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The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien - Barron's Booknotes
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Now Tolkien began work on a new language, based on
Finnish-his "mad hobby," as he called it. He felt that the
2language needed a history to support it: a language can't exist
without the people who speak it. Tolkien decided that this
language was spoken by a race of elves who had already
appeared in the poetry he was writing. This poetry was to form
the basis of the vast mythology Tolkien wrote about a land
called Middle-earth. just as his languages were based on actual
languages, his mythology incorporated elements of the myths
and legends that Tolkien admired.

Around this time, World War I began, and England declared
war on Germany. Tolkien entered the British army as an
officer. Before going off to war, he married his childhood
sweetheart, Edith Bratt. Like Tolkien, whose mother died when
he was 12, Edith was an orphan. They had fallen in love when
he was 16 and she was 19. Their guardians, however, had
found out about the romance and had forbidden the lovers to
meet until Tolkien turned 21, when he would legally be an
adult. He incorporated this long separation into The Lord of the
Rings, in the romance between Aragorn and Arwen.



Tolkien was sent to France, where he took part in the 1916
Battle of the Somme, a costly battle for the Allied forces. The
slaughter there of thousands of young British soldiers left a
lasting impression on Tolkien. In addition, the land had been
desolated by trench warfare and the use of heavy artillery. His
description of the desolation around Mordor has often been
cited for its resemblance to the war-torn landscapes in Europe.
Many of his colleagues who had been through the war saw its
influence on Tolkien in scenes where he describes not only the
horror of war, but also the sense of close comradeship and the
quiet joys of little things. Those who survived the Battle of the
Somme faced death from an unexpected quarter in the
following months. Influenza and trench fever swept the ranks,
affecting soldiers and officers alike. Tolkien contracted a
particularly bad case of trench fever and was shipped back to
England in late 1916. He spent his long recovery working on
his mythology. The war ended in late 1918. Tolkien had
survived, only to find that all but one of his close friends had
died. To someone who valued friendship so highly, this was a
great blow.

Tolkien once said that at the heart of his books is the
realization of the inevitability of death. At the age of 24, he had
already faced not only the widespread death of the war, but
also the personal losses of his parents and friends.

Tolkien slowly returned to academic life. He moved through a
series of university positions, culminating in his election to a
professorship at Oxford. He published several scholarly works
that won respect in his field, including a landmark lecture on
Beowulf, the famous Old English epic poem.

But he began to feel increasingly alienated from the world
about him. Postwar England was rapidly changing with the
growth of technology and industry. The way of life he loved so
much and had risked his life to defend in war was disappearing.
He watched sadly as trees were cut down and countryside was
taken over by city, all in the name of progress.

Tolkien's answer was to turn to the myths and heroic legends of
the past. He also continued to work on his own mythology. By
this time, he had developed several new languages and a
complex history and mythology, for the races who spoke them.
This hobby, as Tolkien modestly called it, was his consuming
passion, but he never expected it to arouse much interest in
others. He wrote several poems and stories that were published
in a university weekly, but there was nothing yet to catch the
popular imagination.

That was to change with his invention of hobbits-short, jolly
folk with hairy feet and a love of tobacco pipes. One day while
sitting at his desk and grading papers, Tolkien came upon a
blank page. He wrote on it, "In a hole in the ground there lived
a hobbit." Almost ten years after he had written that first line,
Tolkien completed The Hobbit, the story of a timid hobbit
named Bilbo Baggins, who sets out on an adventure with a
troop of dwarves and a wizard. Tolkien incorporated into his
book elements from his mythology, including the dwarves and
elves. His childhood memories and the inventive imagination
that so delighted his own children gave the book its droll
humor and its main character, Bilbo. In the hobbit, Tolkien had
found a character his readers could identify with and follow
into the heroic world of myth and legends.

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