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Tolkien, J R R

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1892-1973) South-African-born philologist and author, in UK from 1893, who specialized in early forms of English; his academic career was crowned by his appointment as Merton Professor of English at Oxford University in 1945, a post he held until his retirement in 1959. He specialized as a scholar in early forms of English – his early publications include A Middle English Vocabulary (1922) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (trans 1925) with E V Gordon, and the manuscript of his Beowulf (trans 2014) also dates from that period – but he is primarily known as the twentieth-century's single most important author of fantasy. Though he published no sf, he is a central figure in Fantastika as a whole for his deeply articulate arguments about the nature of the Secondary World [for this term, and for a version of this entry on Tolkien shaped specifically around his seminal role as an author of fantasy, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and for his immensely detailed "subcreation" (his term for the inventing of fantasy worlds) of a vast, storyable, verisimilitudinous universe large enough to cradle the huge expanse in time and space (see Time Abyss) of his central life work as an author, the Middle-earth mega-sequence.

Begun during his military service in World War One, Middle-earth included his most famous works: The Hobbit; Or, There and Back Again (1937); The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols) [for both titles, see below and see Checklist for further details]; The Silmarillion (coll 1977), which won a Hugo and a Locus Award; Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth (coll 1980); plus the huge mass of matter dating from around 1917 until 1973 and assembled decades later by his son Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020) as The History of Middle-Earth [for all twelve volumes, see Checklist]. Poems and songs belonging to the cycle were assembled as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (coll 1962 chap) and The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle (coll 1967) with music by Donald Swann (1923-1994). Over and above the clear emphasis on the joys of storytelling in the novels published during his lifetime, the Middle-earth enterprise as a whole comprises a highly self-conscious attempt to create a story-friendly myth of origin for Britain, a culture Tolkien thought lacked a true Mythology. He seems to have been influenced in this task by the example of the Finnish Kalevala (1835; exp 1849) as recreated/authored by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), a text which was indeed germinal in the creation of the Finnish national story; though in this light Middle-earth was clearly not so much an attempt to create such a source than a remarkably sustained contrarian rewriting of an existing national back-story. But the underlying seriousness of Middle-earth is central to its hold on millions of readers, many of whom – in polls and through other evidences – think of its central text, The Lord of the Rings, as the most important novel, regardless of category, of the twentieth century.

It has been argued persuasively by Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle-Earth (1982; rev 1992), that Tolkien's profound grounding in Linguistics did far more than provide a stew of real and imaginary languages out of which he dreamed his work, as though his tales were translated from a lost original; that they in fact suggested to him a specific technique of worldbuilding, as though the geographies and folk who inhabit Tolkien's Four Ages [again, for a full description of his overall history, see his entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] were generated to give local habitations to pre-existing invented languages, an argument given weight in the several thousand pages of The History of Middle-Earth. Any argument of this sort must, of course, reckon with the central importance, for Tolkien, of his own illustrations to his various works, which may seem primitive, but are in fact as sophisticated as those drawn by Rudyard Kipling for his Just So Stories (coll 1902), or by Hugh Lofting for his Dr Dolittle tales. Many of these paintings and watercolours were composed prior to or in conjunction with the actual act of writing, and clearly represent an important inspiration for the tales; some of this work is assembled in Pictures by J R R Tolkien (graph 1979; exp 1992). In J R R Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator (1995) by Wayne G Hammond and Christina Scull this material is also presented, and its importance argued for.

