Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892 to wealthy parents, and was brought to England in 1895. During the First World War, he fought at the Battle of the Somme, and survived unhurt, but two of his closest friends and members of his first literary society, the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), were killed in combat. In the 1930s he formed the literary society of the Inklings which included such notable authors as Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis. In this society, these men exchanged ideas and held discussion on diverse topics such as philology and "Fairy Stories". As a direct result of these conversations, The Hobbit came to be written in 1937. In the period between 1939 and 1949 he came to write The Lord of the Rings. Before writing The Lord of the Rings he wished to complete the history of Middle Earth, so he would have an historical background upon which he could build his literary work.
Ironically, Tolkiens real joy - his love of languages - was eclipsed by his reputation as a writer of the most important fantasy stories of this century. Indeed, most people do not know that Tolkien was an Oxford "don" for nearly fifty years, and the leading philologist of his days. He was a philologist in the literal sense of the word: a lover of language. After learning Latin and Greek, Tolkien taught himself some Welsh, Old and Middle English, Old Norse and Gothic. Later he added Finnish to his list of beloved languages. Tolkien exercised his philological talents in creating all of his tales, from the early beginnings of the Silmarillion to The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien wrote of the time during which The Lord of the Rings came to be:
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my closest friends were dead. (1)
Tolkiens lifes work, the creation of Middle-Earth, encompasses a reality that rivals Western Mans own attempts at recording the composite, knowable history of his species. No Englishman has worked so successfully at creating a new secondary world, which is derived from our own, yet is so complete in its mythology and history. Not until the publishing of the Silmarillion in 1977, would anyone understand and appreciate the full measure of Tolkiens undertaking. In Chronicles of Culture, E. Christian Kopff writes, The philologist lives in the world of the partially lost or broken.(2) Tolkien felt there to be a lost mythology of Britain due to the Norman Conquest; i.e. a foreign race taking over and imposing their sense of history, beliefs as well as their social and literary structures. This sense of loss explains why Tolkien began to write The Book of Lost Tales in 1916, in order to create a mythology for England.
The literary forms of the Norman society were forced upon the very Celtic English background. For this reason, among others, Tolkien felt the English people had no body of connected legend of their own, as opposed to the ancient Greeks or the Celts who were steeped in a rich and varied mythology. Tolkien created the true tradition of England; he knew instinctively what it was like and how it should be. Over the fifty years of creation, this alternate mythology grew from one single story to a world, complete in all its senses.
So partly with the sense of mission and partly as an escape from the horrors of the First World War, he wrote a series of tales about the creation of the world and the coming of the Elves, of evil Melkor and the wars of Elves and Men against him. (3)
It can be said simply, that Tolkien wished to create a secondary world and histories, because there were no complete ones left in our world. They have all had their toll taken upon them through the passage of time - either having been destroyed by fire, water or just simply lost and forgotten because they were unrecorded. The realm of the past is an incomplete one, which disturbed Tolkiens love of totality and reality.
All great stories are essentially only about one thing:
Death and the inevitability of Death.(4)
Tolkien died on the 2nd of September 1973 due to complications resulting from a bleeding gastric ulcer and a chest infection. He is buried in the Catholic section of the Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford, next to his wife, Edith Mary Bratt. Their names on the shared tombstone are supplemented only by the words Luthien under Ediths name and Beren under J.R.R. Tolkiens. These are the only testament to Tolkiens magnificent creation of Middle-Earth spanning his entire lifetime.
Bordered on the west by the sea, and on the east by unexplored wastelands, the continent of Middle-Earth is separated down the middle by a great chain of mountains, the Misty Mountains. To the west of the Misty Mountains, there is a narrow swath of inhabited country reaching from the Grey Havens, where the Círdon Elves live, past the Shire, the ancient homeland of Hobbits to Breeland, which is inhabited by men and some Hobbits. From here the East-West Road runs through uninhabited country to Rivendell, The Last Homely House and home to Elrond Half-Elven. North and south of this narrow swath of land is barren wasteland, where in older times were the great kingdoms of Elves and Men.
To the east of the Misty Mountains is a great forest called Mirkwood; in the north of this forest is the home of the Wood Elves, one of the Races of Elves. Further south, cradled between spurs of the mountains is Lothlórien, home to the Galadhrim, the most noble of the Wood Elves. Far to the east of Mirkwood are the Iron Hills, an ancestral home of the Dwarven Race.
