The Nature Of Greatness

I had an argument with a friend of mine on the nature of greatness. According to him greatness, once achieved, was not marred by any precondition. I disagreed. It was somewhat too easy for people like Louis XIV or Alexander the Great to achieve great things – their fathers have laid the groundwork. True greatness lies in taking over your fate, in succeeding against all odds, in facing difficulties at any step of the road and still preserving your focus and willpower. John Tolkien is one of my favourite examples for such a man.

There is hardly anybody in our Western society who does not know the name Tolkien. The author of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy redefined, or to be even more precise – created the genre of fantasy. He was a living legend in England, not only for his literary works, but for his academic achievements as well. One might expect that Tolkien had an aristocratic background, or was the offspring of a wealthy trading mogul.

Nothing of the sort. Tolkien grew up as an orphan, on the very edge of poverty, he fought in the muddy trenches of Normandy, saw the hell of the Somme offensive and yet he became what we all know and love. So how did it happen?

Early Formative Years

We have to go as far back as the 3rd of January, 1892. In Bloemfontein, in the provinces later to become Republic South Africa John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born. His father Arthur died when he was four, leaving the family with literally no income. Mabel Tolkien, now widow, returned to England and settled with her two children in the grim countryside close to Birmingham. Many Tolkien experts claim that the main inspiration for the landscapes of Mordor were precisely the grim Midlands, but there was another event that defined little John’s childhood – the death of his beloved mother in 1904, when he was just 12.

Now we have to pay attention to certain facts. The British social system at the beginning of the century was very far from perfect. The options for a 12-year old orphan boy were very grim, almost Dickens-like. But Tolkien had already shown a remarkable, almost hard to grasp gift for languages – he was fluent in Latin and Greek and obviously had a great academic future ahead of him, should he get the chance to fulfill his talents.

It was at this moment that Fate, or Providence, or whatever you want to call it stepped in. Tolkien’s mother, against the will of her family took up the catholic faith and so did her children (one of the reasons Tolkien was so early fluent in Latin). When she died, the parish priest Father Francis Morgan made sure the two boys were not sent to an orphanage and he used all his acquaintances to grant young John a full scholarship for the Exeter College.

The four years in Oxford resulted in proficiency in the Classics, as well as a deep knowledge of the Old Northern European Languages, namely Finnish, Old German and Gothic. It was at this very time, during a research, that he came upon an old Finnish verse: “Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men”. It was the beginning of a legend…

The Nightmare Of The Threnches

John Tolkien in 1916In June 1915 Tolkien achieved a full-class degree from Oxford. He was already deep in his linguistic ventures, working on a fictional language, based heavily on old Finnish. Tolkien decided to call it Qenya (later known as high-elven). But the grim clouds over Europe took their toll. As most men of his generation all around the continent, Tolkien was to face the gravest challenge of his life – the hell of the trench warfare.

One can only imagine what it was like for a 24-year old Oxford graduate with artistic talent and rich imagination to go to Normandy. By the end of the Somme offensive all but one of his closest friends was alive. Out of the desperation and repulsiveness of war came the first true gems of Tolkien’s genius – many of the stories in Book of Lost Tales, and certainly the most tragic of them – the rise of Morgoth, the fall of Gondolin, the epic tales of Beren and Luthien, the tragedy of the Children of Hurin. When you read Silmarillion you can almost feel the grim desperation of the trenches, the rebellious spirit of youth against the futile atrocities of war. There is very little hope in these chapters of Tolkien’s heritage.

Yet he survived. He managed to keep his sanity and to move on, a feat worth mentioning. He married his long-lasting love Edith Bratt, and in 1920, at the age of just 28, he earned the position of an Associate Professor in English Language at the University of Leeds. It was the beginning of an illustrious career.

Back To Oxford

In 1925 John Tolkien became Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, the youngest ever to hold this post. At this time he was already the happy and proud father of two sons – Christopher and Michael. Later, in 1929, his daughter Priscilla was born. The children asked their father for bedtime stories and he never managed to refuse them. He told them fabulous tales of gnomes, dwarves, elves and hobbits. These, however, were very different in spirit from his earlier, darker tales. Tolkien often put these bedtime stories in writing and his Oxford friends (among them C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia) urged him to shape them in a book.

Middle Earth Takes Shape

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. This is how it all begins. In 1937 The Hobbit was published, and to the great surprise of his publishers, as well as Tolkien himself, it became an instant and huge success. Just a year after the publication The Hobbit was named the best-selling children book of the new century. The publishers wanted more. They wanted a sequel of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. Tolkien agreed. He had a lot of material in his notepads, but the longer he worked, the more he was convinced he would Fellowship Of The Ringnot create just another bedtime story.

When Stanley Unwin, Tolkien’s publisher saw The Lord Of The Rings trilogy for the first time he was horrified. He had asked for a sequel of a children book and he got… What exactly? It was hard to describe it. It was not an adventure story. It was not a war book. It was not for children. It was huge – more than a thousand pages with all the appendices. No sane publisher would agree to go for that book. Yes, Tolkien was greatly liked by the British audience, but The Lord Of The Rings was a recipe for disaster.

Then Fate intervened again. Unwin came with the original idea to separate the book into three, he had very hard time selling the idea to Tolkien, but he finally overcame. As for the rest… Well, you all know what happened afterwards.