Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Tolkien (and the genre of high fantasy):

J. R. R. Tolkien is unquestionably the most influential figure in high fantasy, and I think it is not unreasonable to say that he and C.S. Lewis were the originators of the subgenre. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were both published during the mid-1950s. Earlier in their respective literary careers, Hobbit was published in 1937 and Perelandra in 1938, the former was not yet the fully-developed high fantasy of Lord of the Rings and the latter would be better described as science fiction. Tolkien and Lewis were good friends, of course, and often discussed their writings with each other.

The roots of Tolkien’s works lie primarily in medieval writings, especially Anglo-Saxon poetry and Norse epics like Beowulf and the Volsung Saga. Influences from farther afield, including the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, show up from time to time in his writings as well. Tolkien was, of course, a professor of Anglo-Saxon (and later of English language & literature) at Oxford, and was interested in poetry and languages since at least his late teenage years. In addition to being one of the all-time best selling authors in human history, he was an accomplished linguist, literary critic, and translator. The Book of Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible was translated by Tolkien, he made a complete translation of Beowulf as well as a highly influential lecture on it entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, he did etymologies of Germanic W words for the Oxford English Dictionary, he wrote a vocabulary of Middle English, and he published translations of three Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. One particularly interesting aspect of Tolkien’s writings, from a meta-literary perspective is that they are framed as a collection of writings which he discovered and translated from Elvish (Silmarillion and related works) and the Common Tongue of Middle Earth (the Red Book of Westmarch, written by Bilbo and Frodo– the former of whom translated some Elvish source material for use in the book). Truly an irrepressible enthusiasm for philology. Also, if you read Lord of the Rings out loud to yourself, you will find many examples where Tolkien wrote sentences that pretty much could have been lines of alliterative verse, the style of Old and Middle English that many poems were written in, including Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.

Tolkien believed the world suffered from disenchantment: that along with the modernization of the Industrial and Victorian eras had come a reduced sense of wonder at the world, and a diminished willingness to believe in the fantastic and the terrible. In his essay, On Fairy-Stories (seriously, read it, it’s great), he explained his views on faery-stories and the importance of fantasy and mythology. He felt that they had been tamed, that the connotation of “fairy” (he often used the spelling “Faery” or “Faerie”–the spelling was important to him, as a discriminating philologist) had become domesticated and defanged, something you would meet in your garden rather than a dark forest, something adorable rather than something which should make you tremble. He felt that such stories described the world on a spiritual plane in a way that mundane stories about the real world could not.

While at secondary school in the early 1910s, Tolkien and his three closest friends (Rob Gilson, G.B. Smith, and Christopher Wiseman) formed a private club they called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS for short. They talked about many things, including philology and poetry, which they also wrote and read for each other. After graduating from the boarding school, they remained in contact and visited each other. All of them considered the TCBS to be the center of their intellectual lives. It was during this period and his subsequent university education at Oxford that the seeds of his world began to grow. In 1914, he wrote a poem called The Voyage of Eärendel the Evening Star (published in the Book of Lost Tales 2), which later evolved into the culminating episode of the Quenta Silmarillion. It was based on a line of Anglo-Saxon poetry by Cynewulf. Tolkien later wrote that the name Earendil struck him as one that he could write stories about.

His influence on fantasy is profound– anything which has Orcs in it owes him for that invention, and anything with Elves or Dwarves (although both spellings exist prior to Tolkien, he is largely responsible for the thorough dominance of Dwarves and Dwarven rather than dwarfs and dwarfish) very probably owes him as well, since neither of those mythical beings had yet taken the well-defined shape that is present in Tolkien. Elves and Dwarves were ideas present in Norse/Germanic mythology, but their physical descriptions were generally quite vague or indeterminate, and “elfs” in particular could denote a wide variety of concepts of mythological beings, from frolicsome gnomes (which one can see in The Hobbit as well as some of Tolkien’s earlier writing) to wicked spirits which are responsible for causing illnesses (a view represented in lade medieval Britain). To Snorri Sturluson, the medieval Icelandic writer, dwarfs were dark-elves and light elves were what we might think of. In many cases both dwarfs and elves were thought of as simply beings which populated the unknown world on the periphery of human realms, hiding in mountain caves or deep forests, sometimes practically as animistic spirits, and rarely as the magnificent, ancient civilizations that Tolkien envisioned. Any time you see a representation of invariably bearded dwarves (which, let’s be honest, is any time you see dwarves), you’re seeing Tolkien’s influence. Elves being the noble, cultured, ancient elder race is also attributable to Tolkien– even in situations like the game Dragon Age, which another poster mentioned, where elves are a marginalized, formerly enslaved people, they were once much more powerful than humans. That game tries to buck a lot of standard high fantasy tropes (drawing on G.R.R. Martin’s work in part), but the key point is that it still existed within a context where it doesn’t even make sense to the player to use the word “elves” if they’re not going to be a noble ancient race. Authors like Rothfuss and Martin have specifically said that they’re trying to write something in high fantasy that isn’t a rehash of Tolkien. I’m deeply sorry for the 20-year-rule violations, but the magnitude of Tolkien’s influence is shown by the fact that until the last 20 years or so there were not many fantasy authors making a serious effort to do something wholly apart from Tolkien. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series had the first installment published in 1990 and was still clearly laden with Tolkien.

