With the long-awaited film adaptation of The Hobbit opening today, I thought it might be fun to look back at the oft-ignored life of its author: J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien began writing his mythology while in the trenches of World War I. To amuse himself during his down time and take his mind off the unspeakable horrors of war, Tolkien began making up fake languages, beginning with “Goober Talk,” a language in which every word is replaced with “Goober.” As his languages grew in sophistication, he dedicated more time to developing them, which proved detrimental to the British forces on only one or two occasions (most notably, the incident in which the German forces raided the trenches while Tolkien, the look-out, sat pondering over the proper plural word for “Dwarf” (he went with “Dwiffle.”)).
While working at Oxford, Tolkien was constantly tormented by the larger, jockier professors, who frequently stole his academic papers and stuffed him in lockers. It was not uncommon for a student to open their locker in the morning, only for a disheveled Tolkien to pop out.
Tolkien’s biggest rival at the school was Professor Ronald Goblin, a professor of Rugby Studies, who often assigned his students homework that consisted largely of taunting the language professor. Tolkien’s luck would change, however, when one morning, as he ate breakfast at his favorite pub, he discovered floating in his beer, a magical gold ring.
The ring gave him the power of invisibility and (thinking quickly), he snuck into Goblin’s classroom and proceeded to rip off the professor’s pants as he began his lecture. As the classroom exploded into laughter, Tolkien removed the ring and smashed a lemon into Goblin’s face, calling out, “Sorry if it tastes a little sour, Ron!”
From that point on, Tolkien became a campus legend, turning his colorful antics into thinly disguised stories in his mythology. He quickly wrote The Hobbit in a flurry in 1937 after the promotion of Professor Archibald Smaug to chancellor, a position that Tolkien coveted, as it came with a signing bonus of one giant pile of gold coins.
But Tolkien’s biggest triumph was the release of The Lord of the Rings. The novel was an immediate success, and Professor Tolkien was briefly embraced by the literati, taking part in high society meetings with famous writers. This excursion was short lived, however, after an embarrassing incident at a dinner party, in which Tolkien, drunk on beer he claimed to have purchased from “The Green Dragon Tavern,” alienated his fellow authors.
The night began innocently enough, with Tolkien speaking with a young and energetic Philip Roth. As Roth probed Tolkien’s mind about writing, he also suggested a reason behind the hair on Hobbits’ feet. Although Tolkien politely declined Roth’s disgusting suggestion, it later found it’s way into Portnoy’s Complaint.
Things began going sour, however, when Tolkien was introduced to Truman Capote and, thinking he was a Hobbit, began asking him questions about the Shire and if he was holding pipeweed. After telling the reclusive J.D. Salinger that he enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, but thought it might be improved upon with the inclusion of an old wizard or perhaps a cave troll, Tolkien got into an argument with Jack Kerouac over who “Carlo Marx” served as a stand-in for (Tolkien insisted that he represented the MGM cartoon star Droopy Dog). When Kerouac launched into a diatribe about bebop, Tolkien instigated a fight by throwing Vladimir Nabokov across the room, landing in Samuel Beckett’s soup and, in the process, tearing off one of Isaac Asimov’s legendary muttonchop sideburns. Although Tolkien escaped the melee unfazed thanks to his magic ring, his reputation amongst his fellow authors had been irrevocably damaged.
From that point on, he was banned from all high society literary events (although he managed to sneak into quite a few with his magic ring) and spent the remainder of his life working on the project he considered his magnum opus: the never published novel The Toe-Tappin’ Adventures of Theodore the Cockney Gnome.