On January 3, 2003, J. R. R. Tolkien would have celebrated his eleventy-first birthday, a most momentous occasion, the same birthday on which Bilbo departed the Shire for Rivendell.
What would this venerable Oxford don have thought about his position in Western culture at the age of 111, almost a half-century after he initially published his trilogy?
He would have seen reason enough for distress, chilling marks of the modern secular-scientific ideal. In the East: the killing fields, the gulags, and the holocaust camps. In the West: materialism, invasive corporate capitalism, and softly tyrannical bureaucracies. An anti-modern conservative, Tolkien often fell into despair, especially toward the end of his life, as he took account of the world situation.
"The spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations," Tolkien wrote in 1969, "that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydra's heads." The world, he thought, seemed little better than a new Tower of Babel, "all noise and confusion."
Yet, this most devout Christian would also see signs of immense hope, knowing well that St. Paul accorded it the second highest place among the virtues. Karol Wojtyla, pope, poet, playwright, and philosopher, had told Tolkien's beloved Roman Catholic Church, "Be not afraid," quoting Christ. Emboldened by this message, millions between 1989 and 1991 peaceably tore down the misanthropic Marxist-Leninist regimes.
On Tolkien's 111th birthday, he would also be especially surprised to note that for 50 years, his myth—a myth he felt he had recorded rather than invented—had dramatically affected and shaped people all over the world. In it, they found depth, inspiration, and guidance—not the mere entertainment or escapism his detractors claimed. InThe Lord of the Rings, they found models of Christian virtue, true heroism, and timeless Truth.
Indeed, since the trilogy's initial publication in the mid-1950s, Tolkien's popularity has waxed less and waxed more, but it has never waned. Poll after poll at the turn of the century declaredThe Lord of the Ringsthe book of the 20th century, with a readership, by one estimate, of over 150,000,000 persons worldwide. He would also see prominent academics at prestigious schools labeling him "The Author of the Century."
Out of Africa
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892. Attempting to control the fraud that seemed rampant in the diamond trade, a British bank had relocated his father, Arthur Tolkien, there.
"My parents both came from Birmingham in England. I happened to be born [in South Africa] by accident. But it had this effect; my earliest memories are of Africa, but it was alien to me, and when I came home, I had for the countryside of England both … native feeling and … personal wonder." His own Middle-earth reflects what he called his "wonder and delight in the earth"—especially his life-long love of trees.
Two years later, his mother, Mabel, gave birth to Tolkien's only sibling, his brother Hilary. In 1895, Mabel returned to England with the two boys because of Ronald's health, and Arthur remained behind in South Africa, only to die a year later. Tolkien was particularly close to his mother after his father's death. She home-schooled the two boys during their early school-age years.