After graduating from Oxford in 1915, Tolkien proposed to Edith Mary Bratt, married her in early 1916, and in the summer of 1916 shipped off to serve as a signals officer in the Great War that was then raging on the mainland– a parting which caused both of them great distress, but it was just not very socially acceptable for a young, able-bodied man to refuse to serve in the war. He wrote the poem Kortirion Among the Trees while in a training camp in Britain in 1915– Kortirion would later become the Elvish city on the isle of Tirion lying off the coast of Valinor. Besides disease and hostile shells, one of the chief dangers of the trenches was boredom. Tolkien’s imagination had all the time it desired, and though it was nearly impossible to do any serious writing in the trenches, Tolkien nonetheless jotted down many an idea, which he would often expand upon during his time back from the trenches. “You might scribble something on the back of an envelope and shove it in your back pocket, but that’s all. You couldn’t write.. you’d be crouching down among flies and filth.” It was during this period that he first began to dream up the two languages that would become the Elvish languages Quenya (which he worked on first) and Sindarin (which came later, in 1917, as a derivative of Quenya). Earlier in his life he had played with inventing languages, but never so thoroughly (nor with such a grasp of linguistic change) as during the period immediately after WWI. His history of Arda (the world which includes Middle-Earth) began in part as an explanation of the historical migrations of the Elves that led to the linguistic relationship between Quenya and Sindarin. The other three members of the TCBS were aleady serving in WWI by the time Tolkien joined, and they stayed in correspondence with each other regularly, writing poetry to fill their time. Rob Gilson died in the first days of the Somme offensive, which weighed heavily on the surviving three. Also at the Somme, Tolkien witnessed the advent of the tank, which made a great impression upon him, serving as inspiration for the description of Balrogs and dragons overrunning the walls of the Elvish city of Gondolin. He began writing The Fall of Gondolin, the first prose story about Middle-Earth in 1917 on the back of some military sheet music. The poems he had written prior to that point tended to become incorporated into the legendarium later on, but did not begin as poems about this other world.

In late October of 1916 Tolkien caught trench fever and was sent home to England to recuperate; however, his health remained poor through the end of the war and he never saw combat again. Once convalescing, his output of writing began to accelerate, and his friend Christopher Wiseman, one of the three remaining members of the TCBS, wrote the following prescient letter to him:

I am convinced that if you do come out in print you will startle our generation as no one has as yet… Really it is presumptuous in me to say anything about the poems themselves, but I am afraid they will kill the dear old XIXth Century altogether.. Where you are going to lead us is a mystery.

Soon afterward, G.B. Smith received shrapnel wounds which became infected and gangrenous and died on Dec. 3rd, 1916, which left Tolkien and Wiseman as the only survivors of the “Immortal Four”. The brutality of the war was impressed deeply upon Tolkien, which shows in any of his descriptions of battles. There is an often-made analogy between the events of Lord of the Rings and the Second World War, in particular the identification of the Ring with the atomic bomb, the ultimate, tempting power which corrupts its user, but Tolkien specifically stated that was not correct (especially seeing as he began writing the tale before WWII even started, and was mostly done by the time Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed). He also confessed a “cordial dislike” for outright allegory, though he certainly drew imagery and elements of characters from many places, both in his own experience and from Northern European poetry and mythology. In the years following WWI, Tolkien tied together the various strands of his mythology into a whole vision of Arda, although he would continue to revise and add to it throughout his life– the Silmarillion was only published after he died and therefore stopped working on the various tales contained therein, and after his son Christopher (who is responsible for the publication of all of Tolkien’s manuscripts and letters regarding Middle Earth) compiled them. Anything that happened more than a decade or so after WWI happened after the key pieces of his world had already been put in place– the pieces that were eventually handed down to later legions of fantasy readers and writers. The Lord of the Rings may have been written from 1939 onward, but to Tolkien it was merely a tale of the latter years of Middle Earth– to any historian of Arda, it would seem an afterthought compared to the ruin of Beleriand or Numenor.

Quick, incomplete list of things in Tolkien’s works which are known to have direct influences:

  • The Shire obviously represents the pastoral English life to which he felt very strongly attached.
  • The Old Forest near Buckland was inspired by a bog near where Tolkien grew up
  • The Mere of Dead Faces was inspired by the battlefields of the Somme
  • Beren and Luthien are himself and his wife, their headstones are in fact inscribed with those names.
  • The dragons and Balrogs at the Fall of Gondolin were inspired by the tanks which made their debut at the Somme
  • Turin and his sword Gurthang have a correlate in the Kalevala with the character of Kullervo
  • The snow-covered Misty Mountains were inspired at least in part by a trip to the Alps
  • The images of industrial despoilment in The Scouring of the Shire were certainly drawn from Tolkien’s dislike for industrialization

[My sources are mainly Tolkien’s letters, essays, and Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth (an excellent biography that I recommend to anyone interested in Tolkien’s life).]


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