On a summer afternoon in the early 1930s, J.R.R. Tolkien looked up from the pile of student exams he was marking, gazed out the window and then, across a blank examination page, wrote the opening line of the book that was to bring him fame: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
What a "hobbit" was, Tolkien didn't know at the time. Years later, he would talk of how they had sprung from the "leaf-mould of memory" -- specifically, the four childhood years he had spent in Sarehole Mill, just outside Birmingham. He loved the Midlands, and saw the people of rural England -- the farmers and shopkeepers with whom he grew up and later went to war -- as the salt of Middle Earth. "I have always been impressed," he wrote, "that we are here because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds."
Tolkien himself lived a quiet, hobbit life, one devoted to family and church and work. He never traveled and he refused to own a car -- or a washing machine, or television, or any electrical gadget of convenience. He scorned fancy food and popular fashion, and he decried the pace and waste and sprawl of 20th century life -- one year writing "Not a penny for Concorde" across his tax cheque.
He was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon Language and Literature at Oxford University for over 20 years, and by profession, as well as temperament and belief, Tolkien preferred the past. Even as a youth, he was especially fond of ancient legends and the original languages in which they were written. His mother taught him Latin, and school taught him Greek, but on his own he picked up large or small parts of Medieval Welsh, Old English, Gothic, Finnish and Spanish. Contemporaries tell of his prowess in high school debates, where he would find ways to switch into any of his half-dozen languages.
But beneath the Oxford gown and tweeds, it was Tolkien's habit to wear a colourful waistcoat, and his inner life was spent, like Bilbo Baggins, in a world of high adventure. He didn't so much write stories as create parallel worlds: histories for magic rings; genealogies for Elf Kings and Wizards; maps for the Misty Mountains and Running Rivers where they dwelt; alphabets and grammars for the languages they spoke. So real and coherent were these invented languages, that Tolkien kept his own diary in them for years -- daily entries on the weather, on the price of razor blades, on the loss of friends and traditions and health, all written in hieroglyphics only he could understand. His friend C.S. Lewis said that he was a good writer because he lived "inside language."
Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit to read aloud to his children, and when they grew out of the bedtime book habit in the mid-30s, he set the story aside unfinished, with no intention of publication. But a publisher got wind of it, coaxed him into completion, and into including his own illustrations. The Hobbit, or There And Back Again was published on September 21, 1937, and it was sold out by Christmas. When the sequel Lord of the Rings trilogy was published twelve years later, university students and environmentalists turned him into a cult figure, Tolkien Societies sprang up from Iceland to North Borneo, and his books became staples for a myth-starved, modern world.
Fame was a surprise and he soon grew tired of it. After his retirement from Oxford, he and his wife escaped to a seaside retreat, but Tolkien missed academia, and when his wife died and Oxford offered him rooms, he was glad to accept. He died in 1973, his last days spent as those of Bilbo Baggins at the end of The Hobbit, back again in the quiet seclusion of his old life:
He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party. His sword he hung over the mantelpiece. His coat of mail was arranged on a stand in the hall.... His magic ring he kept a great secret, for he chiefly used it when unpleasant callers came. He took to writing poetry and visiting the elves; and though many shook their heads and touched their foreheads and said "Poor old Baggins!" and though few believed any of his tales, he remained very happy to the end of his days.