RR Tolkien and Middle Earth were bound together for most of the Professor’s life. Tolkien’s first writings of Middle Earth were scribbled out on loose sheets of paper, likely dated, according to Christopher Tolkien’s forward to the text in The Book of Lost Tales, some time during late 1916 or early 1917, with some verse fragments possibly dating back as early as 1915.
JRR Tolkien was 24 years of age in late 1916, and had recently returned to England after a brief tour on the Western Front of World War I. He had survived his part in the deadly Somme offensive only to fall prey to “trench fever” a short time later.
Tolkien’s illness kept him in and out of the hospital, and often bedridden, for the next several months. It was during this time that he scratched the first few lines of his imagined world to paper.
This was the start of something that was to have a lasting and profound influence on the last 46 years of his life. As his son and editor, Christopher Tolkien, notes in the forward to The Silmarillion, “throughout my father’s long life he never abandoned it, nor ceased even in his last years to work on it”.
These stories became the background that is so apparent in The Lord of the Rings, deep histories that can be gleaned from the text. The “Song of Beren and Luthien” that Strider sings to the hobbits on Weathertop is a great example.
The histories are often glimpsed, as from afar, but never interrupt the flow of the narrative, something Tolkien felt was of supreme importance.
As Tolkien himself once stated in his Letters
- “Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist.” (Letters pg 333)
Indeed, that deeper history is what drove the plot of The Lord of the Rings. The One Ring is a part of that developed history, though a late addition.
Sauron, Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel…each of these characters have deep roots and prominent roles in the mythology that Tolkien had already set down to writing as many as twenty-five years before he began writing The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a fully-formed world with its own legends, genealogies, languages, “gods”, a creation story, a Fall, grief, joy, and all of those many things that our own world has.
This was also one of the great misgivings Tolkien had of publishing The Silmarillion later in life after the great success of The Lord of the Rings. The story must necessarily start at the beginning, with no history to elude to. He goes on to say, in the same letter alluded to above –
- “To go there [into that distantly glimpsed history] is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.”
Middle Earth itself is a major character in The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other stories. It is not simply a scenic backdrop to the story…it is an integral part of the mythology.
The Shire as an idyllic home, Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry (who are more a part of nature than part of humanity), Treebeard and the Ents; the roles of the villains as “destoyers” of nature – the list of Middle Earth’s “natural” roles in the books cannot be understated.
What was Tolkien’s ultimate purpose in creating this alternate universe?
His goals and vision were multifold. Tolkien was many things: a writer, a linguist, a naturalist, a father, a mythologist, a scholar, a professor, a Roman Catholic, a medievalist, and a soldier.
Tolkien’s Middle Earth took shape and grew out of each of these facets: