Shortcut to Middle Earth: Your guide to Tolkien
JRR Tolkien did more than write The Lord of the Rings books. With a biopic due out this year, here’s a quick primer to the worlds he createdUpdated: Apr 27, 2019 17:39 IST
To be fair, The Lord of the Rings can be hard to like. It’s long, complicated, tediously heroic and (surely, I’ll earn the wrath of Sauron now) steeped too long in its own mythology. So despite the books’ popularity, the films’ success, pop culture references to rings, second breakfasts and 17 Oscars, JRR Tolkien and large parts of his world remain a mystery.
Help is on the way. A biopic on the writer’s early life comes out in May. In 2021, a five-season series set in Middle Earth will start to stream. How will you keep up, and stay on top of all the Tolkien talk to come? With this guide, my preciousssss.
First, meet the man
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wasn’t a full-time author. The South Africa-born Englishman lived in rural England, attended Oxford, fought in the First World War, and devoted his life to teaching Old and Middle English literature at the University of Leeds. He wrote books only to amuse himself – mostly dark, sad stories.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Edith, a woman who served as inspiration for some of his female characters.
Tolkien loved languages. He learnt Latin, French and German, picked up Greek, Middle English, Old English, Old Norse, Welsh, Finnish, Spanish, and Italian. As an adult, he’d gleaned enough Serbian, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Lombardic to get by. Then, he invented some alphabets and languages of his own, including Elvish, for his fantasy world of Middle Earth, where the Lord of the Rings is set.
Let’s get the trilogy out of the way…
There would have been no Lord of the Rings trilogy, if Tolkien hadn’t first written The Hobbit. And there would have been no Hobbit if, in the 1930s, one of Tolkien’s students hadn’t turned in a blank sheet of answer paper in a test.
The story goes that the author was grading the papers, a bit bored, when the blank sheet appeared, prompting him to write on it. Out of the blue, he penned the words: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The line stayed with him over the next few weeks, prompting him to imagine what hobbits were. And a children’s fantasy story – dragons, gold, quests and adventure – emerged.
- Two Elvish languages are available on the app Duolingo (though with limited syntax and grammar).
- Leonard Nimoy (yes, Spock) recorded a folk song called The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins for his 1968 LP, essentially recapping The Hobbit.
- In space, there’s an asteroid named Bilbo Baggins and another named for Tolkien. One of Saturn’s moons, Titan, has several features with names taken from the LOTR stories.
- On Earth, in Geldrop, a little Dutch neighbourhood every street has a Middle Earth reference: streets named Boromir, Aragorn, Éowyn, Legolas and Galadriel. You’ll find Mount Shadowfax, Mount Gandalf and Mount Aragorn in Canada.
- Archaeology has a dinosaur named Sauroniops (Eye of Sauron) it’s one of over 80 names – wasps, spiders, shrimp, frogs – in taxonomy that come from Tolkien or his works.
Tolkien gave his little book to a publisher. As it turned out, the timing was perfect. The Hobbit came out right in the middle of the Second World War. The wholesome tale of bravery, of men heading out on a mission and of an unlikely hero, resonated with readers. The publisher asked for a sequel. And only then did Tolkien think of writing the Lord of the Rings.
The trilogy came out over 1954 and 1955 and gained a cult following. Hippies loved the idea of a band of heroes taking on the system. Christians embraced the medieval themes and pageantry.
But Tolkien wrote so much more
Through his life, Tolkien wrote several academic papers, a Middle-English vocabulary, and contributed to the W section of the Oxford English Dictionary (thank him for the explanations for Waggle, Walnut and Wampum). He eventually also wrote the dictionary’s entry for Hobbit.
By the time he died in 1973, the ‘Tolkien hoard’, as academics call it, included sketches, maps and piles of stories that had never left his office. It’s only because his son, Christopher, tirelessly catalogued and organised his works (and at times filled in the gaps), that we have 30 more works to read and understand.
Bilbo’s Last Song, a poem Tolkien gifted to his secretary, was the first to be published posthumously. Tolkien’s dark and sorrowful stories were published as The Silmarillion in 1977. There are plays set in Middle Earth. There are new heroes, new locations and legends, and so many poems. One, BagmÄ BlomÄ (Flower of the Trees), might be the first original work in the Gothic language in over 1,000 years.
Christopher, 94, published the last piece only last year – his father’s earliest Middle Earth story, called The Fall of Gondolin, written in 1917, long before The Hobbit, but never completed.
Tolkien set the template
Imagine the most common elements of popular fantasy fiction – wizards in a medieval world, wands, potions, enchantments, noble quests and moral dilemmas. Tolkien has them all, and he spun them successfully into a complex parallel reality. You’ll see bits of this template in games like Dungeons & Dragons, in the Harry Potter stories, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea characters, Star Wars, and even Game of Thrones on TV.
He wasn’t a fan of his fans
Tolkien thought of The Hobbit and LOTR more as fun stories than his best works. He didn’t think most fans were capable of appreciating the depth of the ideas, language and myths he was presenting. He repeatedly stated that the Rings stories were not an allegory and that he “cordially detests” allegory.
His worlds are far from perfect
For all his popularity, Middle Earth has been criticised for being determinedly backward-looking, a world fuelled by feudalist ideals, a romanticisation of chivalry and often anti-change.
Plus, where are the women? It’s strange that a world that comes with its own languages, maps, myths, history and lineages did not have the space for more than a handful of women characters.
Before there was one blockbuster series to rule them all…
Tolkien’s work has been jumping out of books ever since The Hobbit was staged at an Edinburgh school in 1953. It’s been turned into plays, radio shows, graphic novels and video games.
But LOTR, long considered unfilmable because of its scale, has had several versions of its own. There are four radio shows, an odd-sounding one-man stage production, a musical and comics. The Beatles even tried to get Stanley Kubrick to direct a film version. Paul McCartney would have played Frodo, Ringo Starr would have been Sam, and George Harrison would have portrayed Gandalf.
An animated adaptation came out in the 1970s. But it was Peter Jacksons epics – three LOTR films and a three-part Hobbit – that have become the last word in putting the stories on screen.
See Tolkien’s own story
Set for a May release, the feature film Tolkien looks at the writer’s early life, artistic inspiration and friendships. It also touches on his love story – he married the woman he fell in love with as a student. Set in the years leading up to World War I, it includes the experiences that shaped his eventual ideas of heroism, loyalty, good and evil, that make their way into The Lord of the Rings and other stories set in Middle Earth.
The film, directed by Dome Karukoski, is written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. It stars Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien, with Lily Collins playing his love interest Edith Bratt.