10 Surprising Facts About J.R.R. Tolkien

Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don't know about The Lord of the Rings author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who was born on January 3, 1892. Here are 10 of them.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic.

As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn't the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall."

2. J.R.R. Tolkien felt many of his fans were "lunatics."

Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien's attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing, and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn't believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose. He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he believed were incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.

3. J.R.R. Tolkien loved his day job.

To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.

4. J.R.R. TOLKIEN was a romantic.

At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien's instructions, their shared gravestone has the names "Beren" and "Luthien" engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien's relationship with C.S. Lewis was complicated.

Tolkien's fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien's wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis's anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American divorcee at the time). Although they would never be as close as they were before, Tolkien regretted the separation. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to his daughter that, “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

6. J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed clubbing.

Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings, a literary discussion group.

7. J.R.R. wasn't blowing smoke about those war scenes.

Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien's time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him and was forced to return home. He would later say that all but one of his close friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writing.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien invented languages for fun.

A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem "BagmÄ“ BlomÄ" ("Flower of the Trees") might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.

9. J.R.R. Tolkien has been published almost as prolifically posthumously as he was when he was alive.

Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien's most famous posthumous publication is The Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

10. J.R.R. Tolkien called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus."

Tolkien's academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language, and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an "Aryan." Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: "I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

This piece originally ran in 2017.

Patrick Stewart Is Reading a Different Shakespeare Sonnet Live Every Day

Jack Taylor/Stringer/Getty Images
Jack Taylor/Stringer/Getty Images

While they're stuck inside during the novel coronavirus pandemic, some celebrities are connecting with fans through reading. Sir Patrick Stewart has joined the trend, and as Lithub reports, the classically trained actor is bringing a Shakespearean twist to his virtual live-reads.

Since March 22, Stewart has been a reciting a sonnet a day for his Instagram followers. He started with William Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, and after receiving such a positive response, he vowed to continuing reading through the Bard's body of 14-lined poems.

"When I was a child in the 1940s, my mother would cut up slices of fruit for me (there wasn't much) and as she put it in front of me she would say: 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away,'" he wrote in one video caption. "How about, 'A sonnet a day keeps the doctor away'?"

In addition to Sonnet 116, the Star Trek and X-Men actor has read through sonnets 1 through 17 of Shakespeare's 154. After they're broadcast over his IGTV feed, each reading is available on his Instagram profile.

The internet is currently rife with celebrity readings to suit every literary taste. Dolly Parton has been reading children's bedtime stories every Thursday night, while LeVar Burton is hosting readings three times a week for kids, teenagers, and adults. Here are more virtual ways to stay entertained in quarantine.

[h/t Lithub]

Audible Makes Hundreds of Audiobooks Available for Free While Schools Are Closed

This gleeful teen is probably not listening to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
This gleeful teen is probably not listening to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
max-kegfire/iStock via Getty Images

To keep kids occupied and educated at home, Audible recently launched “Audible Stories,” a completely free online library with hundreds of audiobooks that’ll stay “open” for as long as schools are closed.

The stories are split into categories like “Littlest Listeners,” “Elementary,” “Tween,” and “Teen,” so parents can easily choose an age-appropriate bedtime story for their toddlers, and high-schoolers can automatically bypass titles like ABC: Learn Your Alphabet With Songs and Rhymes. And while the platform might’ve been created mainly for the benefit of housebound schoolchildren, you definitely don’t have to be a kid to appreciate the calming adventures of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. There’s even a “Literary Classics” section with audiobooks that appeal to listeners of any age, like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Some of the audiobooks even feature the familiar voices of top-notch talent from your favorite films and television series. Westworld’s Thandie Newton narrates Jane Eyre, Scarlett Johansson lends her versatile voice to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Rachel McAdams brings her own spirited spin to Anne of Green Gables. The crown jewel of the site is probably Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, read by Stephen Fry.

You don’t need an Audible account or the Audible app to access the platform. Just open "stories.audible.com" in any web browser on any device. And if you want to take a break from listening, Audible will save your spot (but only for the most recent audiobook you’ve played).

The digital library is not just for English-speaking users—there are titles narrated in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, too, including foreign-language versions of classics like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. If you're interested in Audible's full offering, you can try out a 30-day free trial.

Looking for something to do while you listen? Here’s how to grow your own yeast for sourdough bread.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER