Wayne Hammond, assistant Chapin librarian, delivered the latest talk in the Faculty Lecture Series, entitled “The Not-So-Secret Vice of J.R.R. Tolkien” on Thursday, Feb. 17.
Hammond discussed the life and writings of Tolkien, and the impact his storytelling has had and continues to have on our culture.
The “not-so-secret vice” to which Hammond referred was Tolkien’s love of inventing languages. This is not an unusual pursuit for a philologist, but what made Tolkien’s pursuit noteworthy was that it became almost an obsession for him. He devoted a great amount of time to developing his new language, and his fiction evolved simultaneously with it.
Tolkien’s love of story equaled his love of words, and as a culture arose from the richness of his language, he felt compelled to tell the tales which were kindled in his imagination. Such was the energy he put into his language that the ideas gave birth to an entire mythological system, and he wrote stories to provide an environment for the use of his language and mythology.
Tolkien first chronicled this mythology in a poem entitled “Earendel the Mariner” in 1914. The name, taken from Old English literature, had sparked his imagination and drove him to further flesh out his mythology.
Later, in works such as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, he adopted more literary devices, such as adopting the guise of a translator, to give his world more depth and verisimilitude. Last in this series of books came The Silmarilian, which was published posthumously from his collected papers.
His son, Christopher Tolkien, called his father’s literature “a continuing and evolving creation,” as every book added to the chronicles of Tolkien’s world.
Tolkien’s fictional writing began even before this, however, in works such as Farmer Giles of Ham and The Father Christmas Letters, whose original purpose was to amuse his children. Hammond called The Hobbit, his last book intended for children, “the high-water mark of his children’s writing career.”
With Lord of the Rings, Tolkien “spoke to a more popular audience,” said Hammond, “but he incorporated the richness of his mythology and original thought.”
Tolkien himself thought it was somewhat of a vice to devote the time he had on his language and mythology, but he never slighted his family or his teaching at Oxford. Nonetheless, the work he put into his literature was noticed.
“Now we know what you have been doing all these years,” some of his colleagues were reported to have said upon seeing one of his books.
Members of academia often tended to overlook his other works, which included a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into Middle English, and an essay on the epic Beowulf.
Many also looked down on Tolkien’s work as non-academic and geared towards the uneducated public. Hammond noted that similar accusations were borne by C.S. Lewis, who was not only a contemporary of Tolkien, but a close friend who taught at Oxford with him and based his Space Trilogy on an argument between the two.
Despite some critical rancor, Tolkien’s mythology has remained one of the most popular pieces of fiction of our time. Lord of the Rings was recently voted the most popular book of the 20th century in one poll, above such classics as George Orwell’s 1984 and Joyce’s Ulysses.
There is no denying the influence Tolkien’s works have had on our culture. Tolkien wrote only to entertain but nonetheless he wrote with depth and meaning which spoke to millions. Not only his ideas, but also many of his words, worked their way into the vernacular, a tribute to Tolkien’s superb command of the English language.
Hammond called his literature “a fictional world as rich and deep as our own, and in many ways more attractive.” Tolkien’s works, he said, show no signs of diminishing in popularity even though they are being dubbed “classics.”
Lastly, Hammond said that his own vice was in fact his deep love of Tolkien’s work. Dating back to the 1970s, he was told to “grow up, and read truly serious authors.”
But despite this, he credits Tolkien with his becoming a librarian, and says his books are an excellent starting point to reading many other great authors.
As Hammond pointed out, interest in Tolkien’s books is still very alive in the literary world. A new book of essays on his literature appeared last month and another is on the horizon. Even now, at the turn of the 20th century, Tolkien’s works continue to elicit discussion and thought, and will continue to inspire many in the years to come.