There are two types of authors: those whose lives are better known than their writing, and those whose books are more famous than they are. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), the author of The Lord of the Rings, is definitely in the latter camp. Most people don’t even know that his initials stand for ‘John Ronald Reuel’, let alone who on earth the creator of one of the most popular fantasy series actually was. But although the real Tolkien was a humble man who would like things to stay that way, his life story is definitely one worth telling.
If The Lord of the Rings was Tolkien’s only achievement, his would still have been a life well-lived. However, there was so much more to him than just his fiction. Tolkien was a pioneering expert on medieval literature and language, a veteran of World War 1, and a talented illustrator. He remains one of the world’s best-loved authors, and in 2009 he was the fifth top-earning dead celebrity according to Forbes. So who was this enigmatic chap? Let’s make like Bilbo Baggins and go on an adventure together to learn about his life and understand his fiction a little better…
20. The Hobbit started out as a bedtime story
As will become abundantly clear in this list, Tolkien never saw himself as just a writer of fiction. His first great success, The Hobbit, actually began as a bedtime story for his young children. Instead of reading from books, Tolkien would regale his children with wonderful yarns about strange creatures and adventures. Over the course of many nights, and egged on by his fascinated children, the character of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, emerged. But though composed orally, the stories about Bilbo that Tolkien made up on the spot were subject to rigorous editing and correction from his precocious kids.
Anticipating how closely analyzed the tales of Middle Earth would eventually be, Christopher Tolkien, five, once interrupted his father mid-story to inform him that ‘last time, you said Bilbo’s front door was blue, and you said Thorin had a gold tassel on his hood, but you’ve just said that Bilbo’s front door was green, and the tassel on Thorin’s hood was silver’. The Hobbit was eventually published to the delight of children and adults alike in 1937, but appropriately enough it was the glowing endorsement of 10-year-old Rayner Unwin, whose father owned a publisher, that secured its commission.