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The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien - Barron's Booknotes
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When you were younger, did you ever make up stories
about the people and places around your home? Maybe
there was an abandoned house that in your imagination
became haunted by ghosts, or an old neighbor woman that
you envisioned as a witch. This fantasizing isn't very
different from what many writers do when they transform
their experiences into fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, in his
invention of Middle-earth, has done this to a greater degree
than most. The Hobbit and, even more so, The Lord of the
Rings were the fruits of a lifetime's work, and Tolkien
incorporated into them the landscape of his childhood, his
interest in philology (the study of languages), his religious
faith, his own vivid imagination, and his attitudes toward
the world and the events happening around him.

The first three years of Tolkien's life were spent in South
Africa, where he had been born in 1892. His mother
returned to England in 1895 with him and his younger
brother. His father stayed in South Africa, planning to join
the family later, but within a few months he contracted
rheumatic fever and died.

The Tolkiens settled in the small English town of Sarehole,
where the widow struggled to raise her children alone. As
he grew, Tolkien showed an aptitude for language, and
under his mother's tutelage studied Latin and French. An
avid reader, he especially loved fairy tales. His favorite was
the story of Sigurd, the dragon slayer. It wasn't the hero but
the dragon Fafnir who intrigued him. The dragon
represented a world that was exciting and dangerous, yet
that was safely removed from his own life. Tolkien later
recalled, "...the world that contained even the imagination
of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the
cost or peril." His fascination with dragons was later to
appear in the character Smaug in The Hobbit.

Despite their poverty, it was a happy time for the boys, and
in later years Tolkien recalled the countryside and its
people with great fondness. In fact, the land and the people
of Sarehole were to become part of his books, as the Shire
and its whimsical inhabitants, the hobbits. You can see
elements of his childhood home in hobbit country. The
Sarehole mill became an important landmark near Bag End,
Bilbo's home, and the miller's evil-looking son was
transformed into Ted Sandyman, the unscrupulous hobbit
who contributes to the polluting of the Shire in The Lord of
the Rings. "The Shire," Tolkien once said, "is very like the
kind of world in which I first became aware of things." At
another time, he said, "I took the idea of the hobbits from
the village people and the children."

Tolkien became absorbed in the study of language. After
his teachers introduced him to Anglo-Saxon, or Old
English, he began to read heroic tales such as Beowulf and
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Next he turned to Old
Norse and the Norse sagas. On his own, he rummaged
through the local bookstore for books on philology and
archaic languages. Then he began to invent his own
languages and alphabets. He developed complex histories
for his languages, earlier words that evolved into later
words, just as the Old English "stan" evolved into "stone"
in modern English.

Not surprisingly, Tolkien went to Oxford University to
study philology. One day he discovered a Finnish grammar
book. While the words themselves enthralled him,
Tolkien's imagination was also fired by the tales written in
this strange language. He delved into Finnish mythology
and found himself wishing that there was such a body of
work for England. It was perhaps at this point he first
thought of writing a mythology himself.

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