In the south, the realms of Gondor and Rohan are lands of civilised Men. Rohan is a wide grassland country, governed by warrior kings, ruling from Edoras. Gondor is to the south, being but a remnant of the ancient realm created by the Númenóreans, and now acting as a buffer against the evil might of Mordor. Due to the lack of a king, after the ruling line of Anárion had failed, Gondor has been ruled by a line of Stewards, who never claimed the crown for themselves. This period lasted for almost a thousand years, before the kingship was reclaimed by Aragorn, son of Arathorn, of the line of Isildur, at the end of the Third Age. Thereafter, he is known, for various reasons, as Elessar Telcontar (Striding Elfstone or Strider Elfstone).
Mordor, to the east, is a bleak desert wasteland, bordered on three sides - north, west and south - by impregnable mountain ranges. This plain is dotted with volcanoes, the hottest and g reatest of which, Orodruin, was used for the forging of the One Ring, the Ruling Ring. Mordor is governed by Sauron from the dark tower of Barad-Dûr.
Southwards and eastwards of the explored regions of Middle-Earth, there are vast unknown territories. To the south of Gondor are the lands of the Haradrim and Khandrim, also known as the Southron folk. These are fearsome Men who have been at war with Gondor since the landing of the Númenórean Ship-Kings. They are allied with Saurons evil designs for Middle-Earth, yet not much more is known about them in The Lord of the Rings.
None of the Mortal Races (Men, Dwarves and Hobbits) has any supernatural ability, which does not, however, hinder them in using magical artefacts created by the Magical Races of Elves or Wizards. Wizards and Elves can perform true magic, but cannot change the natural order of things. For instance, a dead creature is irrevocably dead. Not even the strongest magician can change this state of matter. To a lesser extent the Númenórean Men can perform some magic, being mainly restricted to feats of healing, far-sight and telepathy. Magic is a useful tool for the races of Middle-Earth - useful, but also deadly, as many orcs found to their dismay when challenging Gandalf.
In this context one should mention Tom Bombadil, Master of wood, water and hill. He is the eldest of all living creatures in Middle-Earth. Of himself he explains to curious hobbits:
Eldest, thats what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent.(5)
Tom Bombadil is a unique being, Oldest and fatherless as the Elves deemed him. In the first Age he was known to the Eldar as Iarwain Ben-Adar and was acknowledged the oldest of all creatures, under no laws save his own. To the Dwarves he is known as Forn and to the northern Men he is known as Orald. None save the Elves knew his true origins and by the Third Age many had forgotten he existed.
Tom could be seen as an institution of the Earths creators - a Gardener of the Earth, if you will. He watches the country and the happenings in the world, yet will not, as a rule, interfere with the course of things. Even though he could overthrow Sauron and all of his doings in the blink of an eye, he would not, as there is nothing to be gained from such a course of action, in his view. The inhabitants of Middle-Earth must fend for themselves, and he would never offer the remote possibility of being instated as a god for his deeds.
The Elves are also known as the Firstborn. In time, the Elves were affected by mortal lands and thus were divided into two main branches: the Wood-elves, who loved forests, and the Western-elves, who were summoned to dwell in Eldamar. Those kindred among the Elves who were not thus summoned were known as the Lesser Elves. Two of the three kindred that were summoned followed the call, and sailed west across the sea, but the third kindred, the Sindar or Grey-elves lingered in Middle-Earth. The Elven Race was now divided into three: Wood-elves, Grey-elves and High-elves (those who sailed to Eldamar). The second kindred, the Noldor, were not content with life in Eldamar, and thus returned in exile, to Middle-Earth.
All Elves in Middle-Earth adopted Sindarin, the language of the Sindar, for daily use. The original language of the High-elves, Quenya, was still used, however, for ceremony and high matters of lore and song. All elven languages are musical in sound, yet hard for mortal tongues to pronounce correctly, rather like Welsh and Gaelic today.
In stature, Elves are tall and thin, their features being fine-boned and sharp. Their preferred weapon is the longbow, with which they are a deadly shot. They can move soundlessly over any terrain, and, as is demonstrated by Legolas, can move over snow without sinking in.
Their language, Khuzdul, has never been learnt by members of any other race, as they keep it secret and treasure it as a remnant of their past. They have a tradition of outward and inward names: the outward names being of a Westron origin and for all the world to know, while their inward names are only for other dwarves to know. These inner, true names are never revealed to any one of alien race, not even on their tombs.
Dwarves are by nature short and stocky, tough and strong, lovers of craft-work and of stone, gems and metal. They never forget a kindness yet they are fierce fighters when wronged. They fight with broad-headed axes; they will willingly slaughter Orcs all day long, yet once an injustice is revenged, they will return peacefully to their workbenches. They are known and renowned for their craftsmanship in all realms of Man and Beast.
