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by Mike Denzinger

Few fantasy writers in recent year have matched the quality of work done by J.R.R Tolkien the author who created the magical world of middle-earth with the three-part epic The Lord of the Rings. Much has been said about Tolkien basing his mythology on various other ancient mythologies, but little if anything is said about Tolkien’s use of his own life experiences in his work. It is my opinion that The Lord or the Rings is such excellent work because certain characters and places are based, in part, on Tolkien’s own life. One particular aspect of Tolkien’s life, in my opinion, appears in the character of Aragorn, one of the champions of the story.

Tolkien always had a longing to know more about the pre-Christian history of England as he stated himself in his essay on Beowulf, "we may regret that we don’t know more about pre-Christian mythology."(Beowulf the Monsters and Critics 25). Tolkien himself was an expert on pre-Christian literature, which includes the epic poem Beowulf. Katharyn F. Crabbe stated in her critical essay on Tolkien that he "studied and loved" Beowulf (Contemporary Literary Criticism 435). Beowulf is without a doubt one of the major factors contributing to his work. If one examines what Tolkien himself said about the poem one can see a resemblance between them. Tolkien stated in his essay on Beowulf, "It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical."(Tolkien, The monsters and the critics 27). It is as if Tolkien were critiquing himself in a previous life. Tolkien was preoccupied with pre-Christian paganism, and he claims that the author of Beowulf was also interested in pre-Christian paganism. Tolkien’s middle-earth was definitely not a creation totally from imagination and yet it was still original. For instance the ents in The Lord of the Rings ,that were the caretakers of the trees, were living beings that looked very much like trees themselves. Tolkien stole the word or idea of "ent", an Anglo-Saxon word for "giant", straight out of Beowulf, but instead of keeping the dark and shadowy creatures he elaborated on the idea and created a fascinating creature for his story (Wilson, CLC 433). Tolkien’s aim in writing The Lord of the Rings, as well as other works was to create the mythology that England never had (Yates, CLC 442). However he wanted it truly to be as historically correct as it could be, as he himself stated in a letter, "I am historically minded" he told a critic, "Middle-earth is not an imaginary world… The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live". (Wilson, CLC 433).

Tolkien was a lore master and he truly knew how to use the information available and transfer it over into his own world, but that world in which he lived also affected what he wrote about. Tolkien was born in town called Bloemfontain, which is in South Africa. Both of his parents were from England, but had moved to Africa because of a job offer that Tolkien’s father had received. It is said of Tolkiens mother that she was "homesick before she’d even left England’s shores" (Neimark, Myth Maker 4). It wasn’t long after they moved to Africa that Tolkien’s mother had decided that she wanted to go back and visit her family in England. She planned to take the very young Tolkien and his younger brother with her to see her beloved England. Unfortunately Tolkien’s father was swamped under at work and couldn’t go with his family to England. While in England Tolkien stayed at his grandparents house on his mother’s side, and as stated by Anne E. Neimark in her biography on Tolkien, he always had something to do while they stayed there whether he listen to the banjo, or stories, or just playing on the steps (7). Not long after they left Tolkien’s father had contracted rheumatic fever, but he assured his wife in a telegram that he was feeling better already (Neimark, Myth Maker 11). Tolkien’s father died soon after he sent the telegram. Tolkien was four. Soon after the Tolkien family moved to a house near his school in the city. After the move Tolkien once again experienced great tragedy. His mother collapsed and fell into a diabetic coma; she lasted six days before she died. Before Tolkien’s mother had slipped into a coma she had made the priest at their church the legal guardians of her children. Tolkien and his brother lived with an aunt until he was sixteen, when they moved to a boarding house closer to Father Francis, so he could look after them more closely. It was at this boarding house that Tolkien met his future wife Edith Bratt. They soon fell in love, but Father Francis found out about their intentions and forbade them from seeing and corresponding with each other until Tolkien was twenty-one years old. Tolkien was accepted at Oxford’s Exeter College and began his studies, and the whole time thinking of Edith. Finally during his junior year he turned twenty-one and wrote Edith for the first time in three years. He re-proclaimed his love for her and asked her to be his wife. Edith turned him down because she was engaged to someone else, so the next chance he got he took a train to see her, and he talked her into marrying him. There was only one condition, he must complete his schooling, and at least become a professor. Their marriage was delayed even longer than expected because of World War 1, but on his first leave he came home and married Edith. Tolkien was involved in a great deal of merciless and bloody fighting until he contracted a disease as a result of the war (Neimark, Myth Maker 47). Tolkien went through many more influential experiences that effected his writing, but that’s all I’m going into for this paper.

