LONDON, Sept. 2 - J. R. R. Tolkien, linguist, scholar and author of "The Lord of the Rings," died today in Bournemouth. He was 81 years old. Three sons and a daughter survive.
Creator of a World
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien cast a spell over tens of thousands of Americans in the nineteen-sixties with his 500,000-word trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings," in essence a fantasy of the war between ultimate good and ultimate evil.
Creating the complex but consistent world of Middle Earth, complete with elaborate maps, Tolkien peopled it with hobbits, elves, dwarves, men, wizards and Ents, and Orcs (goblins) and other servants of the Dark Lord, Sauron. In particular, he described the adventures of one hobbit, Frodo son of Drogo, who became the Ring Bearer and the key figure in the destruction of the Dark Tower. As Gandalf, the wizard, remarked, there was more to him than met they eye.
The story can be read on many levels. But the author, a scholar and linguist, for 39 years a teacher, denied emphatically that it was an allegory. The Ring, discovered by Frodo's uncle, Bilbo Baggins, in an earlier book, "The Hobbit," has the power to make its wearer invisible, but it is infinitely evil.
Tolkien admirers compared him favorably with Milton, Spenser and Tolstoy. His English publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, speculated that "The Lord of the Rings" would be more likely to live beyond his and his son's time than any other work he had printed.
But detractors, among them the critic Edmund Wilson, put down "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien's most famous and most serious fantasy, as a "children's book which has somehow gotten out of hand." A London Observer critic condemned it in 1961 as "sheer escapist literature... dull, ill-written and whimsical" and expressed the wish that Tolkien's work would soon pass into "merciful oblivion."
It did anything but. It was just four years later, printed in paperback in this country by Ballantine and Ace Books, that a quarter of a million copies of the trilogy were sold in 10 months. In the late sixties all over America fan clubs sprouted, such as the Tolkien Society of America, and members of the cult-many of them students-decorated their walls with the maps of Middle Earth. The trilogy was also published in hard cover by Houghton Mifflin and was a Book-of-the-Month Club Selection.
The creator of this monumental, controversial work (or sub-creator as he preferred to call writers of fantasy) was an authority on Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Chaucer. He was a gentle, blue-eyed, donnish-appearing man who favored tweeds, smoked a pipe and liked to take walks and ride an old bicycle (though he converted to a stylish car with the success of his books).
From 1925 to 1959 he was a professor at Oxford, ultimately Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and a fellow of Merton College. He was somewhat bemused by the acclaim his extracurricular fantasy received-at the endless interpretations that variously called it a great Christian allegory, the last literary masterpiece of the Middle Ages and a philological game.
Tolkien maintained, however, that it wasn't intended as an allegory. "I don't like allegories. I never liked Hans Christian Andersen because I knew he was always getting at me," he said.
The trilogy was written, he recalled, to illustrate a 1938 lecture of his at the University of Glasgow on fairy stories. He admitted that fairy stories were something of an escape, but didn't see why there should not be an escape from the world of factories, machine-guns and bombs.
It was joy, he said, that was the mark of the true fairy story: "...However wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."
His own fantasy, it was said, had begun when he was correcting examination papers one day and happened to scratch at the top of one of the dullest "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." Then hobbits began to take shape.
They were, he decided, "little people, smaller than the bearded dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colors (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner which they have twice a day when they can get it)."
He settled these protected innocents in a land called Shire, patterned after the English countryside he had discovered as a child of 4 arriving from his birthplace in South Africa, and he sent some of them off on perilous adventures. Most of them, however, he conceived as friendly and industrious but slightly dull, which occasioned his scribble on that fortuitous exam paper.
"If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it's my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth," Tolkien once said. His trilogy was filled with his knowledge of botany and geology.
The author was born in Blomfontein on Jan. 3, 1892, a son of Arthur Reuel Tolkien, a bank manager, and Mabel Suffield Tolkien, who had served as a missionary in Zanzibar. Both parents had come from Birmingham, and when the boy's father died, his mother took him and his brother home to the English Midlands.
