How Tolkien created an English national myth for the world
The Hobbits are 'an easily recognisable.... self-image of the English'
Fifty years ago today perhaps the most important creative mind of the modern age passed from this earth. The works of JRR Tolkien, widely derided by so many cultural critics at the time, have grown to such enormous cultural importance that no other author, with the possible exception of JK Rowling, has more shaped the modern imagination.
The Lord of the Rings films, which first appeared during those significant last four months of 2001, sparked a revival in medievalism on the screen, and Tolkien’s work continues to inspire new creations, the latest being Amazon’s The Rings of Power. It was a world very much based on an idea of England, both the country of his youth and its deep ancestral past.
Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 but three years later the family moved to rural Worcestershire in the West Midlands, the county of Elgar. His father was due to join them later but died of rheumatic fever before he could make it home, and John Ronald was then orphaned at 12, this childhood idyll ending with his being sent to live with an aunt.
The author adored the rural Sarehole of his youth, dreaded the encroachment of industrial Birmingham, and so, like HG Wells from soon-to-be-suburban Kent, was one of the great NIMBY authors. That wonderfully homely upbringing, a world of patriotic Jubilee pageants and free-range childhoods, could only seem the brighter for the evil that followed.
As a boy he immersed himself in the folklore and language of early medieval northern Europe, doodling fantasy worlds and inventing languages based on Old Gothic. A brilliantly gifted linguist, Tolkien moved with his family to Birmingham in part so he could attend King Edward’s School, and also so his Catholic convert mother could be close to the Oratory. Indeed, he only began to slack in his Greek studies because he was more interested in learning about Gothic. Soon that wasn’t obscure enough and he became obsessed with Finnish myth and legend; at Oxford he began writing a version of the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic.