Our Own Dear John Ronald: Discoverer of Legend

“He did not see himself as an inventor of story but as a discoverer of legend.”

But most important of all, Bilbo led John Ronald over the Misty Mountains,

IMG_2091 - Edited

through the Mirkwood Forest,

IMG_2089 - Edited

and across the Long Lake to the base of the Lonely Mountain.

IMG_2087 - Edited

~ Caroline McAlister: John Ronald’s Dragons.  Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.


Early in 1915 he turned back to his original Earendel verses and began to work their theme into a larger story.  He had shown the original Earendel lines to G.B.Smith, who hat said that he liked them but asked what they were really about.  Tolkien had replied: ‘I don’t know.  I’ll try to find out.’  Not try to invent: TRY TO FIND OUT.  He did not see himself as an inventor of story but as a discoverer of legend.

~ Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien. A Biography.

I think the above quoted children’s picture book biography of J. R. R. Tolkien illustrates rather well what Carpenter points out concerning Tolkien’s attitude towards “story writing”.

Incidentally, I recommend this wonderful children’s book for all who wish to introduce their children to the author and to the genre of biography.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Father and Son

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892 – 1973) and Christopher John Reuel Tolkien (1924 – 2020)



Christopher Tolkien passed on last week, almost 47 years after his father J.R.R Tolkien.  The two appear to have had much in common.

left to right: Priscilla Anne, Michael Hilary, John Francis, John Ronald, and Christopher John Tolkien

By the late nineteen-thirties all this work on THE SILMARILLION had resulted in a large body of manuscript, much of it in an exquisite hand.  (…)  Within the family the most frequent listener to the stories was Tolkien’s third son, Christopher.  The boy, wrote Tolkien in his diary, had grown into ‘a nervy, irritable, cross-grained, self-tormenting, cheeky person.  Yet there is something intensely lovable about him, to me at any rate, from the very similarity between us.’  On many evenings in the early nineteen-thirties Christopher, huddled for warmth by the study stove, would listen motionless while his father told him (in impromptu fashion, rather than reading aloud) about the elvish wars against the black power, and of how Beren and Lúthien made their perilous journey to the very heart of Morgoth’s iron stronghold.  These were not mere stories: they were legends that came alive as his father spoke, vivid accounts of a grim world where foul orcs and a sinister Necromancer guarded the way, and a dreadful red-eyed wolf tore the elvish companions of Beren to pieces one by one; but a world also where the three great elvish jewels, the Silmarilli, shone with a strange and powerful light, a world where against all odds the quest could be victorious.

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

left to right: Christopher, Priscilla, Michael, Edith, and John Ronald Tolkien

I believe that we need good tale-tellers now, as much as we did when the oral tradition was the only way that they were passed on; that the active transmission of stories plays a vital role in the development of the brain. (…)  The most beautiful aspect of this shared story-telling (…) is that the collaboration and engagement between teller and audience means that they are embarking on a journey together, which can lead to the most unexpected and wondrous of places.

Alan Lee: Afterword in Tales From the Perilous Realm

left to right: Edith, Christopher, Priscilla, John and John Ronald Tolkien

I will say no more now.  But I should like ere long to have a long talk with YOU.  For if as seem probable I shall never write any ordered biography – it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths – someone close in heart to me should know something of things that records do not record.”

J.R.R. Tolkien to Christopher Tolkien in a letter dated 11 July 1972

Apparently Christopher Tolkien went about editing and publishing his father’s autobiography all these years, and what a special autobiography it is.  But now what?

He sat down under a very beautiful distant tree – a variation of the Great Tree, but quite individual, or it would be with a little more attention – and he considered where to begin work, and where to end it, and how much time was required.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

I have a good idea where father and son are now sitting, together again after almost half a century.  Surely they have much to talk about.




Our Own Dear John Ronald: Start to Finish

J.R.R. Tolkien would have turned 128 this past Saturday. A toast!

