J.R.R. Tolkien in his own words

tolkienbookToday is J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday: he was born January 3, 1892. In honor of that occasion, here’s the section entitled “In His Own Words” from the biography of Tolkien I wrote for Enslow Publishers, J.R.R. Tolkien: Master of Imaginary Worlds.

These quotes are drawn from on an interview with Tolkien conducted by Daphne Castell and published in the November 1966 issue of the science fiction magazine New Worlds; an interview conducted by Philip Norman published by The New York Times on January 15, 1967, and an interview conducted by Dennis Gerrolt in January, 1971, for BBC Radio 4’s “Now Read On…”


On his early childhood…

I wasn’t born here (in England)—I was born in Bloemfontein in South Africa. I was very young when I got back, but at the same time it bites into your memory and imagination even if you don’t think it has. If your first Christmas tree is a wilting eucalyptus and if you’re normally troubled by heat and sand—then, to have just at the age when imagination is opening out, suddenly find yourself in a quiet Warwickshire village, I think it engenders a particular love of what you might call central Midlands English countryside, based on good water, stones and elm trees and small quiet rivers and so on, and of course rustic people about. – BBC

It was not an unhappy childhood. It was full of tragedies but it didn’t tot up to an unhappy childhood. – New York Times

On languages…

Of modern languages, I should have said Welsh has always attracted me by its style and sound more than any other. Even though I first only saw it on coal trucks, I always wanted to know what it was about…but a much rarer, very potent influence on myself has been Finnish. – BBC

I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way around normally. – BBC

The invention of language is the foundation. The stories were made rather to provide a world for the language rather than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much language has been left in as I thought would be stomached by the readers. I now find that many would have liked much more. – New York Times

Nothing has given me more pleasure than the praise of those who like my books for my names, whether of English form, or Elvish, or other tongues. – New Worlds

On hobbits in general, and The Hobbit in particular…

Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects (in general) the small reach of their imagination—not the small reach of their courage or latent power. – BBC

Hobbits have what you might call universal morals. I should say they are examples of natural philosophy and natural religion. – New York Times

I don’t like small creatures. Hobbits are three to four feet in height. You can see people walking around like that. If there was anything I detested it was all that Drayton stuff; hideous. All that hiding in cowslips, Shakespeare took it up because it was fashionable but it didn’t invite his imagination at all. He produced some nice, funny names like Cobweb, Peaseblossom and so on; and some poetic stuff about Titania, but he never takes the slightest notice of her. – New York Times

[The Shire] provides a fairly good living with moderately good husbandry and is tucked away from all the centers of disturbance; it comes to be regarded as divinely protected, though people there didn’t realize it at the time. That’s rather how England used to be, isn’t it? – New York Times

On writing for children…

No, of course, I didn’t [write The Hobbit for my own children]. If you’re a youngish man and you don’t want to be made fun of, you say you’re writing for children. At any rate, children are your immediate audience and you write or tell them stories, for which they are mildly grateful: long rambling stories at bedtime. – New York Times

The Hobbit was written in what I should now regard as bad style, as if one were talking to children. There’s nothing my children loathed more. They taught me a lesson. Anything that in any way marked out The Hobbit as for children instead of just for people, they disliked—instinctively. I did too, now that I think about it. All this “I won’t tell you any more, you think about it” stuff. Oh no, they loathe it; it’s awful. – New York Times

Children aren’t a class. They are merely human beings at different stages of maturity. All of them have a human intelligence which even at its lowest is a pretty wonderful thing, and the entire world in front of them. It remains to be seen if they rise above that. – New York Times

On the elves and dwarves…

We should all—or at least a large part of the human race—would like to have greater power of mind, greater power of art, by which I mean that the gap between the conception and the power of execution should be shortened, and we should like a longer, if not indefinite, time in which to go on knowing more and making more. Therefore, the elves are immortal in a sense. I had to use “immortal”; I didn’t mean that they were eternally immortal—merely that they are very longeval and their longevity probably lasts as long as the inhabitability of the Earth.

