One-hundred and twenty-fifth birthday: J. R. R. Tolkien, born January 3, 1892

‘Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday: I am eleventy-one today!’

‘Hurray! Hurray! Many Happy Returns!’ they shouted, and they hammered joyously on the tables. Bilbo was doing splendidly. This was the sort of stuff they liked: short and obvious.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 1

The one C. S. Lewis called a “smooth, pale, fluent little chap,” J. R. R Tolkien (1892-1973), was born one-hundred and twenty-five years ago today, and in keeping with Tolkien’s reckoning, I suppose that would make him twelfty-five. [1]

Now world renowned for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stories, Tolkien continues to inspire all those who venture into Middle Earth, and then venture there and back again.

C. S. Lewis says it well in his 1937 review of The Hobbit:

“To define the world of The Hobbit is, of course, impossible, because it is new. You cannot anticipate it before you go there, as you cannot forget it once you have gone …. The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” [2]

And Clyde Kilby, founder of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton, helpfully observed in his 1969 reflection:

“My own experience working with Professor Tolkien for a summer convinced me that though the story as his insists must not be read as allegory, nevertheless it has strong Christian overtones.

Thomas de Quincey pointed out that all true literature becomes ‘a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth’ where only the dullest reader will not find meaning unlimited, and it is this sort of idea that gives credence to Guy Davenport’s remark concerning Lord of the Rings: ‘For a generation that can’t make head or tail of St. Paul, Mr. Tolkien has got Isaiah and St. Paul back before readers’ eyes.’

In a word, then, we’re justified in feeling, as sensitive readers of this story always do, a deep religious, even Christian undertone. But it should be added that it is a story to be enjoyed, not a sermon to be preached.” [3]

For those who have found Tolkien as an inspiration for their own writing, it is encouraging to note that The Hobbit was not published until Tolkien was 45 years old, and The Lord of the Rings when he was 62 and 63. So whatever your age is on your 2017 birthday, let Tolkien continue to inspire for writing and reading great works is a lifelong and noble pursuit.

For more on Tolkien’s life, listen to the audio recording of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Tolkien.

[1] C. S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me (Mariner, 2002), 293. Also cited in Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (Tyndale, 2013), 128.

[2] “C. S. Lewis Reviews The Hobbit,1937” in the Paris Review Daily, November 19, 2013.

[3] “Kilby on J. R. R. Tolkien,” His, 1969, reprinted in Clyde S. Kilby, A Well of Wonder, eds., Loren Wilkinson and Keith Call (Mount Tabor Books, 2016), 151-153.

 

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