J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of Worlds


Known as ‘the father of modern fantasy’ his epic tales of legend and lore have been enjoyed by millions of people all over the world — devoured in popular books and adapted for Hollywood blockbuster films. Unbelievably bright, he was a distinguished university professor, poet, historian, and expert linguist. As a child, he even made up his own languages for pure fun.



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J.R.R.
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Tolkien: Father of Modern Fantasy By: Crystal Sullivan
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Known as ‘the father of modern fantasy’ his epic tales of legend and lore have been
00:04
enjoyed by millions of people all over the world — devoured in popular books and adapted
00:09
for Hollywood blockbuster films.
00:11
Unbelievably bright, he was a distinguished university professor, poet, historian, and
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expert linguist.
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As a child, he even made up his own languages for pure fun.
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He gave us complex and fanciful creatures including hobbits, orcs, and elves set in
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an prehistoric Middle-earth.
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Some theorize his made up worlds are symbolic of his country’s past power struggles, influenced
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by his devout Roman Catholic faith, or simply the genesis of his personal experiences.
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In any case, there is no denying his glorious imagination and his rightful place among the
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greatest writers of all time.
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But who was the creator of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings?
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Today on Biographics we explore the life of J.R.R.
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Tolkien.
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Formative Years Before bank clerk Arthur Tolkien and Mabel
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Suffield welcomed their son into the world, the English couple moved to South Africa.
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Here, Arthur had high hopes of advancing his career and providing a comfortable life for
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their budding family.
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John Ronald Reuel (known as “Ronald” to most) was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa
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on January 3, 1892.
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Not long after, another son Hilary was born, completing the Tolkien family.
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Tolkien’s childhood in Africa was cut short when his mother decided the boys would be
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better educated in their native England.
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At the age of three, Tolkien and his mother and younger brother left for their homeland
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while Arthur stayed behind to settle the business.
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He was planning to join them but never made it — falling ill and dying of a severe brain
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hemorrhage (a complication of rheumatic fever) on February 15, 1896.
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At the time, the spread of disease and contagions were feared and travel took many weeks, if
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not months.
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Arthur’s body was laid to rest without family by his side.
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Having spent just a small fraction of his early years in Africa, Tolkien had few memories
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from the time.
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However, one tale persists yet the facts remain uncertain.
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According to the story, the then-toddler Tolkien stumbled upon and was bit by a baboon spider
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(a kind of tarantula) in the garden.
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Tolkien ran screaming and his nurse immediately snatched him up and sucked the venom out from
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the wound.
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Tolkien later said, “…he could remember a hot day and running in fear through long,
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dead grass, but the memory of the tarantula itself faded, and he said that the incident
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left him with no especial dislike of spiders.”
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Still, fans and armchair psychologists alike speculate whether the tarantula influenced
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the presence of man-eating spiders in Tolkien’s later fictional works.
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Back in England, Mabel and the boys settled with family in the West Midlands — first
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in Kings Heath and then in Sarehole.
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On one hand, and especially in the city of Birmingham, the West Midlands was urban, dark,
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and industrial.
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On the other hand, it was the idyllic English countryside with
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lush with green grass, trees, and a corn mill in the rural hamlet of Sarehole.
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Between the ages of four and eight, Tolkien lived across the street and within 300 yards
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of the Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog.
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He spent many hours playing there with his younger brother — and being chased by the
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miller’s son, whom the boys nicknamed the “White Ogre.”
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The Shire, Tolkien’s imaginary land of Hobbits, was inspired by Sarehole.
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In The Hobbit, he writes of Bilbo Baggins “running as fast as his furry feet could carry
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him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water and then on for a mile or more.”
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Tolkien’s mother homeschooled the boys at first, teaching the young Tolkien botany and
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the basics of Latin.
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Tolkien could read fluently by the age of four and write soon after.
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He loved drawing landscapes and trees but his favorite studies were those involving
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languages.
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Later, he would attend King Edward’s School in Birmingham which proved to be the perfect
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breeding ground for the boy’s natural curiosity and development of linguistics.
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Tolkien was an exceptional student who was capable of easily mastering ancient and modern
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languages including Greek, Latin, Spanish, Old English, Old Norse, Gothic and Finnish.
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The boy made up his own languages, including early variations of Elvish ones featured in
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his writings.
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At King Edwards, he made a number of close friends and formed a semi-secret society that
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enjoyed drinking tea and critiquing each other’s literary works.
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They called themselves T.C.B.S. (which stood for the Tea Club and Barrovian Society).
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Despite the earlier loss of his father, life for the young Tolkien was generally happy
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until two events altered the course of his life.
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In 1900, his mother decided to convert to the Catholic faith.
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This bold move left Mabel and her sons estranged from both sides of the family and in the fallout,
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Tolkien experienced isolation, loneliness, and poverty.
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Following his acceptance into the Catholic church, Tolkien remained devout in his faith
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for the rest of his life.
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And, he has been credited with being partly responsible for bringing another famous writer
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and friend, C.S. Lewis, back to Christianity.
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Tragedy struck Tolkien again in 1904 when his mother was diagnosed with diabetes — a
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sure death sentence for most before insulin was available.
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Sadly, Mabel died in the same year, on November 14.
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Tolkien was 12 at the time.
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Fortunately for Tolkien and his brother Hilary, their Catholic priest Father Francis Morgan
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stepped in and became their guardian and made sure the boys received everything they needed
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— both materially and spiritually.