It is my belief that Tolkien modeled the character of Aragorn after his own life more than any other aspect or character in his books. Aragorn is an orphaned and exiled king who has gone through much in his long life, and still must go through a great deal more before he can reclaim his rightful position as King of Gondor and Arnor. I believe this because there are similarities in the lives of these two. First off both men had a very traumatic youth beginning with the death of their fathers. Tolkien’s father as mentioned before died fighting rheumatic fever, whereas Aragorn’s father died fighting a band of goblins (Tolkien, The Return of the King 382). For Aragorn and Tolkien, these experiences led to them moving away from their familiar homes to be raised in different places then they would have otherwise. In Tolkien’s case this meant going to England and staying with his mother’s parent, and in that house there was always something for Tolkien to do (Neimark, Myth Maker 7). Aragorn had a surprisingly similar experience. Instead of going to live with his mother’s parents he lived with his distant cousin Elrond the half elven (Tolkien, The Return of the King 382), Tolkien described it in The Fellowship of the Ring as "the Last Homely House east of the sea…a perfect house whether you like food or sleep or story telling or singing or just sitting and thinking best or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness." (272). Another theme that is present in both the life of Tolkien and Aragorn is tragedy at a very young age. Both Tolkien and Aragorn lost their mothers at a fairly young age and well before it was time for either of them to die. Tolkien said in The Return of the King that Elrond took the place of Aragorn’s father and came to love him as a son of his own (382). I believe the "Elrond" in Tolkien’s life was Father Francis. The events that take place with Elrond and Aragorn, and Father Francis and Tolkien have a striking resemblance to one another. Aragorn and Elrond’s daughter, Arwen, fell in love and wanted to be together, but Elrond forbade it unless Aragorn improved his lot in life and met certain criteria (Tolkien, The Return 387). Aragorn suffered a great deal and went through many trials and tribulations before he was able to wed his love. The same is true of Tolkien and Edith. Father Francis set specific rules for Tolkien too. Tolkien went through a great deal of suffering and trials before he too could be with his love. I also believe that there is a link between Aragorn and Tolkien in that both men are scholars and warriors. Tolkien spoke many languages, was a professor of philology, which is the study of words and their meanings, and he fought in World War One. Aragorn also spoke various languages, the arts of healing, and he was also a great warrior (Tolkien, The Return 155). The final link between Tolkien and Aragorn is that they both are familiar with many old stories and poems. Tolkien wrote a critical essay on Beowulf and Aragorn grew up in a house where one of the main forms of entertainment was to listen to ancient stories. It is clear to me that these things have been related to one another and show that my beliefs are well founded.

In conclusion I believe that Tolkien was able to create a mythological world using experiences from his own life and combining them with an array of other experiences of other people, as well as combining various mythologies and languages. His ability to do this has made him, in my opinion one of the greatest authors of all time.

Works Consulted:

Carpenter, Humphrey. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.

Crabbe, Katharyn F. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.

Duriez, Colin. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Washington, London: Broccoli, 1991.

Neimark, Anne E. Myth Maker. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine, 1982

Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics. London: Oxford University Press, 1958

Wilson, A.N. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987

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