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The Untold Truth of J.R.R. Tolkien

We live in a time with popular literature dominated by fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, Patrick Rothfuss, and Brandon Sanderson. But the truth is, few of these artistic masters would have ever had the chance to rise to prominence if a quiet yet indomitable professor hadn't blazed the trail before them. John Ronald Ruel Tolkien's unique qualifications allowed him to begin laying the foundation for the modern genre over a century ago. As a philologist, an avid proponent of mythology, and the possessor of a uniquely creative mind, the unassuming educator was able to serve up a delicious combination of rational thought and elaborate fantasy that has captivated millions of hearts and minds over the years.

In fact, in many ways, Tolkien's histories of Middle-earth set him apart as one of the great literary geniuses of the 20th century. While his life and works have literally been an open book for decades now, though, there are still numerous fascinating factoids about the Oxford don that have received little circulation or widespread attention over the years. From his brief career as a lexicographer to the fact that his first major fantasy publication had to be approved by a ten-year-old before getting the green light, here are some little-known facts and stories from the life of J.R.R. Tolkien.

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He was an orphan

While most of the pictures we have of Tolkien show an aged but smiling professor with a pipe in hand, happily ensconced in a room bristling with books, the truth is, Tolkien's life wasn't always quite so comfortable. On the contrary, he had quite a rough time in his younger days. He was born in 1892 in the South African town of Bloemfontein, where his father and mother had moved a year earlier after their wedding.

In 1895, Tolkien, his mother, and brother returned to live with their extended family in England while his father, Arthur, was away on business. However, early the next year the news arrived that Arthur had suddenly died of a severe hemorrhage. The devastating news was bad enough on its own, but in 1904, after a prolonged period of weakening health, his mother died as well. A 12-year-old Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary found themselves orphans in the care of a Catholic priest who put them up in boarding houses and various relatives' homes. It was a rough start to life, to be sure.

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He was a staunch Catholic

It's hard to overstate how important faith was in Tolkien's personal life. His mother had converted to Catholicism — in Anglican England, no less — after her husband's death, in spite of severe criticism from family members. While she passed away a few years later, her passion for her faith made a strong impression on her eldest son, spurring him to remain an ardent Catholic for the rest of his days.

This devotion could be seen in nearly every facet of his life. From the daily grind — he attended mass religiously, so to speak — to its impact on larger things like his family. For example, when he married his wife, Edith, she had to convert from Anglicanism before they could tie the knot. Of course, the largest impact that his devoutly religious nature had was in Middle-earth itself. While he toyed with concepts like gods and angels, in the very opening pages of his epic The Silmarillion, he made it clear that Eru Ilúvatar was solely in control, making Tolkien's world ultimately monotheistic.

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A walking dictionary

Tolkien lived and breathed vocabulary. He was reading by four years old and learned Latin and French when he was still very young. He also was busy inventing his own languages early on. For example, at family get-togethers, he worked with two of his cousins to create a pair of languages that they called Animalic and Nivbosh.

After World War I, his first major employment upon reentering civilian life was at Oxford. However, it wasn't initially a comfy setup as a professor. Rather than spending his days grading papers and giving lectures, as he would in later years, Tolkien was initially picked up on the staff of The Oxford English Dictionary after running into an old professor who was aware of his ability with words. 

While most people would find the grinding work of a lexicographer dull as all get-out, Tolkien was a philologist, a lover of words in and of themselves, and spending his days researching the history of countless words that started with "W" (the letter he worked on) was right up his alley. He spent additional time tutoring students learning Anglo-Saxon.

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Translator extraordinaire

It's easy to peg Tolkien's many invented languages within Middle-earth, like the Elvish language of Sindarin, as wonderfully complex flourishes to the Oxford professor's stories. But the truth was actually the reverse — Tolkien wrote his stories to help explain where his languages came from in the first place. In other words, the man invented complex languages first and then went about finding a context to explain their existence. Case in point: in his foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien literally explains that he was working on what became The Silmarillion specifically "to provide the necessary background of 'history' for Elvish tongues."

Along with his linguistic accomplishments within his fantasy works, Tolkien also proved to be a masterful translator. This was especially true when it came to old texts. Tolkien brought epics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf to life with masterful translations that were respectful of the original but also digestible by modern audiences.