After the downfall of Númenor, the Númenóreans returned to Middle-Earth and became lords of the Men still living there. These were, as has already been mentioned, the Lesser Men, who had developed their own culture - yet not to the same extent as that of those who had been aided by the Elves. These Lesser Men were separated into two classes: the Middle Men, the Rohirrim, Masters of Horses, and the like; and the Wild Men, those primitive peoples populating the high mountains and the deep forests.
The languages of Men were varied. The Númenóreans spoke both Sindarin and Adûnaic on the Isle of Westernesse, yet when they returned to Middle-Earth, Adûnaic was mixed with the languages of lesser Men, thus becoming the Common Speech, also known as Westron. This language is now the language commonly spoken by all inhabitants of Middle-Earth for communication between Races. The Rohirrim still speak their own language among themselves, which is related to the Adûnaic of the Númenóreans.
All men who are descended from the Dúnedain are dark and swarthy, tall and strong. The Men of the Rohirrim are tall, slighter in build and fair. A trait common to all men is the ability to discern between good and evil. Most men are courageous, honourable and true to their word. This applies also to those men of the South and east allied with Saurons designs. The Númenórean descendants can discern the truth and, to a certain degree, are claimed to have the ability to see into the future, as well as to far off places by intuition.
The name Hobbit is the one they used for themselves, derived from the ancient word hol-bytla, meaning hole-dweller or hole-builder. By Men they are called Halflings, due to their diminutive stature, half the height of a man; and in the same vein, the Elven name for them is Periannath. Curiously, this name has remained in the language of Gondor in a worn-down form as perian, meaning Halfling prince - even though Halflings have long become a legend believed only by the wise.
As a rule Hobbits are home-loving, conservative and parochial beings. They are lovers of good food, ale and pipe-weed. They are blessed with sturdy furry feet, which no doubt helped Frodo and his friends in their long quest. They have a strong sense of family and tradition.
Of Hobbits, Tolkien writes in his prologue to The Lord of the Rings:
Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a watermill, or a handloom, though they were skilful with tools. [...] Their faces were as a rule goodnatured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking. (6)
Their language is commonly called the Black Speech, and is a foul variation on the beautiful language of the Elves. Yet each different tribe has its own (for others) unintelligible dialect, so therefore for communication in greater bands of Orcs, the Common Speech is used. However they even manage to mangle this simple language to incomprehensibility.
Depending on how different Orcs have developed or for which purpose they were bred, there is a great range of diverse types of Orc. The great fighters, The Uruk-Hai, were bred solely for the purpose of being able to fight on an even standing with Men and Elves. They can ignore the sun and light, unlike most other types of Orc. The Goblins of Mordor and the Misty Mountains are small in stature - of similar size to a Hobbit or a Dwarf - and rather cowardly except in great numbers. This is a trait which is common to all Orcs: while not fearing great losses when in a large band, they are distinctly frightened of anything that could harm them when alone. Orcs have no love for anything beautiful and have an unhealthy love of destruction and killing.
We are tree-herds, we Ents - sheep get like shepherd and shepherds like sheep, but it is quicker and closer with trees and Ents.(8)
Ents are amazingly strong, having the same power that tree roots have, yet not spread over scores of years, but in the space of a few seconds. They have a deep aversion to being hasty, as their life spans many thousands of years. They each resemble the family of trees from which they are descended. Originally they were tree-herders, but since the Elder Days, which was their flowering period, they have declined and many Ents have forsaken the world and returned to being trees. Yet rumour has it that there are still some Ents alive in the great forest of Fangorn, which is a magical forest whose dark depths are entered - yet not always exited - only by the very brave or extremely foolish.
The Great Eagles are noble birds, swift, proud and independent, yet at the same time cruel and merciless to their foes. They are true allies to the race of Men and Elves, and if they have not all died, then they dwell still in the heights of the Misty Mountains.
The belief system in Lord of the Rings is similar in form to the belief system of the ancient Germanic races in central Europe during the Bronze and Iron Ages. The burial customs of the peoples of Middle-Earth as well as the reverence of their ancestors is very similar to the cult rituals of the ancient Germanic cultures. Tolkien probably used this form of belief system in order to show the distinct difference between good and evil. While the Christian view is somewhat muddied, the pagan view is very simple: Those who have no cult rituals cannot be good, for they have no respect for their dead.
Tolkien used the evocative power of language to create his English legend. The names he created for his characters are so-called speaking names. Gandalf, for instance, consists of two Norse words: gandr, a magical implement or staff, and alfr, an elf. Gandalf is therefore an elf with a magical staff, or a wizard. Gollum can be derived from the Old Norse word gull, meaning gold, treasure, something precious or even ring, of which an inflected form might be gollum. This may or may not have been intentional on Tolkiens part in the beginning, but the thought must have occurred to him at some point during his writing.
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