Sunday, January 3, 2010

One To Create Them All

Magnet # 133:  Lord of the Rings:  The Two Towers Poster

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Me

Writer J.R.R. Tolkien was born on this day in 1892 in South Africa, of all places.  His family was there because his father, a banker from England, had been put in charge of the local branch.  He later moved back to England at about the age of three with his mother and brother.  His father was scheduled to join them, but he died of rheumatic fever before he could travel home.  The family was impoverished by his death, but his mother did all in her power to make certain her sons were properly educated, sending young Tolkien to King Edward VI school, educating him at home, and encouraging him to read the works of authors such as H.G. Wells and George MacDonald.  He also began exploring the local farms, towns, and villages, many of which would later find their way into his writings.  His mother also converted to the Roman Catholic Church, a move which prompted her Baptist family to disown her.  When she died not long after from diabetes, Tolkien would regard her as a martyr for her faith, a view which made him especially devoted to the Church.  Now an orphan, he and his brother were left to the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan, who eventually placed them in a boarding home for orphans.  There, he would meet Edith Bratt, a fellow orphan with whom he fell in love.  However, as she was Protestant, Father Morgan disapproved of the match and forced Tolkien to leave her until he was 21, threatening to cut off his University career if Tolkien did not obey.  On the day of his 21st birthday, he wrote to Edith, declaring his love, and asking her to marry him.  Although she was engaged to another, she called it off and married Tolkien, even converting to Catholicism at his insistence.  When they were married in 1916, it wasn't long before he was shipped off to the front lines of France for World War I.  He contracted trench fever and was confined to hopitals and garrisons for the rest of the war, which may very well have saved his life.  Most of his childhood friends died in the conflict.

After the War, Tolkien eventually became a professor at the University of Leeds.  One night, while grading exam papers, he opened an exam booklet to discover the student had left the first page blank.  Spontaneously, he began to write down what would later become the opening of his first novel, The Hobbit.  When the story was finished, Tolkien passed the manuscript onto a couple friends.  Eventually, it came into the hands of Stanley Unwin,  the editor at George Allen & Unwin.  He paid his son a shilling to review it, and after he praised it, Unwin published the book.  The book was an instant success and the first printing sold out in less than 3 months.  Encouraged by his publishers, he began to write another collection of Middle-earth stories which would become The Silmarillion.  However, his publishers wanted to see more Hobbits, so Tolkien began work on what would become The Lord of the Rings.  When it was finished after over a decade of work, the manuscript was initially refused Collins Publishing, and by another editor at George Allen & Unwin when Stanley Unwin was out of the country on business.  But when his son, who was now grown and working there, found out about it, he contacted his father and once again championed Tolkien's work.  Unsure whether an adult book about Hobbits would sell, Unwin nonetheless divided it into three parts published it.  It received reviews ranging from the highest praise to outright disparagement.  Of course, it would later win over a vast audience, become a cultural phenomenon, and be dubbed by many as the greatest fictional work of the twentieth century.

All of his life, Tolkien had been gathering influences that would find their way into his trilogy.  As a child in South Africa, he was bitten by a large spider, and later a gigantic one was among the villains in his series.  The rural pastorals of England would also be echoed in his writings.  And the romantic, medieval art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, particularly that of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, which he encountered during his youth in Birmingham, would also inspire his future works.  The Church was also greatly influential to Tolkien's work, as was his wife Edith.  He often referred to her as his Luthien, one of his female protagonists in The Silmarillion, and called himself Beren, her love.  In fact these names are included on their tombstone.  Tolkien's service in World War I was the source on which he drew from for his battle scenes.  And, of course, the mythology of the Celts, Norse, Finnish, and other European cultures was a particularly important source of inspiration for the heroes, villains, and epic adventures her was to create.  And when he combined these sources and others with his impressive writing talent, he was able to create one of the greatest fictional works of his time.  Tolkien was never completely comfortable with the attention and adulation he received from his great deal of fans following The Lord of the Rings.  But his success would forever change the direction of fantasy literature, making it more popular than it had been in ages and inspiring both writers and artists to follow in his footsteps, including his friend, C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia.  Tolkien may have passed away in 1973, but if the massive popularity of the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the eager anticipation for The Hobbitfilm adaptation prove anything, it is that his influence on popular culture will most likely never die with him.

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