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The role of ancient myths

At first glance, it's clear to see the impact that ancient myths had on the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien. He fell in love with all of the old stories from a very young age, and their influence can be found woven throughout much of his work. For instance, Beowulf has a very interesting scene where a thief creeps into a dragon's lair and steals a golden cup. Sound familiar?

In The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien referenced the fact that eating a dragon's heart can give you an understanding of the speech of animals, once again giving a nod to the Norse epic hero Sigurd and his encounter with Fafnir the dragon in the Völsunga saga. Even Túrin Turambar's disturbingly tragic crossing of paths with his sister Nienor was originally inspired by the Kalevala. It wasn't that Tolkien was trying to simply copy these earlier myths, either. He saw them as genuine inspirations, established epics that all pointed towards a dim past, a past that he wanted to tap into.

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A mythology for Britain

The impact that the Kalevala had on Tolkien was bigger than simply inspiring stories like The Children of Húrin. He was fascinated by the proud place it held in its nation's heritage. In fact, he was so inspired that he decided at a young age that he wanted to provide the same thing for England, a country that seriously lacked its own comprehensive set of ancient tales. In the years following World War I, Tolkien began cobbling together a new set of languages and their accompanying stories, all of which were meant to serve the greater purpose of providing England with its own national epic.

One of the best testimonies to how well Tolkien reached his goal can be found in the fact that when Viggo Mortensen was tapped to play the part of Aragorn in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, he had never read the trilogy before. However, Mortensen was already familiar with the old myths that Tolkien had used as inspiration for his work, giving the actor a familiarity that helped him fit right in as he played catch-up with the novels themselves.

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The unsung son

While The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings became world renowned while he was still alive, Tolkien had very few other Middle-earth publications go to press during his lifetime. However, it turned out that the author was a bit more prolific behind the scenes than he let on. Tolkien began to shape Middle-earth all the way back in 1917 when he composed the earliest drafts of the story The Fall of Gondolin.

Over the decades that followed, he built up the overall mythology by adding other stories, and was even interested in publishing them at times. However, as he states in the foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring, "I desired to [write The Silmarillion] for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work." While the growing popularity of his books did eventually create that demand, the mythology remained unpublished.

After his death, his son, Christopher Tolkien, began the gargantuan effort of gathering all of his father's drafts, parsing through them, comparing versions, and eliminating discrepancies. Over the next forty years, Christopher published The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Húrin, The Fall of Gondolin, and many other pieces of Middle-earth content that otherwise would have never found the light of day again. Thank you, Christopher. We are forever in your debt.

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In the hands of a child

What would you say if you found out that the entire future of Middle-earth once rested in the hands of a ten-year-old child? It's a concept that Tolkien's publishers, Allen & Unwin, were comfortable with, anyways. They were a bit skeptical about The Hobbit when it arrived on their desk, and the question of whether or not to publish the interesting little book went back and forth until a frighteningly simple decision was made to help end the matter.

Unwin's son, Rayner, would be tapped to make the final call. He would read the manuscript and provide a review, and they would determine whether or not to move forward with publication based on his recommendation. The surprising part is that Rayner was ten years old at the time. Fortunately, The Hobbit is one of Tolkien's most youth-oriented works. It came through with flying colors, and the book hit the press not long afterward.

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The Hobbit sequel

While we're used to seeing The Lord of the Rings as its own stand-alone trilogy, it originally began as a simple request for a sequel to The Hobbit. The problem was, Tolkien saw The Hobbit as a one-off event that was never supposed to have a sequel. The Silmarillion was much more important in his mind — as he made clear in multiple letters to his publisher and other friends — and it had very little to do with Hobbits. He did offer The Silmarillion to his publishers as a radical sequel (or prequel), but they were quick to reject the idea, demanding more Hobbit-centric adventures instead.

While the immense work of The Silmarillion is undoubtedly a centerpiece of Middle-earth history, we can be thankful for that initial rejection, as it forced Tolkien to go back to the drawing board in an attempt to scrounge up something to carry on The Hobbit storyline. He started with some basic concepts like a story about Bilbo's son, Bingo, but eventually, he found Frodo, made the One Ring the central focus, and the story was off to the races.

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'Thrillers'

While there are some pretty harrowing moments throughout Tolkien's works, it's tough to imagine the man ever writing a thriller. And yet, that was the plan. In multiple letters, Tolkien made it clear that he and his good friend C.S. Lewis had embarked on a quest to write a pair of books in the genre. In a letter to his publisher in 1938, Tolkien explained that he and Lewis "meant each to write an excursionary 'Thriller': a Space-journey and a Time-journey (mine) each discovering Myth."