At Oxford, several years before World War Two, Tolkien formed a close literary association with Owen Barfield, C S Lewis (mostly at his instigation) and Charles Williams, a modestly formidable cénacle which came to be known as the Inklings. They met regularly, reading aloud to each other drafts of fiction and other work, a habit facilitated by – and perhaps contributory to – their shared interest in told fictions, though none of the works read aloud were published within a specific Club Story format, with the exception of "The Norton Club Papers" (written 1945-1946; in The History of Middle-Earth 9: Sauron Defeated 1992), a long episodic narrative set around 1986, in a venue evocative of the Inklings, and incorporating Time Travel to explain the participants' experiences of Middle-Earth. They were all Christians (Tolkien was Roman Catholic), and The Inklings is now thought of as a central forcing-house for twentieth-century Christian fantasy. Tolkien very soon published The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937), a successful though not inherently remarkable children's story; but in Inklings sessions he now introduced draft portions of his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols), set in what was then the most detailed of all invented fictional worlds, rivalled only by Austin Tappan Wright's sf novel, Islandia (1942), the published version of which (as in Tolkien's case) represented only a portion of what was written; Tolkien differed from Wright, however, in having a compelling story to tell.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937) [for revisions and other details see Checklist] tells the story of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, dragged by the wizard/mage/Secret Master Gandalf into a quest with some companion dwarfs for a hoard guarded by the dragon Smaug, who has lurked in Erebor ever since (in the back-story) he banished the dwarfs from their underground kingdom. In a minor incident (darkened and given additional emphasis in the 1951 version) Bilbo tricks a morally and physically decayed Hobbit named Gollum out of a ring. The comedy (quest tales are inherently comic) ends. Decades later, The Lord of the Rings, which is a tragedy (see below), begins; it is one extremely long sustained tale, initially published as The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954) and The Return of the King (1955) and only later assembled in one volume (as originally conceived) as The Lord of the Rings (1968) [for subtitles and other data see Checklist]. It has been easy to misunderstand its central story as a quest, especially as Tolkien has at least one ancillary Hobbit use the term more than once in the text, and in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – see below – the Hobbit Pippin refers bumblingly to the Fellowship's embarking on a "Venture. Quest. Thing." But the only line of story in the vast expanse of the novel that could convincingly be described as one is the Parody quest of the Nazgûl (servitors of the Dark Lord Sauron) in search of the Ring of Power which Bilbo had stolen decades earlier in all ignorance of its devastating true nature. There is nothing to be searched for in the main narrative of The Lord of the Rings, which is instead a story of obedience, not discovery: the Ring must be returned to the place where it had been forged – that place being the volcano Orodruin, or Mount Doom, whose location is known to all – and there melted down in the prior knowledge – which is shared by all – that its destruction will put an end to the numinous Third Age, itself a pale shadow of earlier Ages (see Time Abyss), and bring about the Age of Man, with all Magic fled and the world, now perceived as a planet circling a sun, undefended from Homo sapiens's dreaded husbandry.

The Lord of the Rings is a tale whose affectual climax comes at the point of aftermath. That it is not an allegory as such (Tolkien always denied any allegorical intent) may readily be granted; but the fact that its inception can be dated to the trenches of World War One is not trivial, nor is it trivial that the Age of Man could be understood, by a traumatized participant in that War, as desperately vacant of grace. But though it is not specifically allegorical, the whole history retold and concluded in The Lord of the Rings seems to present an explanation by analogue for the descent of Homo sapiens, as the twentieth century proceeded, into "triumphs" of spiritual penury. Saruman's raping of The Shire may not be allegorical of the industrial revolution, which remade the old world – Saruman, like his master Sauron, being inherently incapable of the act of creation, even of something vile – but it certainly resembles an industrial revolution whose only raison d'être is to devour.

The concept of the Secondary World, which The Lord of the Rings embodies in definitive form, was best articulated in "On Fairy-Stories", a 1939 lecture Tolkien expanded for Essays Presented to Charles Williams (anth 1947) ed anon C S Lewis, and further expanded for its appearance in Tree and Leaf (coll 1964 chap); with several other essays, it was later assembled as The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (coll 1983). The notion of the secondary world, as Tolkien first defined and later embodied it, builds of course on the work of earlier writers of Fantastika: William Morris, Lord Dunsany, possibly James Branch Cabell, and certainly E R Eddison, among others, had been creating partially autonomous worlds of the imagination since before the turn of the century; but Tolkien, through precept and example, gave final definitive legitimacy to the use of an internally coherent and autonomous built world as a venue for the play of story. A fully imagined secondary world is, in theory, nothing more than a world which has been created by its teller, and which is governed by internally consistent rules to which the reader gives credence, and in terms of which anything can be believed – in which, as a random example, a "green sun will be credible", as Tolkien puts it in "On Fairy-Stories" – as long as that which is believed in is livable. For the sf/fantasy writers who followed Tolkien, this assertion of autonomous livability was of very great importance. Though other authors, like Austin Tappan Wright, had created autonomous Secondary Worlds, and though sf writers had for some time been domesticating the future in terms not altogether dissimilar, The Lord of the Rings marked the end of apology. No longer was it necessary – or for that fact easy – for writers to feel any lingering need to "normalize" their worlds by framing them, in sf terms, as Fantastic Voyages or Timeslip tales or Utopias; or, as happened so frequently in all forms of Fantastika before World War One, as dreams to be awoken from. For aftermath authors like Tolkien and his compeers (including C S Lewis and others less well-known, such as David Lindsay or Hugh Lofting), to awaken from the "dream" of the fantastic is to return to the shamefulness of the real world after 1918. It is not an "escape from prison" – the phrase comes from "On Fairy-Stories" (see above) – but a return to prison. The Lord of the Rings is fuelled from a refusal to return. Frodo is a creation of anger.