England seemed to him "a Christmas tree" after the barrenness of Africa, where he had been stung by a tarantula and bitten by a snake, where he was "kidnapped" temporarily by a black servant who wanted to show him off to his kraal. It was good, after that, to be in a comfortable place where people lived "tucked away from all the centers of disturbance."
At the same time, he once noted in an essay on fairy stories, "I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish them to be in the neighborhood, intruding into my relatively safe world..."
His mother was his first teacher, and his love of philology, as well as his longing for adventure, was attributed to her influence. But in 1904 she died.
The Tolkiens were converts to Catholicism, and he and his brother became the wards of a priest in Birmingham. (Some critics maintained that the bleakness of industrial Birmingham was the inspiration for his trilogy's evil land of the Enemy, Mordor.)
Served in World War I
Young Tolkien attended the King Edward's Grammar School and went on to Exeter College, Oxford, on scholarship. He received his B.A. in 1915. But World War I had begun, and, at 23, he began service in the Lancashire Fusiliers. A year later he married Miss Edith Bratt.
The war was said by his friends to have profoundly affected him. The writer C. S. Lewis insisted that it was reflected in some of the more sinister aspects of his writing and in his heroes' joy in comradeship. Tolkien's regiment suffered heavy casualties and when the war ended, only one of his close friends was still alive.
Invalided out of the Fusiliers, Tolkien decided in the hospital that the study of language was to be his metier. He returned to Oxford to receive his M.A. in 1919, and to work as an assistant on the Oxford Dictionary. Two years later he began his teaching career at the University of Leeds.
Within four years, he was a professor, and had also published a "Middle English Vocabulary" and an edition (with E. V. Gordon) of "Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight." He received a call to Oxford, where his lectures on philology soon gave him an extraordinary reputation.
His students remember him as taking endless pains to interest them. One recalled that there was something of the hobbit about him. He walked, she said, "as if on furry feet," and had an appealing jollity.
Meanwhile, once he had scratched that word "hobbit" on the examination paper, his curiosity about hobbits was piqued, and the book of that name-the precursor of the more serious "The Lord of the Rings"-began to grow.
It was nurtured by weekly meetings with his friends and colleagues, including the philosopher and novelist C. S. Lewis and his brother, W. H. Lewis, and the mystical novelist Charles Williams. The Inklings, as they called themselves, gathered at Magdalen College or a pub to drink beer and share one another's manuscripts.
C. S. Lewis thought well enough of "The Hobbit," which Tolkien began to write in 1937 (and told to his children), to suggest that he submit it for publication to George Allen and Unwin, Ltd. It was accepted, and the American edition won a Herald Tribune prize as best children's book.
The author always insisted, however, that neither "The Hobbit" nor "The Lord of the Rings" was intended for children.
"It's not even very good for children," he said of "The Hobbit," which he illustrated himself. "I wrote some of it in a style for children, but that's what they loathe. If I hadn't done that, though, people would have thought I was loony."
"If you're a youngish man," he told a London reporter, "and you don't want to be made fun of, you say you're writing for children."
"The Lord of the Rings," he admitted, began as an exercise in "linguistic esthetics" as well as an illustration of his theory on fairy tales. Then the story itself captured him.
Took 14 Years to Write
In 1954 "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first volume of the trilogy, appeared. "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" were the second and third parts. The work, which has a 104-page appendix and took 14 years to write, is filled with verbal jokes, strange alphabets, names from the Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Welsh. For its story, it calls, among others, on the legend of "The Ring of the Nibelung" and the early Scandinavian classic, the "Elder Edda."
Meanwhile, Tolkien was also busy with scholarly writings, which included "Chaucer As a Philologist," "Beowulf, the Monster and the Critics" and "The Ancrene Wisse," a guide for the medieval anchoresses.
After retirement, he lived on in the Oxford suburb of Headington, "working like hell," he said, goaded to resume his writing on a myth of the Creation and Fall called "The Silmarillion," which he had begun even before his trilogy. As he said in an interview a few years ago, "A pen is to me as a beak is to a hen."