Today is Tolkien Reading Day, an annual event launched in 2003 by the Tolkien Society. (The date of 25 March was chosen in honour of the fall of Sauron in the Third Age, year 3019, in Tolkien’s fiction.) The reading day promotes the use of Tolkien’s writing in schools and library groups, and is celebrated in numerous countries. To mark the occasion, we’ve put together ten of our favourite quotations from John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. What are you doing for Tolkien Reading Day this year?
On Beowulf and myth: ‘The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.’ (From ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, 1936)
On language: ‘No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.’ (English and Welsh, 1955)
On names: ‘It gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.’ (BBC interview, 1971)
On imagination: ‘The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power.’ (On Fairy-Stories, 1939)
On dragons: ‘I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.’ (On Fairy-Stories, 1939)
On cellar doors (no, really): ‘Most English-speaking people […] will admit that cellar door is “beautiful”, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. […] Well then, in Welsh, for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.’ (English and Welsh, 1955)
On escapism: ‘I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?’ (On Fairy-Stories, 1939)
On Hitler: ‘I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.’ (Letter to his son Michael Tolkien, 1941)
On anarchy: ‘My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) […] The most improper job of any man […] is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.’ (Letter to his son Christopher Tolkien, 1943)
On The Lord of the Rings: ‘Nothing has astonished me more (and I think my publishers) than the welcome given to The Lord of the Rings. But it is, of course, a constant source of consolation and pleasure to me. And, I may say, a piece of singular good fortune, much envied by some of my contemporaries. Wonderful people still buy the book, and to a man “retired” that is both grateful and comforting.’ (Letter to Houghton Mifflin Co., 1955; since then, The Lord of the Rings has gone on to become the second biggest-selling book in English)
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy our interesting facts about J. R. R. Tolkien, including why the Nobel Prize committee turned him down for the Literature prize. You might also enjoy our facts about literacy and reading. More information about Tolkien Reading Day can be found here.