John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was one of the most beloved authors of the twentieth century and is widely considered to be the father of modern fantasy literature. This is primarily because of his magnificent invention of the imagination, Middle-earth. Interest in this magical world of elves and dwarves and hobbits has renewed in the last fifteen years thanks to Peter Jackson’s big screen adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
While Middle-earth certainly dominates the public’s perception of Tolkien’s work (for good reason), he also wrote a great deal of poetry (okay, yes, some of that is also related to Middle-earth) and more than a few academic works. In addition to being an inimitably creative world-builder, Tolkien was a noted philology scholar with a deep appreciation for the Germanic languages. He also taught at Oxford (Pembroke and Merton Colleges) for a combined total of thirty-four years and left behind a legacy that continues to have a deep impact on our culture today.
I. The Hobbit
If you haven’t yet read The Hobbit, or if it was read to you as a child and you have forgotten most of it, you should definitely start there. It’s the best gateway drug to the world of Middle-earth and, at about three hundred pages, a much smaller commitment than its sequel. Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit without the intention of publishing it, but he did give copies to a few friends and colleagues. One of the people he gave it to, a student of his at Oxford, passed it on to a friend who worked at the publisher George Allen & Unwin. Its sales soared and the publisher requested a sequel. Hence, The Lord of the Rings was born.
A number of different mythologies and Germanic stories inspired Tolkien’s work, but few more so than Beowulf. Its influence can be seen throughout the Middle-earth legendarium, with certain concepts and character archetypes lifted directly from the poem. One example is Beorn, the giant shape-changer from The Hobbit, who is almost certainly based on Beowulf himself. It has been noted that Grendel and Gollum have many similarities as well.
A careful reading of Beowulf is very helpful in understanding the literary mind of Tolkien. Luckily for today’s readers, Tolkien’s own prosaic translation of the epic poem was published last year. Tolkien completed the translation in 1926, but it has not seen the light of day until recently. In addition to the translation, the book includes over two hundred pages of commentary, which formed the basis of a lecture Tolkien gave in 1936 entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” This lecture had a significant influence on future Beowulf scholarship.
III. The Fall of Arthur
The Fall of Arthur is another Tolkien work that has only recently been released to the public. It is an epic poem dated from the early 1930s that is composed in the Old English alliterative metre of Beowulf, but uses modern English language. Tolkien abandoned the poem, which his son Christopher finished and edited for publication in 2013. It’s an excellent example of Tolkien’s poetic ability, as well as another example of Beowulf’s influence on his creative process.
These three books will give you a broad introduction to Tolkien’s work and a basic understanding of how the old Germanic tales impacted Tolkien’s imagination and the creation of Middle-earth. Of course, you should also read The Lord of the Rings. And if you want to delve deeper into the inner life of the author himself, I recommend reading his letters and a good biography, such as the one by Humphrey Carpenter.
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