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. According to at least one estimate, The Lord of the Rings is the second biggest-selling novel in English, while The Hobbit comes in at number three, with estimated sales of 100 million copies for each. (We have more information about the biggest bestselling books in 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.’


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. and taken a look at the interesting side of C. S. Lewis in another post (which features a great Tolkien anecdote).

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.

For more literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts,  The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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.