Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. Tonight, we will continue our look into the life and works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Let’s pick right up where we left off last week, when Tolkien wrote the famous words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Let us remember that Tolkien spent most of his time during 1917-1918 in hospital, recuperating from the trench fever he had gotten in France. He passed the time by writing what we know now as The Silmarillion, and the large amount of time he spent writing this unexpectedly influenced his work that had begun with a scribble on a blank exam booklet page. Tolkien originally had no intention of connecting that scribble, which grew into his book The Hobbit, with anything he had already written in The Silmarillion. However, elements from his earlier work began showing up in The Hobbit. It became clear as the story developed that the worlds in which The Hobbit and The Silmarillion took place were one and the same; however, The Silmarillion took place long before The Hobbit.
It probably would have been possible to publish The Hobbit much earlier than actually happened; however, with this book Tolkien exhibited his characteristic streaks of perfectionism, self-dissatisfaction with his work, and outright laziness. He had technically completed the story in the mid-thirties, wrapping up the tale in story-telling sessions with his children. Getting the thing written was another matter entirely, and Tolkien slowed down considerably after writing the death of one particular character (I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but for those of you who have – I am referring to he who is felled by the one flaw in his armor). What did exist of the story in physical form was seen by very few people outside the family; incidentally, one of those people was a woman named Susan Dagnall, an employee of the London publishing house Allen & Unwin. The book deeply impressed her, and she asked Tolkien to complete and submit it for publication in 1937.
What happened next is one of those little events in history that must have seemed insignificant at the time but truly changed the lives of countless people later on. The head of the publishing firm, Stanley Unwin, was almost prepared to publish the book but decided to let his nine year old son, Rayner, read it first for review. Luckily for the world of literature, little Rayner loved the story, and so the very first edition of The Hobbit, featuring black-and-white illustrations by Tolkien himself, was made public to the world in 1937.The first printing of the tale sold out in three months – an incredible feat, especially at that time.
The enormous success of The Hobbit led Allen & Unwin to request a sequel to The Hobbit; perceiving a chance to finally complete and publish The Silmarillion, Tolkien submitted it to the firm. The Silmarillion, however, was rejected – readers, and thus the firm – wanted more stories about hobbits like Bilbo Baggins. This was how Tolkien began his next book, tentatively titled The New Hobbit. Tolkien admittedly had little idea of where he wanted to go with the book, aside from the fact that Gollum’s ring would play a substantial role; Frodo was originally called Bingo, and Strider was Trotter. By mid-summer 1938, his next story had gained considerable momentum, and the true power of Gollum’s ring was becoming more and more central to the story. It was thus that The Lord of the Rings was born.
Tolkien’s writing habits would plague the work done on The Lord of the Rings; the length of it, continuity of language and geography with his other writings on Middle-Earth, the interruptions everyone had to deal with during World War II, and his tendency to write and rewrite all worked together to slow down work on the new epic. Progress was so slow at some points that Tolkien began to genuinely fear he was suffering from writer’s block and that he would never finish either The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, his beloved but as-yet unfinished mythology for Britain.
You and I, as readers, historians, and Anglophiles, can thank the Inklings for the completion of The Lord of the Rings. This group, comprised of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Hugo Dyson, and C. S. Lewis’ brother Major Warren Lewis, closely resembled Tolkien’s earlier social groups the TCBS and the Coalbiters. They usually met twice a week, once at a pub called The Eagle and Child (or Bird and Baby to the Inklings) and once at C. S. Lewis’ home. It was here that The Hobbit had first been read aloud while in progress, and it was this group that first heard The Lord of the Rings as told by Tolkien. Recognizing the literary merit and potential of the work, Tolkien’s fellow Inklings strongly encouraged him to get it done – if effect, get off your arse (or on it) and write. This was reinforced immeasurably by Tolkien’s son Christopher, at this time in South Africa with the Royal Air Force. Ronald sent his son parts of his writings, and Christopher critiqued them and encouraged his father. Christopher didn’t want to hear fairy tales on his father’s lap – he wanted to read epic myths written by his father’s hand.
Bogged down by the effort of writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien set out one day in 1944 to write a new story, eventually entitled Leaf by Niggle. He actually wrote this one through to completion, and this finishing of a work in its entirety refreshed and re-energized Tolkien. He thus found himself with the willpower to finish The Lord of the Rings.
We have spent much time discussing Tolkien’s fictional writings, but the next year, 1945, bears mention of another of his accomplishments. It was during this year that Tolkien was elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. The young man smitten with an only slightly older Edith Bratt first arriving at Exeter College had now reached the pinnacle of his academic career.
If it didn’t outright repeat itself, history at least very closely resembled the events surrounding the publication of The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings was completed in 1947, but Tolkien kept making revisions and rewriting parts of it. By 1949, Tolkien had finally completed the work, but his ideas of publication led to a further delay. After having completed The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien saw its intimate connection with The Silmarillion and wanted to publish the two works at the same time. As The Silmarillion had been rejected by Allen & Unwin earlier, Tolkien began negotiations with Collins, another publishing firm. However, over the course of the next months and years, Collins wanted Tolkien to make cuts to the The Lord of the Rings that he was unprepared to make, and their feelings on The Silmarillion were, shall we say, less than stellar.
