The following is adapted from an essay written by Austin Olney, Tolkien’s editor at Houghton Mifflin for many years, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit:
Those who know and love the works of J.R.R. Tolkien know also that they stand on their own and need no further explication or justification. Still, their vision is so powerful, their complexity so engaging, and their consistency and originality so unlike any other individual vision that one can’t help speculating on how they came into being.
Tolkien’s childhood was not a happy one. He was born in South Africa, where his father was a businessman, in a setting far from the Shire, but he moved to England with his mother while still an infant. As a schoolboy he discovered a love of language and was fortunate to have two young cousins who shared their made-up languages with him. One was “Animalic,” which used many animal names for words (for example, “Dog nightingale woodpecker forty” meant “You are an ass”).
Tolkien’s mother died when he was twelve, and at sixteen he went to live with a couple who took in boarders — one of whom, Edith, became his friend and eventually his wife.
As a student at Oxford, he struck up a friendship with C. S. Lewis, who was later to be a fellow professor at Oxford, and with whom he shared his thoughts about myths, languages, and storytelling. Lewis said, “Myths are lies even though lies breathed through silver.” “No,” said Tolkien, “they are not.” They discussed such matters extensively over the years, for when Tolkien married and he and his wife had children, he found that, like Lewis, he had a gift for storytelling.
John, the Tolkiens' eldest son, often had difficulty falling asleep. When he was lying awake, his father would come and sit on his bed and tell him tales of Carrots, a boy with red hair who climbed into a cuckoo clock and went off on a series of strange adventures.
In this fashion Tolkien discovered that he could use his imagination, which at this time was creating the complexities of The Silmarillion , to invent simple stories. He had an amiably childlike sense of humor, and as his sons grew older this manifested itself in the noisy games he played with them — and in the stories he told Michael, his youngest son, who was troubled by nightmares. These tales were about the irrepressible villain Bill Stickers, a huge hulk of a man who always got away with everything. His name was taken from a notice on an Oxford gate that said “Bill Stickers Will Be Prosecuted,” and a similar name provided the source of the righteous person who was always in pursuit of Stickers, “Major Road Ahead.”
So it was that during the 1920s and 1930s Tolkien’s imagination was running along two distinct courses that did not meet. On one side were the stories composed for the amusement of his children. On the other were the grander themes, sometimes Arthurian or Celtic, but usually associated with his own legends. Meanwhile, nothing was reaching print, beyond a few poems in an Oxford magazine, which indicated to his colleagues that Tolkien was amused by dragons’ hoards and funny little men with names like Tom Bombadil. A harmless pastime, they felt, if a little childish.
Something was lacking, something that would bring the two sides of the imagination together and produce a story that was at once heroic and mythical and at the same time tuned to the popular imagination. Tolkien was not aware of this lack, of course; nor did it seem particularly significant to him when the missing piece fell into place.
It was on a summer’s day in the 1930s, and he was sitting by the window in his study, laboriously marking School Certificate exam papers. Years later he recalled: “One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner), and I wrote on it: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that’s only the beginning.”
“One writes such a story,” said Tolkien, “out of the leaf-mold of the mind,” and while we can still detect the shape of a few of the leaves — his alpine trek of 1911, the goblins of the “Curdie” books of George Macdonald, an episode in Beowulf when a cup is stolen from a sleeping dragon — this is not the essential point of Tolkien’s metaphor. One learns little by raking through the compost heap to see what dead plants originally went into it. Far better to observe its effect on the new and growing plants that it is enriching. And in The Hobbit the leaf-mold of Tolkien’s mind nurtured a rich growth with which only a few books in children’s literature can compare.
J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, at the age of eighty-one. It is a long way from “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” at the beginning of The Hobbit , to Sam’s satisfied sigh at the end of The Lord of the Rings : “Well, I’m back!” And fortunately Sam and all the others — a whole world, Middle-earth, full of them — are still with us more than a half-century after the beginning of it all, and indeed will be with us forever.
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