Ten facts about Professor Tolkien at School (part 2)
by John Pletcher

In part 1, we saw our first five facts. We highlighted Tolkien’s creative writing at an early age. Plus, we considered his mother’s big impact on such early cultivation. We reviewed school locations across his lifetime, the fact that he was not always an exceptional student, and the reality that J.R.R. never officially, academically earned the title DR. Tolkien.

Now enjoy five more facts about Professor Tolkien at school.

One of his most ground-breaking discoveries occurred very early while he was a student.

There was a grand a-ha for Tolkien that would prove foundational for all of his legendarium, a powerful spark to his own ongoing creative story crafting. While studying in the Honour School of English Language and Literature at Oxford, Tolkien explored the West Midland dialect. For the first time, he read several Old English works, including a set of Anglo-Saxon religious poems, the Crist of Cynewulf. Humphrey Carpenter notes:

Two lines from it struck him forcibly:
Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnom sended.
‘Hail Earendel, brightest of angels/above the middle-earth sent unto men.’

Carpenter proceeds to explain how ‘Earendel’ was the name of the star presaging the dawn, and Tolkien shared how ‘I felt a curious thrill . . . as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.’1

And of course, such a seminal conceptual encounter early in his own study proved pivotal to so many scenes and plot twists in The Silmarillion as well as The Lord of the Rings. Think on it. Tolkien made this discovery during his own early days as a student!

Tolkien had a real love-hate relationship with being a professor.

Browse his letters and you discover the tension. On the one hand, he was destined for influence and thrived in the classroom. The stature of his intellect was astounding. It seems teaching was a task and calling he could not escape. Nevertheless, his correspondence reveals that he had undeniable seasons when the press of grading and lecturing crowded his writing time, much to his chagrin.2 His professorial duties put bread on the table, yes, but like so many creative authors, Tolkien longed for that oh-so-elusive luxury of time to focus solely on writing his stories.

Though oft-characterized as more introverted, he infused creative flair into his lectures.

Professor Tolkien was known for blending rich content and captivating delivery methods. Mental Floss shares that “Tolkien wasn’t the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, ‘He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall.’”3 It’s fascinating to realize that some of the same creative juices that flowed so wonderfully in his writing also showed up in his delivery of lectures as well as his playful interaction with the academic community.

Tolkien wove a place of learning into the pivotal plot of The Lord of the Rings.

We know he loved libraries and was fond of time spent in such hallowed halls. Therefore, it should really be no surprise that when Faramir, Captain of Gondor, reflected to Frodo about Gandalf’s past, he reported:

We in the house of Denethor know much ancient lore by long tradition, and there are moreover in our treasuries many things preserved: books and tablets writ on withered parchments, yea, and on stone, and on leaves of silver and of gold, in divers characters. Some none can now read; and for the rest, few ever unlock them. I can read a little in them for I have had teaching. It was these records that brought the Grey Pilgrim to us.
. . . He got leave of Denethor, how I do not know, to look at the secrets of our treasury, and I learned a little of him, when he would teach (and that was seldom). Ever he would search and would question . . .4

Faramir explains how Gandalf’s research supplied insights about Isildur’s Bane. Hence, Tolkien located this place of learning, a library of sorts, in the pivotal mix of Gandalf’s history. Such a place of learning proved to be a gamechanger for the story.

Even the Professor’s final years were spent at school.

He retired from his professorship in 1959. In so doing, his academic focus shifted toward the lofty aim of further progress on The Silmarillion. Upon retirement from the Merton Professorship in the summer of ‘59, he largely stepped away from his acquaintance with his typical school cronies. Sadly, he experienced a level of unhappiness as a result. He became more solitary as he focused on meeting his wife Edith’s health needs. There was only occasional social interaction with his typical fellowship. Eventually, his garage became a converted study in order to have more space for his massive work on The Silmarillion. After Edith’s death in November of 1971, Ronald returned to Oxford (March of 1972). Fittingly, he was invited to be a resident honorary Fellow at Merton College where he lived in a college house on Merton Street. Across 1972 and 1973, he received numerous honors and accolades for his wonderful accomplishments across his lifetime at school.5

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien: a biography, 71-72.
  2. For samples of such personal reflection, see Letters 7, 28, and 35.
  3. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/59736/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-jrr-tolkien
  4. The Two Towers, 329-30.
  5. Carpenter, 237ff.