Defined by fantastical worlds entirely separate from our own high fantasy is today one of the most popular forms of fiction. With authors’ imaginations allowed to run rampant whole new universes and laws governing them are conjured up. Writers like George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Terry Pratchett have used this intellectual freedom to create whole worlds and wonderful characters therein, becoming almost household names in the process. The name most synonymous with high fiction, however, remains J.R.R. Tolkien.
Though not the first to write tales set in wholly imagined worlds Tolkien’s imagination drew up a universe that was immediately popular with the reading public. In 1936 an employee of the publishing house George Allen & Unwin came across a book Tolkien had written for his children. She quickly convinced him to submit it for publishing and the following year The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was published.
This immediately popular work laid a great many of the standard and lasting tropes of fantasy fiction. The book’s central tale is the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo as he quests with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves to claim the horde of riches guarded by the dragon Smaug. As the tale unfolds Tolkien introduces us to a myriad of other creatures from ancient fables and folklore; including goblins, elves, trolls, and a host of other singular characters.
The Hobbit was, however, only the merest glimpse into the universe that had germinated for decades in Tolkien’s mind.
Cover of The Hobbit
It was while studying in Oxford University in 1914 that Tolkien began to conceptualise the fictional universe of Eä that Bilbo and his band would later inhabit. For the rest of his life Tolkien created stories and tales that drew up a full picture of this imagined world. This would include a creation myth and histories of the world’s creatures and races. This was the first time that a literary undertaking of this scale had taken place and the ramifications of it would be immeasurable.
It wouldn’t be until after his death, however, that the full scope of this world would be seen. In 1977, four years after Tolkien passed away, The Silmarillion was published. Composed of four distinct parts this tome told the story of a universe imagined in the mind of one man. Tolkien’s son Christopher gathered up the tales of his father to tell the story of Eä from its conception through a divinity’s song to the rise and fall of its various people’s and creatures
The first tales of Eä, however, were composed 60 years earlier while Tolkien served in the First World War. Telling the history of the Elves these early stories were loosely arranged into The Book of Lost Tales. Tolkien’s growing interest in poetry and the start of his academic career, however, saw this project shelved.
Cover of The Lord of the Rings, Book 1; The Fellowship of the Ring
The work wouldn’t gather dust for long and by 1926 Tolkien had begun to embellish the world of Eä once again. Yet this version, dubbed Quenta Noldorinwa, seemed to be more of a personal project than anything else as Tolkien’s world became increasingly dominated by academia. This is evident in Tolkien’s surprise at the popular reception of The Hobbit in 1937. His academic career wasn’t, however, opposed Tolkien’s fictional writing and in fact greatly influenced and supported them.
Tolkien’s field of expertise mainly lay in languages, philology, and Old English literature. This saw him daily immersed in the ancient fables from across the Norse, Germanic, and Celtic traditions that had been assimilated into and helped created the English language and identity. The creatures that populate these ancient tales and myths can be seen reflected in Tolkien’s stories and creations.
Following the success of The Hobbit Tolkien submitted a revised manuscript of Quenta Noldorinwa, now called Quenta Silmarillion, for publishing. This work was, however, too obscure and Tolkien not nearly iconic enough to warrant publishing and instead George Allen & Unwin asked for a sequel to The Hobbit. Tolkien hoped that the company could be persuaded to publish both books with time. High printing costs, however, made this possibility impossible and Tolkien focused on completing The Lord of the Rings.
Cover of The Lord of the Rings, Book 2; The Two Towers
Though originally intended as another novel for young adults, The Lord of the Rings quickly took on a far darker and more sinister air than its predecessor. While some people have attributed this to the rise of Nazism, Stalinism, and the Second World War Tolkien was always adamant that the story’s concept and inspiration predates all of these events. The Lord of the Rings rather resembles the more dramatic and menacing tales Tolkien composed during and after the First World War.
Telling the story of Bilbo’s nephew Frodo and his journey to rid the world of the ultimate evil The Lord of the Rings created a lot of parallels with The Hobbit. This obvious continuation was a reflection of these stories being only chapters in a much wider story. The more adult nature of The Lord of the Rings, however, offered Tolkien a better canvas and the depth of this epic far surpasses that of its prequel. The result was a greater pantheon of creatures and more developed and rounded characters.
With these better story-telling tools at his disposal Tolkien used The Lord of the Rings to delve into the experiences and traumas of the First World War, his own environmentalism, abhorrence of industrialisation, and his religious and moral views on the world. Though it received a mixed reception when published The Lord of the Rings quickly embedded itself as one of the world’s favourite reads. Today it is regarded by many as one of the top selling books of all time with over 150million copies sold.
Cover of The Lord of the Rings, Book 3; The Return of the King
After completing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien returned to telling the overall story of Eä. He was, however, now in a more contemplative time in his life. As a result Tolkien became concerned with the philosophical underpinnings and theological implications of his stories and began the final redraft of what would become The Silmarillion. While of all his writings reflect Tolkien’s devout Catholicism the tales from this stage in his life quite clearly echo the Christian mythos and betray his religion.
The legacy of Tolkien’s writings cannot, however, be overemphasised. He not only created a temporary plane where imaginations can run rampant, he attempted to create an entirely new universe. From the primordial creator to the denizens of the Shire and contours of Middle-Earth Tolkien put painstaking detail into his creations; even constructing languages for many of the races he conjured up.
Though he drew heavily on the myths and fables from various cultures Tolkien put a popular definition on the creatures that he co-opted into his world. Our popular perceptions of elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, and myriad of other imagined creatures are still heavily defined by Tolkien’s conception of them. High fantasy, even the scope and scale of our imagination, wouldn’t be what it is today without J.R.R. Tolkien.
Cover of People of the Great Journey
Listen back to ‘Talking Books’ as Susan speaks with a panel about the life, faith, and environmentalism of J.R.R. Tolkien and the recent Four Courts Press release, J.R.R. Tolkien: the Forest and the City. We conclude our show on fantasy fiction with a discussion with Irish-Canadian author O.R. Melling about her newest book People of the Great Journey. Join us as we delve into the dark and fantastic journey told in the pages of this eye-opening book.