From the sprawling fields of Rohan to the white spires of Minas Tirith, Middle Earth is so familiar, and so fully formed, that sometimes it’s hard to comprehend that it isn’t real. J.R.R Tolkien set out to write just a simple children’s book about a little Hobbit going on an adventure, and in the process, created something truly magical.
Tolkien created this world not in broad strokes, but in fine detailed lines. But for Tolkien, the journey to make Middle Earth the immersive realm that it is wasn’t always easy, and like any monumental undertaking, there were hiccups along the way.
Tolkien’s journey, similar to the one undertaken by his Fellowship, was full of perseverance, passion, and an unwavering dedication to the story.
In this article, we’ll unravel just some of the extraordinary lengths Tolkien went to while writing the Lord of the Rings, as well as some intricacies of Middle Earth that might surprise you. But be warned before you read any further–because here there be dragons.
J.R.R Tolkien Before Middle Earth
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, a town in the Orange Free State of South Africa, on January 3, 1892. His parents, Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, had left England for Arthur’s career as a banker. He didn’t spend much of his life there, having left back for England at the age of 3, but a few events in his short time there might have shaped his future stories.
First, little John was bitten by a large baboon spider but suffered no ill health effects from this event. While spiders may have played a role in his stories as an adult, he claimed to have not remembered the bite.
Second, and much more tragically, Arthur Tolkien died from rheumatic fever while in South Africa while John and his mother were away visiting family in England.
Left without her husband and his income, Mabel moved herself and her two children back in with her parents in Kings Heath, Birmingham. Later, they would move to a town called Sarehole, and then a Worcestershire village that eventually became a part of Birmingham.
Despite losing his father, Tolkien enjoyed his childhood in the English countryside. He spent time exploring the more wild areas around his new home, including mills and bogs that made up what is now known as Shire County Park.
These ancient forests and thick swamps would eventually become places in Middle Earth, but at the time, they were just the preferred haunting grounds of a young boy who loved the natural world.
Tolkien would go on to describe one of his favorite places, Sarehole Mill, to The Guardian,
“It was a kind of lost paradise… There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill…
I could draw you a map of every inch of it. I loved it with an (intense) love… I was brought up in considerable poverty, but I was happy running about in that country. I took the idea of the Hobbits from the village people and children…”
He had so much time to explore because his mother home-schooled him and his brother, and Mabel’s love of botany was passed down to her children through these teachings. Little Tolkien also liked to draw, focusing on trees and landscapes as his mind wandered.
Tolkien’s forte, though, turned out to be languages. The young future author would be reading by the age of four and could write not too long afterward. He took to Latin well and spent a lot of time reading. Fantasy and books about magic were his favorite, foreshadowing his later fame as a fantasy author.
This indulgent and adventurous childhood was cut short for Tolkien when his mother died at just the age of 34. She passed from acute diabetes mellitus type 1, a death sentence for anyone at that time.
The treatment she would have needed, insulin, wouldn’t be discovered for another two decades. Before her passing, she chose a guardian for her two sons, a Catholic priest named Father Xavier Morgan.
Tolkien’s Teenage Years
Life didn’t end with the death of his mother, although it would affect him greatly. He found companionship with his cousins, Mary and Marjorie Incledon, and the three of them would form a keen interest in constructed language.
A constructed language, also known as an invented language, is a language usually created for a work of fiction or another purpose outside of regular speech.
The three teens would create a number of constructed languages, their first called Animalic, followed by Nevbosh and Naffarin. This odd hobby would eventually lead to Tolkien forming entire complex languages for his books as an adult, but as a teen, it was just a way to pass the time.
While attending the King Edwards School, Tolkien and a number of friends gathered together to form a group.
This semi-secret club was dubbed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. The boys in the T.C.B.S spent warm afternoons drinking tea in the Barrow Stones near the school, and their gatherings would later cement his fondness for writing poetry.
One of the most formative experiences of his youth would be a trip to Switzerland in 1911. During this trip, Tolkien and twelve others would hike from the town of Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen village, through the glacial deposits and the base of the mountains, through the Grimsel Pass, to the Aletsch glacier, and ending in the town of Zermatt.
Much of this journey would go on to lend itself to parts of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, especially the Misty Mountains which Bilbo traveled across.
After returning from his Switzerland trip, Tolkien would attend Exeter College in Oxford, graduating in 1915 with honors. His major would be English language and literature.
Marriage to Edith Tolkien, His Muse
J.R.R Tolkien was only 16 when he met the woman who would be the love of his life, Edith Mary Bratt. They were first introduced to one another when Tolkien’s brother Hilary moved into a boarding house where Mary lived, and she and Tolkien hit it off right away.
There were a few things keeping them apart, though. Edith was three years Tolkien’s senior, and where Tolkien was a Catholic and passionate about his faith, Edith was a Protestant. But none of that mattered when they spent time together, finding shared interests and personalities that meshed perfectly.
Tolkien’s guardian wasn’t keen on this love story. To him, Edith was too old and too Protestant to consider marrying. He forbade the young man from seeing her until he was 21, and Tolkien agreed. He only slipped up once, but Father Morgan threatened to end his time at university if it happened again. Heartbroken but resigned, Tolkien waited.
On the exact date of his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote Edith a letter, telling her that he had never stopped loving her and that he wanted her to be his wife. Edith had thought up until receiving that letter that Tolkien had abandoned her, and was engaged to another man, but when she read the correspondence from Tolkien everything changed. Tolkien took a train to meet Edith, and they spent the entire day talking under a railroad viaduct. By the time the sun had set, they agreed to marry.
They would be married on March 22, 1916. Edith would give Tolkien four children, John Francis Reuel Tolkien, Michael Hilary Reuel Tolkien, Christopher John Reuel Tolkien, and Pricilla Mary Anne Reuel Tolkien.
Edith was Tolkien’s muse throughout his life, and the love he carried for her never burnt out. He considered her his Luthien, an elven maiden in his works who was said to be the most beautiful woman to ever live. Like Luthien herself, Edith once danced for Tolkien in a hemlock grove. He recalled about his wife,
“In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance.”
How Did Tolkien Create Middle-earth?
How War Shaped The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
So far, we’ve discovered a few of the sources of Tolkien’s Middle-earth–his childhood haven of the woods around Birmingham, the Swiss Alps and the surrounding areas, and even his wife Edith.
But more than anything, there is another source that added a layer of darkness to the idyllic Middle-earth–World War I.
War is not a foreign concept in Middle Earth, and unfortunately, it’s a common one here in reality as well. The War of the Ring and the Battle of the Seven Armies existed within the pages of Tolkien’s book, but for Tolkien himself, the war took the form of World War I, which broke out in 1914.
At this time, Tolkien had been writing bits and pieces of lore and drawing maps, but nothing recognizable as Middle-earth had taken shape just yet.
J.R.R. Tolkien did not want to be a soldier, which was a bold choice at a time when every young man was expected to be enthusiastic about joining the fight.
When everyone else his age was volunteering, Tolkien held back, shocking his family, but the scrutiny didn’t change his mind.
Eventually, though, he was conscripted and received the news that he would be stationed in France. The hardest part for the author was leaving his beloved Edith, and he described parting from her as “like a death”.
As a second lieutenant, Tolkien was in control of a small unit. They arrived at the Somme in 1916, and his time there was miserable. As miserable as it was, this was when Tolkien first started to truly flesh out the details of Middle-earth in his mind.
It was two years before that the first Middle-earth writing had come into being in the form of a poem called ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’, but at only eight lines long, it wasn’t considered a full story.
Tragically, during the Battle of Somme, Tolkien lost a dear friend named Rob Gibson, a member of the T.C.B.S.
Tolkien spent his time in the trenches covered in lice and mourning his dear friend. It wasn’t long before he came down with trench fever. This fever had him taken off the front lines. It was during his recovery that Tolkien began to write his first real story in the world of Middle-earth, called ‘The Fall of Gondolin’.
Experts on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien have identified many areas of his writing that more than likely were inspired by parts of the war Tolkien was forced to take part in.
For the most part, Tolkien himself never confirmed that war was the driving force behind the creation of Middle-earth, but there were a few places that he admitted had spawned from his time on the battlefield.
One of the most obvious is the connection between the Battle of Somme and Mordor. The Battle of Somme was hell, with burning landscapes, darkness, and death all around. Tolkien created Mordor, the center of Sauron’s territory, based on those terrible memories.
Another direct correlation between Tolkien’s time in the war and Middle-earth is the Fellowship of the Ring itself and how it harkens back to the camaraderie of soldiers even in the worst of times.
The Constructed Languages of Middle-earth
One of the most incredible parts of the creation of Middle-earth is undoubtedly the languages that Tolkien developed for them.
It wasn’t enough just to write about elves, men, dwarves, and hobbits–he wanted them to have their own languages. Tolkien had been constructing languages since he was a child, but the dialects he made for his books were much more carefully detailed.
The crowning jewel of Tolkien’s constructed languages is Quenya, or High-elven, which is Finnish-inspired. Close behind was Sindarin, or Grey-elven, which was Welsh-inspired.
Tolkien and the Creation of Middle-earth
With inspiration drawn from the unique, heartbreaking, and victorious events of his life, Tolkien was able to create something truly incredible in Middle-earth.
In 1937, The Hobbit was published, and its success drove Tolkien to begin soon after on The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring hit shelves over a decade later in 1954, quickly followed by its sequels.
Whether it was a spider biting a small child, a boy exploring all the history and wildness of the English country, a trio of cousins inventing their own languages, grieving for an old friend, or escapism from the hell of the trenches of WWI, Middle-earth would have been impossible if Tolkien hadn’t been a master of putting these experiences into words.
Each piece of Middle-earth is a small portion of Tolkien’s past, all coming together like one astounding puzzle.
“The origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth”
“How A Trek Through Switzerland Inspired J.R.R. Tolkien To Create A Magical Middle-Earth”
“How J.R.R. Tolkien Came to Write the Stories of ‘The Rings of Power’”