Monday, January 3, 2022

130 Years Ago Today ...

 … John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa (then the Orange Free State). 

I find it difficult to know what to write on occasions like this. Partly, it's because I've already written many posts about Tolkien. What more could I add? Partly, it's because so many others have written much more insightful things and, again, what more could I add? As one of the founders of the modern fantasy genre and, by extension, so much of contemporary popular culture, is there anything left to say about J.R.R. Tolkien that hasn't already been said thousands of times before?

In the end, I'm not sure that matters. The truth is that most of us involved in this hobby are here, either directly or indirectly, because of the work of Tolkien. Whether or not one accepts Gary Gygax's repeated claim that Dungeons & Dragons owed little of its conception to the tales of Middle-earth, I think it's undeniable that D&D's success was founded on the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Likewise, the success of the fantasy genre as a whole is founded on the bedrock of Tolkien's myth cycle, however much lesser writers might wish it were otherwise. Without Tolkien, there'd likely be no appetite for doorstop fantasy trilogies – for good or for ill – not to mention many video games, heavy metal music, and panel van art. How many other authors have had such a profound and lasting influence?

I'm certain Tolkien himself would not have been comfortable with any of this. Certainly, he was pleased that his sub-creation had been so well received, but it was always a sideshow compared to his more serious academic work in the field of English philology. Furthermore, he often expressed, not unreasonably, the belief that many of his readers had misunderstood his work and the intent behind it. There is, for example, the famous story he recounts, in one of his letters, I think, of receiving a gift from a devotee in the form of a steel goblet on which had been inscribed the words found on the One Ring. Tolkien was appalled by this and used the gift as an ashtray. I can't begin to imagine what he would have thought of the fact that replicas of the One Ring itself are now readily available – and worn! – by people who claim to love his writing.

Despite my personal preference for pulp fantasy these days, I nevertheless remain indebted to Tolkien and his fiction, which I first encountered at a very impressionable age. He's not my go-to author when I wish to be inspired about fantastical places and events, but I would be lying to deny that his work has a hold on my imagination that few others can rival. That, I suppose, is the greatest compliment I can pay to him on the 130th anniversary of his birthday. 


  1. Oh my... I had no idea you had started up the blog again! I ended up here because I referenced your Holmes boxed set readthrough in an oldschool D&D facebook group I'm in. Looks like I have a bit of catching up to do.

    Just wanted to say two things.
    1) Really glad to have you back, I loved your blog for years, it got me into the OSR and I haven't looked back since.
    2) I really enjoyed Dwimmermount. I know it was a tortured development process that drove you away from the scene for years but the final product was wonderful.

  2. Nice tribute too. Tolkien and D&D have such a weird tortured relationship, and I feel it has been in vogue for sometime now for the hardcore crowd to distance themselves from his work.

    But is was because my group wanted to so badly walk in Middle Earth and probe it's dark corners that we started playing together around '77-'78. We felt D&D need more Tolkien adherence, not less. Nonetheless, we died in the dungeon in troves and were woefully less heroic, and far more laissez-faire than the principles in Tolkien books.

    The folks who discovered LotR not as weird underground cult-novels, but through the Jackson movies, seems to be of a different breed altogether.

  3. "I find it difficult to know what to write on occasions like this. Partly, it's because I've already written many posts about Tolkien."
    Links to those previous posts might be nice.

    1. Click the "Tolkien" tag at the bottom of the post, and they shall all be lain before ye.

    2. Labels are a godsend for digging through blogs, aren't they?