There are a lot of facts about J.R.R. Tolkien that are well-known, both to his fans and even to the general public. He was a good friend to C.S. Lewis, the man who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia. He was a practicing Catholic. He loved trees. He once wrote a biting letter to Nazis. And so on.
Of course, Tolkien was more than all of this. He was a man, with likes and dislikes, virtues and faults, hobbies and foibles. Understanding some of these personality traits helps to paint a portrait of him as a man–not just the brain that created the stories we love.
1. He Wasn’t Wild About Americans
Stating that an English man born in the late nineteenth disliked Americans is bordering on stereotypical. As an American myself, I admit that I find this somewhat amusing. (Of course, I think most distaste that isn’t truly grounded in a firm understanding of that which is disliked rather amusing.)
Most of Tolkien’s statements about Americans show up in the letters he wrote during World War II. He was professedly relieved to find an eatery “not yet discovered by Stars or Stripes” (Letters, 87). He also told a young American soldier that he thought the American accent sounds, “like English after being wiped over with a dirty sponge” (Letters, 69)!
After he achieved fame, he stated that the “American scene” distressed him (Letters, 412). he considered America to have “an entirely different mental climate and soil, polluted and impoverished” (Letters, 412).
2. He Was No Stranger to Late Nights
While Tolkien is often thought of as a prim and proper English professor who observed very regular habits, that’s not really true. His letters are full of references to late nights, particularly when the Inklings meetings were at their height (Letters, 83, 84, 93, 103). Not a few of these references mention drinking, as well.
3. As a Professor, His Lectures Weren’t Always Easy, But They Were Great
Although he was a popular lecturer, he wasn’t always the easiest to understand.
He wasn’t at at his best in the lecture room, where his quick speech and indistinct articulation meant that pupils had to concentrate hard in order to hear him. Nor was he always very good at explaining himself in the clearest terms, for he found it difficult to scale down his own knowledge of the subject so that his pupils could understand everything he was saying. But he invariably brought the subject alive and showed that it mattered to him (Biography, 137).
“As one former pupil, the writer J. I. M. Stewart, expressed it, ‘He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting, listening guests.’ (Biography, 138).”
4. He Liked Science Fiction–Especially Isaac Asimov
Considering the almost complete lack of technology in his stories, it surprises some people to learn that Tolkien was actually fond of science fiction. He admits to enjoying the genre (Letters, 377). In particular, he mentions Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, Land Under England by Joseph O’Neill (dystopian sci-fi, no less!), and the works of Isaac Asimov (Letters, 34, 33, 377). He is familiar enough with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine to make an unadorned reference to it in a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin (Letters, 121).
Photo Credit: John O’Nolan