On 4 January 1892 Arthur Tolkien wrote [from Bloemfontein, RSA] home to Birmingham:

My dear Mother,

I have good news for you this week.  Mable gave me a beautiful little son last night (3 January).  It was rather before time, but the baby is strong and well and Mable has come through wonderfully.  The baby is (of course) lovely.  It has beautiful hands and ears (very long fingers) very light hair, ‘Tolkien” eyes’ and very distinctly a ‘Suffield’ mouth.  In general effect immensely like a fair edition of its Aunt Mabel Mitton.  (…)  The boy’s name will be ‘John’ after its grandfather, probably John Ronald Reuel altogether.  Mab wants to call it Ronald and I want to keep up John and Reuel…

Family group, Bloemfontein, November 1892.  Left to right: Arthur Tolkien; a servant; Mable Tolkien (seated); Isaac the houseboy; nurse holding Ronald Tolkien aged 10 months.  The handwriting around the photograph is that of Mabel Tolkien. (photo colored)


The end was swift.  On Thursday he joined in celebrations to mark Mrs. Tolhursts’ birthday, but he did not feel well and would not eat much, though he drank a little champagne.  During the night he was in pain, and next morning he was take to a private hospital where an acute bleeding gastric ulcer was diagnosed.  It so happened that Michael was on holiday in Switzerland and Christopher in France, and neither could have reached his bedside in time, but John and Priscilla were able to come down to Bournemouth to be with him.  At first the reports on his condition were optimistic, but by Saturday a chest infection had developed, and early on the Sunday morning, 2 September 1973, he died, aged eighty-one.

last pic of JRRT
The last photograph of Tolkien, taken next to one of his favorite trees (Pinus Nigra) in the Botanic Garden, Oxford, 9 August 1973.

~ Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography.  1977.


Our Own Dear John Ronald: Myth and Truth

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme / of things not found within recorded time.

But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.
No, said Tolkien, they are not.

And indicating the great trees of Magdalen Grove as their branches bent in the wind, he struck out a different line of argument.

You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word.  But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name.  You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course.  But that is merely ho YOU see it.  By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them.  And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect God.  Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.  Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

In expounding this belief in the inherent TRUTH of mythology, Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of ‘The Silmarillion’.


The account of this conversation is based on Tolkiens poem Mythopoeia, to which he also gave the titles ‘Misomythos’ and ‘Philomythos and Misomythos’.  One manuscript is marked ‘for C.S.L.’.

~ Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien.  A Biography.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: The Ultimate Artists

Ars longa, vita brevis? Not for the Elves.

Tolkien believed devoutly that there had once been an Eden on earth, and that man’s original sin and subsequent dethronement were responsible for the ills of the world; but his elves, though capable of sin and error, have not ‘fallen’ in the theological sense, and so are able to achieve much beyond the powers of men.  They are craftsmen, poets, scribes, creators of works of beauty far surpassing human artefacts.  Most important of all they are, unless slain in battle, immortal.  Old age, disease, and death do not bring their work to an end while it is still unfinished or imperfect.  They are therefore the ideal of every artist.

These, then, are the elves of THE SILMARILLION, and of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  Tolkien himself summed up their nature when he wrote of them: ‘They are made by man in his own image and likeness; but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him.  They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire.’

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography


Our Own Dear John Ronald: Languages

Later in life, he threatened to speak nothing but Old Mercian anymore!

If you have ever wondered how an extensive work of fiction like The Lord of the Rings can possibly be inspired by language primarily (rather than, say, by a story line idea, an intriguing character sketch, or an event that fired the imagination), consider what this author enjoyed doing in 1910, at the age of 18.  This, incidentally, was about the same time Tolkien originally conceived what almost 100 years later would be published as The Children of Hurin.

He also devoted much time to the Debating Society.  There was a custom at King Edward’s (School in Birmingham) of holding a debate entirely in Latin, but that was almost too easy for Tolkien, and in one debate when taking the role of Greek Ambassador to the Senate he spoke entirely in Greek.  On occasion he astonished his schoolfellows when, in the character of a barbarian envoy, he broke into fluent Gothic; on a third occasion he spoke in Anglo-Saxon (that is, Old English).

~ Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien. A Biography.

young jrrt

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Origin of Gandalf

Journeying dangerously on foot through the Alps in 1911 might well have generated the the creation of Misty Mountains and other prominent mountain ranges of Middle Earth.

‘We went on foot carrying great packs practically all the way from Interlaken, mainly by mountain paths, to Lauterbrunnen, and so to Muerren and eventually to the head of the Lauterbrunnenthal in a wilderness of morains.  We slept rough – the men-folk – often in hayloft or cowbyre, since we were walking by maps and avoided roads and never booked, and after a meager breakfast we fed ourselves in the open.  We must then have gone eastward over the two Schneidegge to Grindelwald, with Eiger and Muench on our right, and eventually reached Meiringen.  I left the view of Jungfrau with deep regret, and the Silberhorn sharp against dark blue.  (…)

One day we went on a long march with guides up the Aletsch glacier – when I came near to perishing.  We had guides but either the effects of the hot summer were beyond their experience, or they did not much care, or we were late in starting.  Anyway at noon we were strung out in file along a narrow track with the snow-slope on the right going up to the horizon, and on the left a plunge down into a ravine.  The summer of that year had melted away much snow, and stones and boulders were exposed that (I suppose) were normally covered.  The heat of the day continued the melting and we were alarmed to see many of them starting to roll down the slope at gathering speed: anything from the size of oranges to large footballs, and a few much larger.  (…)  I remember the party just in front of me (…) gave a sudden squeak and jumped forward as a large lump of rock shot between us.  At about a foot at most before my unmanly knees.  (…)

We climbed with guides up to a high hut of the Alpine Club, roped (or I should have fallen into a snow-crevasse), and I remember the dazzling whiteness of the tumbled snow desert between us and the black horn of the Matterhorn some miles away.’

Before setting off on the return journey to England, Tolkien bought some picture postcards.  Among them was a reproduction of a painting by a German artist, J. Madelener.  It is called “Der Berggeist”, the mountain spirit, and it shows an old man sitting under a rock under a pine tree.  He has a white beard and wears a wide-brimmed round hat and a long cloak.  He is talking to a white fawn that is nuzzling his upturned hands, and he has a humorous but compassionate expression; there is a glimpse of rocky mountains in the distance.  Tolkien preserved this postcard carefully and long afterward he wrote unto the paper cover in which he kept it: “Origin of Gandalf”.

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography.  1977

There is little doubt that Tolkien possessed this postcard and that it was his “Origin for Gandalf”, also that in the world of his imagination, the postcard and his 1911 journey through the Alps belonged together, but he cannot very well have acquired the postcard in 1911 already because, according to the artist’s daughter, it was painting in the mid-1920s and printed on postcard in the  late 1920s.

Here’s the painting:

Der Berggeist

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Nothing Else Really Happened

The inner life, the life of the mind…

And after this, one might say, nothing else really happened.  Tolkien came back to Oxford, was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, went to live in a conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the first part of his retirement, moved to a nondescript seaside resort, came back to Oxford after his wife died, and himself died a peaceful death at the age of 81.  It was the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen.  And that would be that – apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’ he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers.  It is a strange paradox, the fact that THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the work of an obscure Oxford professor whose specialization was the West Midland dialect of Middle English, and who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden.

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien.  A Biography. 1977

John Tolkien

But what this summary misses out (as Carpenter recognizes) is the inner life, the life of the mind, the world of Tolkien’s work, which was also – he refused to distinguish the two – his hobby, his private amusement, his ruling passion.

If Tolkien had ever been asked to describe himself in one word, the word he would have chosen, I believe, would be ‘philologist’.

Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Author of the Age. 2000


The remark about ‘philology’ was intended to allude to what is I think a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and FUNDAMENTALLY LINGUISTIC in inspiration…  The invention of languages is the foundation.  The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.  To me a name comes first and the story follows.

J.R.R. Tolkien.  1955

%d bloggers like this: