The great thing about reading fiction is the escapism involved: open a good book, and we enter a different world, with new characters, places, and moods. For a few hours, or days, we disappear into an entirely separate universe and forget about our own lives and problems. Fantasy fiction takes the concept to an entirely original level, and if it’s particularly hard-hitting and vivid fantasy it hits several spots. One writer who took the genre to a hitherto unreached level saw his big first success exactly eighty years ago.
Born in South Africa on 3 January 1892, when he was just three John Ronald Reuel Tolkien moved with most of his family to Birmingham, but his father died of rheumatic fever the following year before he could join them. It would be a childhood featuring a lot of reading and adventure, with his mother Mabel Tolkien encouraging the young Ronald to delve into books. The family eventually settled at Sarehole, and Tolkien frequently went exploring places like the Moseley Bog, Sarehole Mill and the Malvern Hills, places that remained long in his memory and served to inspire him in his writing. Such places included his aunt Jane’s house, which was called Bag End…
Tolkien’s main love turned out to be languages, and he later learned Latin, Esperanto, and Old English. He went on to study English language and literature at Exeter College, Oxford, and, to the alarm of his relatives and friends, insisted on finishing his degree before joining up in the First World War (he ultimately enlisted in 1915, after gaining a First).
The War served to cast a long shadow over Tolkien, his circle and his work – as it did millions of others, of course. He saw action during the Battle of the Somme, but before the year was out he was “invalided back to Blighty” with trench fever, a disease caused by lice – though this illness may well have saved his life. The ten million military dead around the world included two of his closest friends among the literary circle.
On being demobilized, Tolkien returned to academia, studying the Finnish and Icelandic languages and the countries’ respective medieval mythologies. He became a Professor of Anglo-Saxon and in 1925 was made a Fellow of Pembroke College. His fascination with mythology resulted, in 1931, in his jotting on paper while marking exam papers, the words ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…‘, and by the end of the following year the story was finished – though he showed it first to his friends among Oxford academics first (including C S Lewis) before submitting it to a publisher.
When it was published, on 21 September 1937, The Hobbit received near-unanimous acclaim in both the UK and the US. It received, the following year, the Best Juvenile Fiction of the Year award from the New York Herald Tribune, and W H Auden later called it “one of the best children’s stories of this century.” As even non-Tolkien fans know, The Hobbit was only the beginning of his success: its popularity among readers of all ages would later spawn an even more spectacular sequel in the form of The Lord of the Rings. Both books would be recommended by generations of teachers to pupils who hadn’t yet tackled Dickens or Shakespeare. What’s more, both novels would be made into multi-billion-selling blockbuster movies in the next century.
Moreover, for those who have tended to dismiss fantasy literature as not “proper” fiction, the plaudits were (and still are) well deserved. Even if you tend to shy away from stories about elves, goblins, and magical rings of power, both The Hobbit and its much bigger sequel do contain compelling tales. They recount thrilling stories of a diminutive hero who discovers hitherto-untapped reserves of courage to go on a dangerous journey, and ultimately prove the key to securing a peaceful and just future not just for him and his people, but for his friends among other races. The lesson is learned belatedly by the doomed Dwarf-lord Thorin Oakenshield in his final words to Bilbo, towards the end of the novel:
There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.