Tolkien’s Characters

The characters in Tolkien’s different books developed in his mind from various people he met and knew in real life situations, as well as from his mythological poetry he began to write in the 1920’s. The first of this development of characters was in 1911, while traveling in Switzerland during his summer vacation. He bought some postcards for family and friends. One was the reproduction of a painting by a German artist, showing an old man sitting on a rock under a pine tree, with rocky mountains in the distance behind him. He has a white beard, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a cloak. He is talking gently to a young deer, which is nuzzling his hand, as the man looks at the fawn with a pleasant and compassionate expression. Tolkien preserved this postcard carefully and years later wrote on the cover paper that had preserved it: “Origin of Gandalf.”

His next experience of this kind came three years later, in 1914, during World War I, while in France. He got to know and appreciate some of his comrades in his battalion, whom he saw as good and faithful men. Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s biographer, says: “Discussing one of the main characters in The Lord of the Rings, he wrote many years later: ‘My Sam Gangee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the war during 1914, and recognized as being far superior to myself.’”

In the summer of 1922, Tolkien began writing some poetry, much of which dealt with mythologies of various kinds. Some of the poetry was published in the Leeds University magazine, The Gryphon, in a local series of poetry contributions called Yorkshire Poetry. Tolkien then began a series of poems he called Tales and Songs of Bimble Bay. One of the poems, The Dragon’s Visit, described the ravages of a dragon that arrives at Bimble Bay and encounters a ‘Miss Baggins’. A third poem, entitled Glip, tells of a strange and slimy creature that lives beneath the floor of a cave and has pale, shining eyes. All of these were glimpses of things to come that would later be seen in The Lord of the Rings.

After Tolkien was elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, he and his wife lived a quiet and simple life in a conventional Oxford suburb. Carpenter says, “It was an ordinary unremarkable life, the same kind that was led by countless other academic scholars, a life of academic brilliance, but only in a very narrow professional field that was really of little interest to laymen.”

That being the case, it was during those quiet years, that Tolkien would be in his study late at night writing two books that became worldwide best sellers, books that captured the imagination and influenced millions of readers. It shows the power and influence of literature, whether for good or ill. Tolkien quietly wrote, week in and week out, as the work of an obscure Oxford professor and lived an ordinary suburban life, loving his wife, raising his children, and tending to his garden.

Tolkien and C. S. Lewis

Tolkien and Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends as Jack, first met on May 11, 1926, in a faculty meeting at Oxford, when Lewis arrived for the first time as the Fellow and Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College, one of the colleges of Oxford.

At first, the two were not close friends, but only colleagues, with Lewis in his diary describing Tolkien as “a smooth, pale, fluent little chap.” Soon Lewis came to have a firm affection for the long-faced, keen-eyed Tolkien, who liked good talk and laughter. In response, Tolkien warmed up to Lewis’s quick mind and generous spirit. By May, 1927, Tolkien had enrolled Lewis in the group known as the Coalbiters, a fraternity of professors and academics who gathered weekly at a pub to socialize and share readings of Icelandic sagas and other writings. With this beginning, a long, deep and complex friendship began between Tolkien and Lewis.

Tolkien, was a devout Catholic, while Lewis, the son of a Belfast solicitor, had been brought up as an Ulster Protestant. When Lewis later came to faith, he joined the Anglican Church, which was a deep disappointment to Tolkien. Tolkien bitterly disliked Anglicanism and had hoped that Lewis would become a Catholic, but it is apparent that it was never an option Lewis considered for himself. Thus, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia became a life-long member of the Church of England.

– to be continued

– Mack Tomlinson

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