On July 29, 1954, the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy story ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ was published. Ever since it has cast a spell over generations of readers. The Lord of the Rings has become one of the most popular books of the last century. But, who was this Oxford professor for Anglo-Saxon and why in the world did he come up with this terrific and rather unusual piece of writing? Actually, Tolkien‘s publisher initially thought that this “work of a genius” would only lose money. But he was proven wrong…
It was World War I. In 1916 Tolkien was sent to France, where he and his fellow soldiers faced the terrifying new mechanisms of modern warfare – machine guns, tanks, and poison gas – fighting in some of the bloodiest battles known to human history. Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme, in which over a million people were either killed or wounded. There, in the trenches of World War I, Tolkien began recording the horrors of war that would later surface in ‘The Lord of the Rings‘. In the same year he caught trench fever, an illness carried by lice, and was sent back to England for convalescence. In this time he began writing down the stories and mythology of Middle-earth, which would later form the basis for ‘The Silmarillion‘, which builds the mythological foundation of his success stories ‘The Hobbit‘ and ‘The Lord of the Rings‘.
Interestingly, according to his own account, Tolkien came up with the idea of the Shire and its native inhabitants, the hobbits one day when he was engaged in the soul-destroying task of marking examination papers. When he discovered that one candidate had left one page of an answer-book blank, (nobody in the world knows why, but) he wrote the now famous first sentence ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit‘. And it all began…
In the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote, “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”Although he wrote ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ story during World War II and Tolkien always strongly denied that it was meant as an allegory for the wars, the story follows the rise of a great evil threatening to envelop the world. Also the ring was not meant to symbolize the ultimative weapon, i.e. the atomic bomb. Likewise, the characters Sauron and Saruman, although both tyrants, are imaginary characters and are not meant to represent Hitler or Stalin.
Moreover, Tolkien had a strong concern for nature and ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ reveals his critical voice against the evils of industrialisation and technology. While Saruman, the corrupt wizard, devastates the land and ancient forests as he builds up his army, the Elves, in contrast, live in harmony with nature, appreciating its beauty and power. Industrialization and technology can be identified with black magic. Treebeard, the Ent or tree-shepherd, says of Saruman, “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”
While the book first sold rather moderately after publication in England in 1954, it was not before the 1960s that the popularity of ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ suddenly exploded when a pirated version became available in the USA. Somehow, the story had hit a nerve. Readers recognized the resistance to political corruption and the preservation of the natural environment resonating as a challenge in their own lives. Even a sort of cult appeared, with people wearing buttons labeled FRODO LIVES or GANDALF FOR PRESIDENT.
At yovisto you might watch some old footage material of J.R.R. Tolkien talking about his world as well as Tolkien telling the story how he wrote the famous first line of ‘The Hobbit’ from a BBC series called ‘In their own words’.
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