Tolkien’s negotiations with Collins broke down in 1952 and went back to Allen & Unwin, where little Rayner had grown up and begun working for the company. Rayner accepted The Lord of the Rings and, perhaps surprisingly, divided it up into the form we know today of 3 separate books with a continuous story. Although in the long run a great success for both Tolkien and the company, this would result in the world not seeing The Lord of the Rings as Tolkien had originally written it for years to come, even though it had been completed 3 years prior.
1954 saw the publication of the first two books, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, in August and November, respectively. Tolkien’s habit of revision and perfection delayed the publication of the third installment, The Return of the King, until October 1955. Ronald actually thought using the title “Return of the King” gave away too much of the plot, and actually wanted to call it “The War of the Ring.” However, his return to Allen & Unwin after the breakdown of negotiations with Collins was unconditional, and so by October 1955 the literary world was graced with The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It is interesting to note that the work received its largest audience in the United States ten years later, and originally received it without official permission. Ace Books published an edition without Tolkien’s (or Allen & Unwin’s) consent, which was not illegal at the time. Disregarding Tolkien’s desire for compensation, this is significant because it denied the author any royalties on the massive number of books being sold. Ballantine Books, the authorized publisher, put out an official edition later that year, and Ace Books agreed to pay Tolkien a royalty for each copy sold and not reprint their edition. Although it is unrelated to the overall story of Tolkien’s life, I should mention now that if you ever come across an Ace Book edition of any of The Lord of the Rings books, keep it forever (or send it to your favorite podcast host…). Anyway, back to the story. The royalties that Tolkien received from the sale of his trilogy must have been astounding for the man who spent most of his years on the lower edge of middle class – by 1968, three million paperback copies of The Lord of the Rings had been sold.
1959 saw the conclusion of Tolkien’s 34 years at Oxford. The Merton Professor retired, wanting to complete The Silmarillion (which, after the success of The Lord of the Rings, was finally desired by Allen & Unwin). However, the large amount of free time he now had allowed him to devote himself more to some other things he had long wanted to do, one of the top priorities being to spend more time with his wife after his years of hours spent in academic and literary discussion circles and holed away at his desk writing. The years following his retirement also saw the publication of some of Tolkien’s less well-known works, such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and translations of Middle English poems that Tolkien had begun years earlier.
If you recall a few minutes ago, we discussed the story Leaf by Niggle that Tolkien wrote during his Lord of the Rings writer’s block. Ronald found himself in the same situation with The Silmarillion, and thus the story Smith of Wootton Major was born in 1964.
In our examination of the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, we have largely ignored his wife Edith. However, in 1968 the two moved to Bournemouth on the English coast so that Edith could be near her friends and enjoy the agreeable weather. Although late in life, this must have delighted Edith – she no longer had to live in Oxford where Tolkien was king, she had her friends close to her, and Ronald had much, much more time to spend with her. Edith enjoyed life in Bournemouth for three years before her death in November 1971. Perhaps out of mourning, perhaps out of a desire to go home, Tolkien returned to Oxford.
In 1972 Queen Elizabeth made J.R.R. Tolkien a Commander of the British Empire, and Oxford gave him honorary Doctor of Letters degree. Tolkien was receiving the well-deserved admiration and recognition to his contribution to the world of literature and the imagination of so many people, in all places and of all ages.
By this time, The Silmarillion had been in progress for 55 years, and Tolkien knew he could not complete it – besides, it was in such a jumbled state that it would take months, if not years, just to sort it out. He also knew that Britain’s high estate taxes would take most of any royalties he would receive from its publication upon his death, and so if it ever were to reach the public and provide financial reward to his inheritors, it would have to be done by his executor. Tolkien appointed his son Christopher, by now a long-time member of the Inklings, as his literary executor with instructions to complete The Silmarillion after Tolkien died.
In late summer 1973, Tolkien was back in Bournemouth to visit friends. It was then that it became possible for Christopher Tolkien to complete his father’s book; on 2 September, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died.
A description of Tolkien’s funeral from Daniel Grotta’s biography of the author and teacher does a wonderful job of portraying the occasion. (For the passage read here, see: Grotta, Daniel. The Biography of J. R. R. Tolkien. Philadelphia: Running, 1978. p. 156)
Their headstone, with its reference to the love story in The Silmarillion, proves Tolkien’s commitment to his original mission, a mythology for Britain. It reads:
Edith Mary Tolkien
Four years after his death, the work Tolkien began while in hospital during and after World War I finally saw publication. Christopher Tolkien finished the tale for his father, and it was finally published in 1977. It was 60 years in the making.
That’s it for this episode of British History 101. The approach that I originally took on producing this episode came in the form of two weeks – one for research, and one for writing. I have found this to be greatly advantageous, and I am going to use this format for a trial period to see if it fits well with our show. I would invite anyone to email me their thoughts and suggestions on this; how do you feel about an episode every two weeks? Along with your questions, comments, rants, and raves, email me at BritishHistory101@gmail.com. A transcript of this and past episodes of this podcast is available at BritishHistory101.com. Our music tonight is
“O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast” by O Fickle Fortune and available on Magnatune.com. Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit magnatune.com for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. I thank you for joining me on our journey through the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It has truly been a pleasure, and I will see you again in two weeks’ time. Have a wonderful day!