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The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien - Barron's Booknotes
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When you were younger, did you ever make up stories about
the people and places around your home? Maybe there was an
abandoned house that in your imagination became haunted by
ghosts, or an old neighbor woman that you envisioned as a
witch. This fantasizing isn't very different from what many
writers do when they transform their experiences into fiction. J.
R. R. Tolkien, in his invention of Middle-earth, has done this to
a greater degree than most. The Hobbit and, even more so, The
Lord of the Rings were the fruits of a lifetime's work, and
Tolkien incorporated into them the landscape of his childhood,
his interest in philology (the study of languages), his religious
faith, his own vivid imagination, and his attitudes toward the
world and the events happening around him.

The first three years of Tolkien's life were spent in South
Africa, where he had been born in 1892. His mother returned to
England in 1895 with him and his younger brother. His father
stayed in South Africa, planning to join the family later, but
within a few months he contracted rheumatic fever and died.

The Tolkiens settled in the small English town of Sarehole,
where the widow struggled to raise her children alone. As he
grew, Tolkien showed an aptitude for language, and under his
mother's tutelage studied Latin and French. An avid reader, he
especially loved fairy tales. His favorite was the story of
Sigurd, the dragon slayer. It wasn't the hero but the dragon
Fafnir who intrigued him. The dragon represented a world that
was exciting and dangerous, yet that was safely removed from
his own life. Tolkien later recalled, "...the world that contained
even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful,
at whatever the cost or peril." His fascination with dragons was
later to appear in the character Smaug in The Hobbit.

Despite their poverty, it was a happy time for the boys, and in
later years Tolkien recalled the countryside and its people with
great fondness. In fact, the land and the people of Sarehole
were to become part of his books, as the Shire and its
whimsical inhabitants, the hobbits. You can see elements of his
childhood home in hobbit country. The Sarehole mill became
an important landmark near Bag End, Bilbo's home, and the
miller's evil-looking son was transformed into Ted Sandyman,
the unscrupulous hobbit who contributes to the polluting of the
Shire in The Lord of the Rings. "The Shire," Tolkien once said,
"is very like the kind of world in which I first became aware of
things." At another time, he said, "I took the idea of the hobbits
from the village people and the children."

Tolkien became absorbed in the study of language. After his
teachers introduced him to Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, he
began to read heroic tales such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight. Next he turned to Old Norse and the Norse
sagas. On his own, he rummaged through the local bookstore
for books on philology and archaic languages. Then he began
to invent his own languages and alphabets. He developed
complex histories for his languages, earlier words that evolved
into later words, just as the Old English "stan" evolved into
"stone" in modern English.

Not surprisingly, Tolkien went to Oxford University to study
philology. One day he discovered a Finnish grammar book.
While the words themselves enthralled him, Tolkien's
imagination was also fired by the tales written in this strange
language. He delved into Finnish mythology and found himself
wishing that there was such a body of work for England. It was
perhaps at this point he first thought of writing a mythology

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