In the end, for Tolkien, the inherent seriousness of the underlying story he had to tell, within the fertile ground of his Secondary World, may have been at the heart of his refusal to recognize any allegorical element in his work; or, for that matter, to provide any access to his World for tourists (there are no portals into Middle-earth). Unless the reader fully inhabited that World, the tragedy of its diminishment into the Age of Man could not be lived: for tragedy can only be lived, not taught. The defiance that infuses The Lord of the Rings indeed climaxes, after many pages, in tragedy, in the death of the Third Age. The contrast with C S Lewis's Narnia books is telling. It may be for that reason that much twenty-first century work seems closer in spirit to Tolkien (and to contemporary British authors in the tradition of the Scientific Romance) than to the sf beginning to take shape in America.

The popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings inevitably led to various media adaptations. The BBC Radio serial The Lord of the Rings (1955-1956) had twelve instalments, long lost; a new Radio 4 version in 26 parts followed in 1981, while The Hobbit (1968) was an eight-part Radio 4 production. In Cinema, The Hobbit (1967) is a very loose cartoon adaptation written and directed by Gene Deitch, only partly animated and running for less than twelve minutes. More faithful to the original is The Hobbit (1977), an animated Television special directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. The animated film The Lord of the Rings (1978) directed by Ralph Bakshi [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], based on The Fellowship of the Ring with material from The Two Towers, was a financial success but did not complete the story, instead using the second volume's Battle of Helm's Deep as its climax; no sequel followed. The full narrative was eventually dramatized as the big-budget live-action trilogy The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003) directed by Peter Jackson, who went on to inflate The Hobbit, risibly beyond the modest scale of the book, into a further trilogy: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). The Amazon/New Line Television series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022-current) is a prequel set thousands of years earlier in the Second Age of Middle-earth, loosely based on portions of Tolkien's appendices to The Lord of the Rings; though the makers were contractually barred from drawing directly upon The History of Middle-earth, the sequence does clearly draw upon – without conspicuously contradicting – the concurrently published The Fall of Númenor: And Other Tales from the Second Age of Middle-earth (coll 2022), which includes "legendarium" material from The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and elsewhere.

Tolkien was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2013. [JC]

see also: Adventure; Children's SF; Computer Role Playing Game; Computer Wargame; Ditmar Award; Fanzine; Gandalf Award; Heroic Fantasy; Play by Mail; SF Music; Sword and Sorcery.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

born Bloemfontein, Orange Free State [now Free State Province, South Africa]: 3 January 1892

died Bournemouth, Dorset: 2 September 1973




Not all revised editions of The Hobbit, some of them featuring very minute changes, are given below. The Lord of the Rings was not conceived and written as a sequence but as a single novel, though it was initially published in three parts with separate titles; it is not, however, registered below in our usual format for describing a series, as Tolkien, composing the work many decades ago, could have had no idea that The Lord of the Rings might be understood as one. Revisions made for copyright reasons are not given below. For full coverage of the complex publishing history of both titles, plus coverage of minor titles not listed here, see about the author below; see in particular Wayne G Hammond and Christina Scull. The J R R Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader's Guide (2006).

Middle-earth: The History of Middle-earth

individual titles (selected)

nonfiction (selected)

translations (selected)

about the author

Books about Tolkien and his work are very numerous, so much so that a separate category of annual Mythopoeic Awards for fantasy is devoted solely to works of scholarship about him, C S Lewis and other members of the Inklings. A selection of titles is given here:


previous versions of this entry

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