J.R.R. Tolkien - celebrating an unusual life | Books | DW | 03.01.2017

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J.R.R. Tolkien - celebrating an unusual life

With works like "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" J.R.R. Tolkien is considered to be the inventor of sophisticated fantasy literature. Millions continue to read his timeless works each year.

On January 3, 1892, Mabel Tolkien gave birth to her first son in the central South African city of Bloemfontein, whom she named: John Ronald Reuel. This boy would later go on to create a globally successful literary universe, making him one of the most celebrated authors of all time.

She would read fairy tales and sagas at his bedside and taught him foreign languages like Latin, French and German, with young John displaying great interest in languages and storytelling. Mabel Tolkien inadvertently lay the foundation for her son to become great writer. But she never lived to see that day; she died due to diabetes-related complications when he was 12 years old.

Poetic beginnings

After Mabel Tolkien's death John and his younger brother Hilary fell under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan. Henceforth, they grew up in the UK in a suburb of Birmingham, called Sarehole Hill. With its untouched greenery, the idyllic landscape inspired Tolkien's fictive world of Hobbits later on.

John's interest in languages and his outstanding academic achievements were noted early on. He developed a particular curiosity for old-English lore and founded the "Tea Club Barrovian Society," where he and his friends would discuss literature and poetry.

It was around that time that he started writing, focusing first on poetry. Before long, he was inventing his own languages - something that would later become part of his works.

From the battlefield to the lecture hall

J.R.R. Tolkien Buchcover The Hobbit

Published in 1937: Tolkien's fantasy novel 'The Hobbit,' which first appeared in German twenty years later

Tolkien went on to study ancient Greek and Latin at Exeter College before discovering his affinity for the Welsh language. However, World War I was raging on at the time, forcing the then-24-year-old linguist to leave his studies behind and fight on the frontline in France. He had married his wife Edith just four months earlier.

"To have to leave my wife was like death to me," he later wrote.

Many of his closest friends died during the barbarous Battle of the Somme. Tolkien survived the war, returned to Britain and sought a quiet and simple life from then on. He first became a lecturer and then a professor of Old English language and literature at Oxford - teaching by day, writing by night, creating a fictive universe with its own history, cultures and languages.

Little friends of his own liking

First he had hoped to write a children's book, but "The Hobbit" kept growing chapter by chapter. He dreamed up literary creations looking like small humans with furry feet and living inside small caves on grassy meadows. To name them "Hobbits" just occurred to him on a whim.

But he also fashioned their characteristics according to his own personality. Love of nature, appreciation for simple meals and an innate aversion to travel: these were the traits Tolkien shared with his fictive friends.

Many years went by before Tolkien decided to approach publishers with his work. When "The Hobbit" was first published in 1937, people young and old fell in love with the narrative. The publishers received countless letters as readers demanded to learn more about the inhabitants of Tolkien's Middle Earth. But Tolkien took another 15 years to finish the rest of the saga, "The Lord of the Rings."

After all, writing was his hobby - not his profession.

Silver Screen success

J.R.R. Tolkien's epic "The Lord of the Rings" was first published in 1954, with its overnight success making the bookish professor one of the century's major writers. Tolkien became a cult figure, and "The Lord of the Rings" has sold more than 150 million copies to date.

The film adaptation, released in three installments, broke many records totaling almost $3 billion at the box office and garnering 17 Academy Awards. This sparked the production of a stage musical, independent of the film franchise, which was performed in London and Toronto from 2006 until 2008. A revival and a world tour are currently planned.

The film adaptation of the "The Hobbit," also released in three installments, was almost as successful at the "Lord of the Rings" films. All six Tolkien movies are among the highest-grossing films of all time.

Film image 'Lord of the Ring'

A big box-office success: 'The Lord of the Rings' with Elijah Wood in the role of Frodo

But there is yet more Hollywood magic ahead: British filmmaker James Strong announced that he is planning to direct a movie based on Tolkien's life, entitled "Middle Earth." Peter Jackson, who directed the "The Lord of the Rings" as well as the "The Hobbit" trilogies said he would also get involved in the Warner Brothers' production.

"Beren and Luthien"

And there will another Tolkien masterpiece in print for the first time later this year - 125 years after the author's birth. "Beren and Luthien" will be published in May 2017; the love story between a mortal and an immortal elf is one of a number of works Tolkien didn't complete and publish during his lifetime. Written 100 years ago, it is also one of his oldest works.

This particular narrative is particularly close to home: The names "Beren" and "Luthien" are engraved on the tombstones of Tolkien and his wife Edith. The couple were married for 50 years until Edith's death.

Shortly after her passing, Tolkien wrote that he never referred to his wife as "Luthien," but added that "she was the origin of this story."

J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973. But his stories continue to fascinate people and inspire them to get in touch with their imagination to this day.

Click on the picture gallery above for a view of images from Tolkien's life and times.

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