The dwarves, of course, are quite obviously—wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic. – BBC

On the writing of The Lord of the Rings

…long before I wrote The Hobbit and long before I wrote [The Lord of the Rings] I had constructed this world mythology…it got sucked in as The Hobbit did itself; The Hobbit was originally not part of it at all but as soon as it got moving out into the world it got moved into its activities. – BBC

The choice of the ring as a link with the older stuff was inevitable. Most of the allusions to older legends scattered about the tale, or summarized in Appendix A are to things which really have an existence of some kind in the history of which The Lord of the Rings is part. – New Worlds

I don’t wander about dreaming at all; it isn’t an obsession in any way. You have this sensation that, at this point, A, B, C, D, only A or one of them is right and you’ve got to wait until you see. I had maps, of course. If you’re going to have a complicated story, you must work to a map—otherwise, you can never make a map of it afterwards. The moons I think finally were the moons and sunset worked out according to what they were in this part of the world in 1942, actually. – BBC

I’ve a very strong visual imagination, but it’s not so strong in other points. I doubt if many authors visualize very closely faces and voices. If you write a long story like The Lord of the Rings, you’ve got to write it twice over and you end up writing it backwards, of course. People will occur. One waits to see what’s coming next. I knew there was going to be some trouble with treelike creatures at one point or another. – New York Times

I wrote the last…in about 1949—I remember I actually wept at the denouement. But then of course there was a tremendous lot of revision. I typed the whole of that work out twice and lots of it many times, on a bed in an attic. I couldn’t afford, of course, the typing. – BBC

I love it [revision]. I am a natural niggler, fascinated by detail. – New Worlds

On the Lord of the Rings as an allegory…

It is not about anything but itself. (Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political.) – New York Times

I dislike allegory whenever I smell it. – BBC

[Reacting to the suggestion the book is an allegory of the threat of nuclear war.] That’s absolutely absurd. Absurd. These wretched people who must find an allegory in everything! For one thing, a good deal of it was written before the 1930s. – New Worlds

On the poetry in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

A lot of the criticism of the verses shows a complete failure to understand the fact that they are all dramatic verses: they were conceived as the kind of things people would say under the circumstances. – New York Times

On the lack of romance in his books…

There’s a time and a place for everything. Love is the background of history—not least, when least attended to.

In the time of a great war and high adventure, love and the carrying on with the race, and so on, are in the background. They’re not referred to the whole time, but they’re there. There’s surely enough given in flashes for an attentive reader to see, even without the Appendix (of Aragorn and Arwen) the whole tale as one aspect of the love-story of this pair, and the achievement of a high noble, and romantic love. There’s Éowyn’s love for Aragorn—a sort of calf-love, as well as the true romance. You get the scene in Rivendell, with Aragorn suddenly revealed in princely dignity to Frodo, standing by Arwen. There’s Aragorn’s vision, after he has plighted his troth to Arwen and left her; and what were his thoughts after receiving the furled standard, or when he unfurled it after achieving the Paths of the Dead. There is also Sam, who had other deep concerns, though he put his service first. – New Worlds

On the American fans of his books…

Art moves them and they don’t know what they’ve been moved by and they get quite drunk on it. Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I am not.

But they do use this sometimes as a means against some abomination. There was one campus, I forget which, where the council of the university pulled down a very pleasant little grove of trees to make way for what they called a “Culture Center” out of some sort of concrete blocks. The students were outraged. They wrote “another bit of Mordor” on it. – New York Times

On science fiction…

There’s a terrible undergrowth of rubbish produced by it…though not worse in its way than the awful stuff which is also produced under the labels Fairy-Tale or Fantasy.

The relationship between science fiction (SF) and fantasy is difficult and topically important…obviously many readers of SF are attracted to it because it performs the same operation as fantasy—it provides Recovery and Escape (I analyzed these in my essay “On Fairy Stories”)—and wonder. But when they invoke the word “Science,” and use an element of scientific knowledge (very variable, sometimes, in scope and accuracy) authors nowadays are more easily able to produce suspension of disbelief. The legendary laboratory professor has replaced the wizard.

Some writers and readers of SF are really primarily interested in the “science,” rather than the “wonder,” or the “Escape,” but it is made more vivid for them by stories which exhibit the working-out of what they believe to be scientific truths.

It’s a very good medium for the imagination to work with, of course. But it’s been much misused by lesser writers, as if a lot of them will never come to terms with it. – New Worlds

Looking back at his life…

At my age, I’m exactly the kind of person who has lived through one of the most quickly changing periods known to history. Surely, there could never be in seventy years so much change. – BBC

If I’m remembered at all, it will be by The Lord of the Rings, I take it. Won’t it be rather like the case of [the poet Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow? People remember Longfellow wrote “Hiawatha,” quite forget he was a professor of Modern Languages! – BBC


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