A few years later, in 1944, he made another reference to the project in a letter to his son Christopher. Lewis' space book had taken the form of Out of the Silent Planet and its sequels, a series known as The Space Trilogy. The protagonist of those stories, a philologist called Elwin Ransom, bears an undeniable resemblance to Tolkien. Tolkien's own Time-journey adventure was started but never finished. It evolved into a short story called "The Lost Road," which can be found in Volume 5 of Christopher Tolkien's The History of Middle-earth collection.

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On food and pipeweed

Tolkien was a big fan of food. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings open with parties that center on meals. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Pippin can't remember much after a night spent with some passing elves… except that they had some pretty incredible bread. Bilbo can't stop thinking about his kitchen. Starvation is the dwarves' chief enemy as they travel through Mirkwood. One of the Lothlorien elves' special gifts to the Fellowship of the Ring is magical lembas. No matter where you turn, Tolkien was aware of the power of food, and he wove it into his stories from one end to the other.

In addition, the perpetually smoke-wreathed Oxford don was also fond of having his characters smoke "pipe-weed." While the cinematic representation of pipe-weed was rather unclear about whether the stuff was more than it seemed, though, the plain truth of the matter is that pipe-weed was nothing more than tobacco. On his podcast The Tolkien Professor, Professor Corey Olsen clarifies that pipe-weed (also known as galenas or Westmansweed) was simply Tolkien the linguist at work. Tobacco was a harsh modern word, and the philologist was not a fan of it. Instead, he combined two words with much older pedigrees. However, the stuff itself never changed — pipe-weed was never meant to represent more than a good smoke.

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Beren and Lúthien

One of the most famous stories in The Silmarillion is the section titled "Of Beren and Lúthien," in which a mortal man falls in love with an Elf princess. The two go on an impossible quest to gain a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth. The story is epic, tragic, and even includes a cameo by Sauron before he becomes the Dark Lord of Mordor. However, while the story itself is just another piece of Tolkien's Middle-earth masterpiece, it seems to have struck a unique chord with its creator.

Tolkien had won over the heart of his wife, Edith, in fairly epic fashion. The two had fallen in love at a young age and had had to wait for some time to get married. At one point during a longer spell apart, Edith thought Tolkien had lost interest in her, and when he sent her a letter to the contrary, she informed him that she had moved on and was actually engaged. Tolkien was crushed, but he responded by literally boarding a train and heading off to find her. By the end of the day, the engagement was broken off and Edith was his again. In Tolkien's head, the romance of the two was special, and it found expression in his writing in the form of Beren and Lúthien, so much so that the couple's headstone was literally carved with "Beren" and "Lúthien" beneath their respective names.

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Written for adults

While the success of The Hobbit may have come down to a nail-biter decision by a ten-year-old, its sequel, The Lord of the Rings (along with virtually all of the rest of Tolkien's writings) hinged on concepts that were far more adult in nature. However, the world has never been able to quite shake the notion that Middle-earth is a place for children. Tolkien's view of fairy-tales — or tales from "the Perilous Realm," as he would put it — was one steeped in mature, adult themes like life and death or good versus evil.

In his essay "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien makes his view of things clear: "for fairy-stories are not… about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays…" He then goes on to list basic elements like the sun, moon, water, stone… and even mortal men who are enchanted. Tolkien's serious handling of the Perilous Realm is a large part of what has attracted so many adult readers to the genre over the years.

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The modern era of fantasy

Tolkien's deeply traditional, respectful attitude towards fairy-tales allowed his work to transcend the condescension of the fantasy genre, helping expose the world to the fact that genuinely valuable entertainment and escape could be found through fantasy. It was a radical thought in a post-World War era where the harsh realities of life had taken center stage. Tolkien stubbornly clung to the stories of old, insisting on their value as well as their rightful place in the modern world, and by doing so, he became one of the founding fathers of the modern fantasy genre.

And we're not just dishing out cute titles here, either. The Lord of the Rings has been named the best book of the 20th century in multiple polls since it was published. It also sold 50 million copies and was translated 30 times by the end of the century that it was written — in other words, before the movies came out. The unparalleled success helped to open up the doors for modern fantasy to thrive.