trench Fever, a disease carried by the little critters, and he was shipped back to England in late 1916, where he endured a long recuperative process in various hospitals.
After the war, Tolkien used his linguistic abilities as a low-level editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Later, he taught at the University of Leeds. In 1945 he became the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford and remained in that position until his retirement.
Matters of Faith
Readers see what they wish in Tolkien’s writing. Non-Christians see an epic fantasy, but Christians also see his books are permeated with expressions of his Christian faith.
His family was Baptist. His mother converted to Catholicism in 1900, and it caused great disruption in the family. With her husband dead, she relied heavily on her family to support herself and her two boys. But, upon her switch, they ceased financial assistance and her final years were frugal ones. Her commitment to Catholicism is the reason she gave over care of her sons to the Catholic Church rather than family members.
Tolkien embraced Catholicism as it was presented to him by the priest who was his guardian. He said Father Francis Xavier Morgan was dearer to him than a biological father could have been. Tolkien insisted that his wife, Edith, relinquish her Protestant beliefs and become a Catholic before they were married.
His books are filled with Christian truth, even though they are not allegorical in their expression. He used Christian symbols as mileposts along the way in his stories, but he never intended them to be preachments. Those mileposts were indicative of his larger view of God and his redemptive power. His books embodied a Christian worldview without exploring lesser pedantic doctrines. Readers can see the great spiritual battles between good and evil and can see Christ in the lives of the victors, without stretching imagination.
Most readers understand that J. R. R. Tolkien was a Christian, and it is a strong testimony that his enchanting books came from a Christian mind. His life and his books bear testimony to his faith in Christ.
The Christian faith was a dominant influence, but his literary world was a wide one. He accessed near forgotten Norse and Greek lore, and there is even the spice of Celtic mythology in his writing. He blended a wide range of material and made it unique.
He was not content to create new words to describe the world he created. He was a linguist and was interested in creating entire new languages for his characters to speak.
A Significant Friendship
Tolkien’s literary world included luminaries of his time including C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Nevill Coghill, Adam Fox, and others. The group, known as The Inklings, met weekly for decades at a pub called The Eagle and Child in Oxford and exchanged ideas, not only about writing but also about matters of faith and about current events.
One of the most important features of these gatherings was for the men to read portions of their works-in-progress. Both Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia emerged out of the criticism and encouragement of others in the group.
The friendship between Tolkien and Lewis was particularly significant. They were both Oxford literature dons (professors), were both Christians and they shared a love of legends and language. They met at an Oxford faculty meeting in 1926 and their friendship continued until death.
There were two watershed events in their years of friendship. Tolkien first read his story of Beren and Luthien to Lewis. They were the star-crossed lovers who were foundational to the story of Middle Earth. Lewis encouraged Tolkien to keep writing, and as a result, the legendary saga was born. Tolkien once said, “[Lewis] was for long my only audience.”
The second watershed event was about a matter of faith. Tolkien influenced Lewis in many ways, but none more important than encouraging him to not abandon his faith in Christ. Lewis was experiencing a spiritual crisis in 1931, but after long walks and talks with Tolkien, Lewis returned to faith in Christ and he did not stray from it.
Will Another J.R.R. Tolkien Rise?
Several of Tolkien’s books were released posthumously by his son Christopher. The main one was The Silmarillion. Interestingly, it was written right after The Hobbit but was rejected by Tolkien’s publishers. So, he when to work on Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion was released in 1977 to mixed reviews. His son cobbled together and edited other books from his father’s chest of partly finished manuscripts, but nothing captured readers like his tales of Hobbits.
Will there ever be another writer in the fantasy genre as great as Tolkien? Probably not. His writing emerged out of his unique period in history, geography, war experiences, education, his personal faith, and his personal relationships. God used them all to create the Hobbit world which enthralls us all.
Does that mean that a Christian writer cannot aspire to his level of excellence? No, Christian writers should read his canon once (or twice) for pure enjoyment, and another time or two with a notebook to record how his characters are introduced and evolve, setting and scenes. There is a master’s course in writing in each Tolkien volume. If you aspire to write great books, step into Tolkien’s classroom.
Keep in mind that your goal is not to copy what Tolkien has done. Your goal is to learn techniques that you can apply to your own unique work. Discover his tool chest and use it to build your own worlds. God has the power to bless your writing just as he blessed Tolkien’s work.