This is a bittersweet farewell, my friends, and it seemed only fitting that our last Top 10 for this themed celebratory birthday month be all about the man himself, Tolkien. Previous topics include: characters, moments, and why I love the race of Men, all of which are linked. For now, let’s find out just why John Ronald Reuel is the best of the best.
Tolkien spoke at least 16 languages fluently!
Man, I knew that he was fluent in a lot of languages, and even a lot from an early age, but this is just nuts. As far as I can tell, from both Humphrey Carpenter’s biography and some light Googling, these are the 16 languages Tolkien was fluent enough to read in:
- Middle & Old English
- Old Norse
- Modern & Medieval Welsh
And that’s not even counting the ones he created!
It took Tolkien twelve years to write LOTR.
This is just insane to me, and I love it. Like, I always feel so guilty when it takes me longer than four or so months to write a book. I schedule out writing for a minimum of three books in a year. But it took Tolkien twelve years to write the trilogy.
Tolkien wanted to publish the trilogy
AND The Silmarillion together as ONE VOLUME.
I want you guys to think, just for a second, about the fact that it takes twelve hours to watch the director’s cut of the full LOTR trilogy movies. And those are just the movies. So here are some stats for you:
- FOTR is 187k words
- TT is 156k words
- ROTK is 137k words
- Silmarillion is 130k words
All told, that equals 611k words. In one volume. Tolkien literally was ready to give up publication of any of it because they wouldn’t put it together, and he fought for over a year before finally accepting that maybe it was too long together. Even then, he was still furious at the idea of splitting up LOTR, and it took a substantial amount of time to convince him to separate them into volumes, though he was always quick to remind readers that it was not a trilogy.
Middle-earth was history to Tolkien, not fiction.
Okay, not actually. He understood that the events in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings didn’t actually happen, but he wrote them in such a way that he intended for them to be read like history, for the stories, as a whole, to be read as something that occurred before our time.
As such, when he received fan letters asking about discrepancies, he wasn’t flustered about being called out, he instead got to work “discovering” where these inconsistencies had crept up and how the history had worked itself out that way.
Industrialism vs Tolkien
Okay, this is kind of a two-in-one, but Tolkien’s relationship with industrialism is both so sad and so hilarious to me. We all know that he hated industrialism—I mean, he literally has trees destroy the center of all industry in Middle-earth, and it’s fantastic. But there were two things that Tolkien did during the birth of industrialism that really stand out to me.
First: he decided that he was never going to go to an undeveloped part of England ever again. Each time he did, it was eventually developed, and so he feared that by showing his love of nature, the world was responding by taking nature away. And so, he resigned himself to live in the city in order to somehow preserve the undeveloped parts of England.
Second: obviously, when everyone was starting to do the car thing, Tolkien decided he’d play along for a little bit. He only had a car for a few years, and thank goodness for that, because one of his primary beliefs was that intersections were suggestions, and the only way to properly cross them was to put the pedal to the metal and say, “Charge them, and they scatter!”
In conclusion: Tolkien was nuts.
Tolkien very rarely traveled.
I know what you’re thinking, but how? How is LOTR so believable if he left England a grand total of, like, a dozen times? Well, in case it wasn’t already abundantly clear to you, Tolkien was nothing if not insanely thorough (or just insane and thorough), and so he made sure to calculate the most realistic travel possible. He created moon charts, consulted yearly calendars, did complicated formulas to figure out how long it would take dwarves, how have shorter legs, to walk a certain distance in what amount of time, compared to, say, elves—and on and on. It took him ages to write because he wanted to make sure it was as believable as was humanly possible for him to create.
Fan mail was given a scholarly response.
When we think about fan mail nowadays, we think about authors liking Tweets or sending generic thank you notes for preorder campaigns. But when readers wrote Tolkien, he took his responses very seriously. If they pointed out discrepancies, he went back to his work like a historian trying to dig out where the facts had strayed and how they might come back together. If they ever provided criticism, he tried to understand where they were coming from and if perhaps something in his story was not clear enough to get his message across correctly. If they asked him for suggestions on naming their new pet, he would compile a very careful list of names that he thought most fitting based on the circumstances. If they were little and just excited about wizards, he would give them his utmost attention.
Fan mail, for Tolkien, was like reading academic papers.
One of my favorite things about Tolkien was how much he adored Beowulf. Same, dude. But perhaps the best part about his adoration was how he approached it. Beowulf, for him, was the height of academia, and he loved giving lectures about it. The halls would overflow with students trying to attend his lectures because they knew—oh, they knew.
I am endlessly jealous of them.
Most professors would have just lectured. Tolkien, instead, began every Beowulf talk by standing tall suddenly, shoulders thrown back and head held high. He would shout, “Hwæt!” Everyone would go silent, hushed, staring down at him, and then he would begin performing. Instead of just reciting, Tolkien would gift his students with the original Old English in a dramatic reading, and my goodness, what a nerd.
Tolkien was a language-lover.
I know this sounds like repetition, but did you ever wonder why Tolkien was fluent in so many languages? When he was in school, it was halved between Literature and Language, and the two disciplines hated one another. Tolkien often sneered at the Lit school along with all his Lang buddies. He was an incredibly brilliant philologist, and the only reason he ended up also writing was because he wanted to create the history behind where his Elvish language came from.
Okay, this one might seem silly because duh, of course he wrote other things, but twelve-year-old Mary did not know this when she first started reading LOTR. And unlike JK Rowling, my other childhood love and whom I’ve never read anything else but Harry Potter, I’m actually deeply interested in reading everything else Tolkien has written. And it’s not all Middle-earth, either! There’s everything from Beowulf translations to other children’s stories to academic pieces. Therefore, in the hopes that this themed month has made at least one of you more excited about Tolkien than you were previously, check out the Tolkien Society’s list of all published works. I’ll be over here diving into quite a few of them.
And that is that, hobbits! This has been such a fun journey, and I’m so sad it’s come to an end.
This is truly the end, too, for I’ve got to admit something sad on my end. I was supposed to read and review The Fellowship of the Ring for tomorrow, but circumstances made that a little more difficult than anticipated. Obviously, I’m going to eventually, but with the combined Hobbit and nonfiction review (plus the indecency that was rewatching the entire Hobbit trilogy UGH), I was feeling a tiny bit burnt out, and I took a break hoping I’d be back in the saddle and ready for FOTR in time. Sadly, that didn’t happen, and so it’s not here quite yet. An Adventure in Tolkien is an ongoing project, though, and so I’m not saying the FOTR review is not happening, just not yet.
And until then, my friends, thank you for joining me on this incredible journey. It’s been a pleasure.