Five Fascinating Facts about J. R. R. Tolkien

Tolkien was born on this day in 1892. In honour of the anniversary of his birth, we’re launching a new series, ‘Five Fascinating Facts’, which will be a regular feature on this blog over the coming months. Fans of our blog may have followed our recent series, ‘Five Reasons’, featuring articles on lesser-known writers such as George Meredith, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Ernest Dowson, and George du Maurier. Now we’re turning to the more famous and canonical figures of literature, in an attempt to unearth the surprising and little-known nuggets about these authors.

1. J. R. R. Tolkien was the author of the second and third bestselling novels written in English. The Lord of the Rings is the second biggest-selling novel in English, while The Hobbit comes in at number three. (If you wish to find out what the number-one bestselling English novel of all time is, then you’ll have to read our blog post full of literary facts here.)

2. Tolkien thought that ‘cellar door’ was one of the most beautiful-sounding phrases in the English language. This insight was part of Tolkien’s attempt to explain why he loved the sound of the Welsh language. Tolkien was fluent in many languages, including Old Norse (which would play an important part in his creation of the fictional land of Middle Earth). He was a philologist (scholar of languages) at Oxford and even worked on the Oxford English Dictionary for a time. In his defence of Welsh, Tolkien wrote, ‘Most English-speaking people … will admit that cellar door is “beautiful”, especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent.’

Inklings

3. The protagonist of C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy of novels was based on Tolkien. Tolkien and Lewis were friends for several decades when they both taught at the University of Oxford, and Lewis drew on the friendship when penning his science fiction novels, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet in 1938. However, they were critical of each other’s work: Tolkien disliked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because he found the allegorical depiction of good and evil too strident. After their very first meeting, Lewis wrote in his diary of Tolkien: ‘No harm in him, only needs a smack or so.’ Despite their literary differences of opinion (not to mention their theological differences – Tolkien was Catholic while Lewis was Protestant), the two men met regularly with other writers and friends (the ‘Inklings’) in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (pictured above right) to discuss their work. We have discussed the Inklings in a previous post on Lewis.

4. His son described him as a wizard. When Tolkien’s son Michael enlisted for the Second World War, and had to fill out the paperwork, he answered the question ‘Father’s Occupation’ with the answer ‘Wizard’. This was supposedly because he was irked by the lengthy nature of the form and wanted to have a bit of fun!

5. In 1961, Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by his friend C. S. Lewis. Although the two writers did not see eye to eye when it came to the other’s work, Lewis thought highly enough of Tolkien’s fiction to recommend him for this prestigious honour. However, the Nobel Prize committee rejected Tolkien for the honour, stating that his work ‘has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.’ Tens of millions of readers would disagree.

In an earlier blog post, we also took a look at the interesting history of the word ‘hobbit’.

Image: ‘The Pub Eagle and Child in Oxford, where The Inklings met’, © 2009 Jacob Lundberg, public domain.

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74 thoughts on “Five Fascinating Facts about J. R. R. Tolkien

  1. Very interesting facts about Mr. Tolkien! Also, I did not know that Dicken’s novel was the best selling in English. Both of my teens have read this novel and neither of them particularly liked it. I’m going to give it a try myself.

    • It is odd that A Tale of Two Cities beats Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist etc. to be the biggest-selling – perhaps something to do with Two Cities speaking to other cultures around the world more? I must say I don’t know. Surprising though!

      • I spoke to my hubby about this and he was surprised as well….thank you for an interesting conversation starter between me and the hubster, I appreciate it!! Great blog, by the way….very informative!!

  2. Cellar door was also, it is reported, Edgar Allen Poe’s favorite phrase.

    And who among us could forget that other literary masterpiece showcasing cellar door:

    Cause baby we’ll be
    At the drive-in
    In the old man’s Ford
    Behind the bushes
    Until I’m screamin’ for more
    Down the basement
    Lock the cellar door
    And baby
    Talk dirty to me

    — Poison

  3. A wizard indeed! It’s funny how often people group C.S Lewis and Tolkien together even though they were pretty different from each other. All the same, hard to beat having something like the Inklings. That must have been the most ordinary and extraordinary group of people all in one.

    • I think the Inklings had a lot to do with it – other writers such as T. H. White aren’t so well known about, so maybe it’s the fact that both men worked together and discussed their writing with each other that has helped to keep their work alive. And the work itself, of course!

  4. “cellar door”It does have quite a nice ring to it, had to smile at what the kid put in the application before enlisting and being shipped off to war. What happened to him? He survived the war? What was his occupation…just curious no need for a response. Probably can google it, you can google everything! And finally I love the committee of Nobel, if they give a Nobe Peace price to a person that just got into the office of the President of the United States even before he has done anything at all, and while he still has two wars going on….go figure who are those people. Or how biased they can be. Doesn´t say much about winning awards, it´s all about the people that read you. However small that group of people is. In his case a good bunch.

    • I don’t actually know what happened to Michael Tolkien, but it’s worth finding out – I’ll have to do that at some point, especially since both wars affected John Tolkien so much. I think the Nobel Prize for Literature has always been controversial, ever since the first one was given to Sully Prudhomme when several other more major writers were considered strong contenders…

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  6. I’ve been reading Tolkien’s works since I was nine years old, I consider him, as many do, among the greatest writers who have ever lived. Yet as much an expert I am on Tolkien’s work, I know very little about the man himself, which perhaps leaves me in the dark about the story behind the story. I hadn’t thought about the beauty of the term “cellar door” before, personally I think the Japanese word shinkansen is the most beautiful word ever made.

    Nice to know that creative people such as C.S. Lewis and Tolkien could be friends while disagreeing, I know people for whom any disagreement with them means an end to whatever relationship you had, and who demand you back up every opinion you make with reams of evidence, as if you were on trial. Those people don’t want friends, they want sycophants, and I’m sure both Mr. Tolkien and Mr. Lewis enjoyed their disagreements out of great respect for one another.

  7. I thought Peter Jackson’s film interpretation of The Lord of The Rings was excellent. Jackson should, however, not attempted to make a film based on the Hobbit.

    • I’m inclined to agree with you, though I have enjoyed both parts of The Hobbit so far. I’m not sure three films can sustain such a short storyline, but then I suppose Jackson’s drawing on Tolkien’s other Middle-Earth work to flesh it out. But LOTR as a film trilogy was fantastic (in both senses)…

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  9. Great post! Stirred wonderful memories of a late friend of mine and I sharing a love for Tolkien and even reading side by side on a balcony overlooking the sea. Two years to the day after he passed away I was out for a stroll and someone had placed several items out by the road including a treasured book: The Hobbit. Thanks so much!

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  11. Moseley Bog in Birmingham was the landscape that inspired the Hobbit. Nowadays it is very tiny, damp and full of mosquitoes!!

  12. I traveled through Middle Earth five times before the movies came out. Each time, I identified with a different character and made new discoveries, mostly about myself. I have also watched the LOTR movies several times and never get tired of the story. I love your blog.

  13. Your is one of my favourite blogs. You always have such intriguing insights! Well, The Lord of the Rings (trilogy) are some of my favourite books of all time ( I was introduced to The Hobbit in high school in my tiny Caribbean island!). Thanks for this and I look to learning much more about Tolkien!

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