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Top 10 Epic Facts About J.R.R. Tolkien

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nicholas Roffey

Tolkien’s life was just as epic as his prose. Today we are looking at the most interesting facts about J.R.R. Tolkien’s life. The author of The Lord of the Rings lead a very interesting life, from fighting in World War 1 to his friendship with C.S. Lewis. Join WatchMojo as we count down the most fascinating facts about J.R.R. Tolkien. Let us know in the comments which of these facts surprised you the most!

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Script written by Nicholas Roffey

Top 10 Epic Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien


Tolkien’s life was just as epic as his prose. Welcome to Watchmojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Epic Facts about Tolkien.

For this list, we’re looking at the most remarkable, astonishing, and inspiring facts about “The Lord of the Rings” author J. R. R. Tolkien.

#10: He Was the Life of the Party . . . & the Lecture

An Oxford philologist might not sound like a rowdy guest. But Tolkien was no wallflower. He had a close circle of companions, and an incorrigible love of pranks. He once attended a party dressed as a polar bear, and would dress up as an Anglo-Saxon warrior - axe included - to chase after his bewildered neighbor. In lectures, he was no less theatrical - pulling out a small green shoe as proof of leprechauns. Or he’d just walk in, slam down his books, and bellow lines from Beowulf - turning the lecture room, in the words of one student, “into a mead hall”.

#9: He Was a Terror on the Road

As a student, Tolkien once stole a bus to take his friends on a joyride. But he generally disliked motorized vehicles, and only bought his first car in the 1930s. It might have been better had he stuck to his trusty bicycle. He was fearless behind the wheel, and would speed into traffic with the cry: “Charge them and they scatter!” Unsurprisingly, he ended up driving “Old Jo”, as the car was named, right into a wall. On the bright side, his mishaps inspired him to write “Mr. Bliss”, a children’s book about a man’s misadventures by motor-car.

#8: He Wanted to Create a New Mythology for England

You’d think that writing one of the world’s greatest novels would be enough. But Tolkien’s ambitions were much bigger. He lamented that unlike Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, England had no “stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil)”. Myths were important, he believed, because they refracted the divine light into “living shapes that move from mind to mind”. With Middle-earth, he told one reader, he aspired to “restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own.” To that end, he created for Middle-earth an entire world history, laid out in painstaking and astonishing detail in tales only published after his death.

#7: He Was Obsessed with Detail

A self-described “pedant devoted to accuracy”, Tolkien’s obsession with detail was staggering. To bring Middle-earth to life, he did much more than fill it with people, places, and history. He also created songs and languages. And he labored over even the smallest minutiae of Bilbo and Frodo’s adventures - including Middle-earth’s seasons, weather, and geography. In fact, he even obsessed over the phases of the moon, rewriting sections of “The Lord of the Rings” when he realized he’d made a mistake. It might have been obsessive, but his attention to detail is part of what makes the world he made so rich and compelling.

#6: He Was One of the Legendary Inklings

We can thank this fellowship for modern fantasy literature! In the 1930s and 40s, the now legendary Inklings met regularly to read and discuss their works-in-progress. They included fantasy writers Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, and of course one John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. On Thursday evenings, they met in Lewis’ rooms, but on Tuesday afternoons could be found at The Eagle and Child pub - aka the Bird and Baby. Tolkien’s works weren’t always well-received, with Inkling Hugo Dyson exclaiming “Oh God, no more Elves!” But they shared a common aim: celebrating great literature and supporting one another in their own literary endeavours. Tolkien would go on to fictionalize the Inklings as The Notion Club in an unfinished novel later published in “Sauron Defeated”.

#5: He Was Friends with C. S. Lewis

Great minds seem to attract each other. Fellow Inkling and Oxford professor C. S. Lewis, best known for “The Chronicles of Narnia”, was one of Tolkien’s closest friends . . . and rivals. They supported one another as they wrote their respective series, sharing drafts, and even basing characters on each other. Lewis modelled “The Space Trilogy’s” Elwin Ransom on Tolkien; and Tolkien drew on Lewis’ booming voice for Treebeard. Tolkien’s belief that myths expressed greater truths played a key role in converting Lewis to Christianity. Of course, they also had their differences: Lewis was Anglican, Tolkien Catholic; and Tolkien objected to Lewis’ overt use of religious allegory. But he called Lewis’ “sheer encouragement” an “unpayable debt”. “He was for long,” Tolkien wrote, “my only audience.”

#4: He's One of the Most Read Authors of All Time

Tolkien is often called the “father of modern fantasy”, and of high fantasy in particular. Of course, this isn’t to say that he invented fantasy per se. His own influences included the poems, fairy tales, and novels of George MacDonald and William Morris. Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery novels had been around since the late 1920s. But Tolkien’s influence is undeniable. “The Lord of the Rings” has sold over 150 million copies, and has been translated into 38 languages. “The Hobbit” has sold another 100 million. His works had a “strong impact” on the development of Dungeons & Dragons, and on all sorts of high, low, and heroic fantasy to come. Without them, we wouldn’t have the fantasy epics we know and love today.

#3: He Made Up Languages for Kicks

Before there was Klingon, Na’vi, and Valyrian, there was Quenya! We all have hobbies, but few us can count among them the invention of new languages. Tolkien’s love of languages led him to learn over a dozen, and become familiar with many more - all while creating new ones on the side. He got his start in his teens, drawing on Latin and Spanish to construct “Naffarin”. But his most developed languages were Quenya and Sindarin, influenced by Finnish and Welsh respectively. They were part of a family of Elvish languages invented just for the fun of it. Since language and history walk hand-in-hand, Tolkien created Middle-earth to complete his languages, rather than vice versa - giving them a mythology and a home!

#2: He Fought in World War I

“From the ashes, a fire shall be woken . . .” Tolkien’s formative experiences during the First World War had a powerful impact on his writing, even as he avoided simple allegory. In 1915, he enlisted in the armed services, and a year later fought in the bloody Battle of the Somme. Due to poor health, he was soon sent home, but the effects of the war followed him. “By 1918,” he wrote, “all but one of my close friends were dead”. He started writing “The Fall of Gondolin”, his first tale set in Middle-earth, in an army barracks. The oppressive “shadow of war”, its lasting trauma, and the importance of love and fellowship, would become central themes of “The Lord of the Rings”.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

He Worked on the Oxford Dictionary

"Beowulf's" Fame Owes a Lot to Tolkien's Lecture

He Founded a Viking Club

He Was Kidnapped for a Day as a Baby

#1: He Had an Epic Love Story

Middle-earth has seen its own fair share of wars. But “among the tales of sorrow and ruin”, Tolkien wrote, there were also stories of “light that endures”. When he was 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, but as she was three years older and a Protestant, his guardian forbade him from seeing her until he turned 21. So on his 21st birthday he asked her to marry him. Leaving her fiance, she accepted, and became Edith Tolkien in 1916. One afternoon in 1917, with the Great War still wracking Europe, Edith danced and sang in a woodland glade - inspiring Tolkien’s love story of Beren and the elf-maid Lúthien. The lovers’ names appear below Tolkien and Edith’s on their final resting place.

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