15 Things You Didn’t Know About J. R. R. Tolkien

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English novelist J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have never faded from popularity, thanks to their enduring mythology and Peter Jackson’s epic film adaptations. We’re celebrating what would have been the author’s birthday by taking a closer look at his fascinating life with a few facts you might not have known about one of pop culture’s top-earning late celebrities.

—Tolkien was “kidnapped” as a baby in South Africa:

In an issue of Biography Magazine, Alice Carr answered a reader’s question, “Was Tolkien really kidnapped as a baby?” Carr describes how a servant “borrowed” Tolkien and showed him to the other villagers, who had never seen a “white infant.” Carr goes on to explain other adventures throughout Tolkien’s childhood. “A tarantula bit him when he was a toddler (luckily, a quick-witted family nurse sucked the poison out) and a few years later a neighbor’s escaped pet monkeys chewed up his clothes.”

—He was a Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University from 1945 to 1959. At one point, he contributed writing to the Oxford English Dictionary, focused mainly on the history and etymology of words.

—The author first wrote The Hobbit on a “dull exam paper he was correcting” during his time at Pembroke College.

—Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme starting in 1916, but became rather ill (trench fever) and watched many of his school friends die in battle. The experience haunted him throughout his life and influenced his work.

—C. S. Lewis was one of Tolkien’s closest friends. The author would often “test read” his stories to Lewis.

Like the Hobbits he created, Tolkien loved the great outdoors. He ate very plain food, snacked on mushrooms plucked from the fields, and smoked a pipe. He also had an eccentric fondness for waistcoats.

—Tolkien grew up in the hamlet of Sarehole, “his imaginative heartland, a small village near Birmingham which was the starting-point for his fictional Shire in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.” Said Tolkien: “It was a kind of lost paradise. There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill. I always knew it would go — and it did.”

—The author was an avid bicyclist: “Tolkien became a familiar figure cycling along the Banbury Road, travelling between home and Pembroke College on his extraordinarily high-seated bicycle while wearing cap and voluminous gown.”

—He wrote a scathing letter to the Nazis when they were readying to publish The Hobbit and asked if Tolkien was of Aryan origin:

But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the 18th century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject—which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

—Tolkien didn’t like the Beatles and blocked them from making a Lord of the Rings movie starring the band:

Once upon a time, the Fab Four—having slain the pop charts—decided to set their sights on the Dark Lord Sauron by making a Lord of the Rings feature, starring themselves. One man dared stand in their way: J.R.R. Tolkien. According to Peter Jackson, who knows a little something about making Lord of the Rings movies, John Lennon was the Beatle most keen on LOTR back in the ’60s—and he wanted to play Gollum, while Paul McCartney would play Frodo, Ringo Starr would take on Sam and George Harrison would beard it up for Gandalf. And he approached a pre-2001 Stanley Kubrick to direct. McCartney told Jackson about the failed scheme when the two bumped into each other at the Academy Awards: “It was something John was driving and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson told the Wellington Evening Post in 2002.

—The Lord of the Rings has a Catholic subtext:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.

—One of Tolkien’s favorite boyhood books was S. R. Crockett’s historical novel The Black Douglas: “This story of life in Scotland during the 1400s focuses on the simple things: unrequited love, true love blocked by circumstance, arrogant ambition, and unbounded jealousy, all accompanied by vengeful feuding between individuals and clans who’d made themselves masters of the struggle for revenge. Budding romance here faces family quarrels and even international politics, with a French ambassador who’s secretly a serial killer and the fate of Scotland as a free nation at stake. Justice, honor, and devotion have seldom faced so many challenges all at once.”

—Tolkien loved giving lectures. He would read Beowulf to his students and use different accents and voices to heighten the tale. “Tolkien would rather enjoy making a recording of his work, doing all the different voices; rustic ones for the hobbits and a horrid, high, hissing one for Gollum, the creature who slithers after them, trying to win back the Dark Lord’s ring for himself,” wrote the New York Times in a 1967 interview.

—Tolkien was fascinated with language and invented several of his own for his stories, including Quenya and Sindarin. He once wrote: “It is not a ‘hobby,’ in the sense of something quite different from one’s work, taken up as a relief-outlet. 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.”

There is a line of craftspeople in Tolkien’s family who made and sold clocks, watches, and pianos.