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Lúthien and Beren
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Tolkien met his eventual bride Edith Bratt when he was 16, and she was 19.
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They were both orphans and lodgers at a boarding house run by a woman named Mrs. Faulkner.
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The two grew fond of each other and a friendship developed.
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And then, as it happens with teenagers, the pair became too close for Father Francis’
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liking.
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He was horrified his ward was courting a Protestant woman and believed the relationship was a
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distraction from Tolkien’s school work.
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Father Francis forbade Tolkien to see or correspond with Edith until he was 21.
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This was a devastating blow to Tolkien but he obeyed the order.
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When his birthday approached, he wrote to his love and proposed marriage.
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Her reply was heartbreaking but offered a glimmer of hope, she was engaged to another
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man but his letter made her reconsider.
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Edith agreed to meet Tolkien on January 8, 1913 at the train station in Cheltenham.
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They walked and talked for hours and Edith accepted Tolkien’s marriage proposal — breaking
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off her prior engagement.
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Edith converted to Catholicism and the couple married on March 22, 1916.
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Tolkien was 24 years old, and a few months shy of deploying to the Western Front.
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In a letter to his son Michael years later, “Tolkien expressed admiration for his wife’s
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willingness to marry a man with no job, little money, and no prospects except the likelihood
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of being killed in the Great War.”
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Tolkien was a true romantic and Edith was his muse.
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He wrote of her, “…her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you
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have seen them, and she could sing — and dance.”
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Tolkien was so mad for Edith he created the fictional pair of star-crossed lovers based
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on their romance: Lúthien, daughter of the Elven King of Doriath, and Beren, a mortal
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man.
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They fall for each other when Beren discovers Lúthien singing and dancing in a glade.
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Yet, their love can never be since Beren is destined to die.
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Alas, her disapproving father the King sends Beren on a task he knows the man cannot complete.
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The full story of Lúthien and Beren was left unfinished during Tolkien’s lifetime but
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served as an important backstory in The Hobbit.
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Tolkien’s son Christopher later published Lúthien and Beren as a chapter of the saga,
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The Silmarillion.
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Edith and Tolkien enjoyed a long and happy marriage to each other and they had four children:
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John Francis, Michael Hilary, Christopher John, and Priscilla Mary Anne.
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Tolkien was a devoted father and loved his children, often making up fanciful stories
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for them.
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From 1920 to 1942 at Christmas time, Tolkien illustrated letters to his children…introducing
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new characters such as the North Polar Bear, Snow Man and others, each year.
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Three years after his death, these intimate stories were published as Letters from Father
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Christmas by the Tolkien estate.
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The Great War Believing he was in his own words, “a young
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man with too much imagination and little physical courage,” Tolkien did not rush to join the
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British military when war broke out.
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Instead, he returned to Oxford where he had achieved a first-class degree in June of 1915.
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Tolkien was busy working on poems and his invented languages at the time.
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Eventually though, Tolkien enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers and
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was sent to active duty on the Western Front just in time for the Battle of the Somme (also
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known as the Somme Offensive).
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The Battle of the Somme remains one of the bloodiest military battles in history.
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It lasted four long months and on the first day alone, British troops suffered over 57,000
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casualties.
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In total, over a million men lost their lives including 420,000 British soldiers.
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Fighting in the Great War, Tolkien witnesses the horrors of trench fighting and lived in
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deplorable, unsanitary conditions.
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It was hell on earth for Tolkien and his comrades who stood by as their friends suffered and
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died alongside them.
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They spent their days and nights with little relief and endured infestations of lice that
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feasted on their flesh.
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As a result, Tolkien came down with “trench fever,” a major medical problem of World
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War I.
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So severe was the lice, a chaplain staying with Tolkien’s unit later recalled:
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“… We dossed down for the night in the hopes of getting some sleep, but it was not
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to be.
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We no sooner lay down than hordes of lice got up.
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So we went round to the Medical Officer, who was also in the dugout with his equipment,
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and he gave us some ointment which he assured us would keep the little brutes away.
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We anointed ourselves all over with the stuff and again lay down in great hopes, but it
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was not to be, because instead of discouraging them it seemed to act like a kind of hors
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d’oeuvre and the little beggars went at their feast with renewed vigour.
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Sick and unable to fight, Tolkien left the battlefront to recover in a Birmingham hospital
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in November of 1916.
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Through 1917 and 1918 Tolkien had recurring bouts of the illness and he spent the time
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in remission doing service at home and at various camps.
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Tolkien most likely escaped death on the battlefront precisely because he became ill.
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Sadly, all but one of his close friends, including those from the T.C.B.S., perished in the war.
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As a writer, this tragedy of loss and first-hand experience in battle provided Tolkien with
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a keen sense of awareness.
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From the unpublished, The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien writes, “… in huts full of blasphemy
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and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.”
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In The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies is thought to draw upon Tolkien’s wartime
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experiences, as well as the Dead Marshes and Black Gate of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.
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On November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed marking the end of World War I.
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The Professor
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Tolkien was appointed Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (the “Oxford
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English Dictionary”) in 1918 but stayed on the job for only a short while.
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In the summer of 1920, he accepted a post as a Reader with the University of Leeds.
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At Leeds, he taught and collaborated with other authors, continued writing The Book
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of Lost Tales, constructed languages, and founded reading and social clubs like the
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“Viking Club,” where undergraduates had an affinity for Old Norse sagas and drinking
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beer.
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In 1925, Tolkien finally received his professorship at Oxford, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship
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of Anglo-Saxon.
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Tolkien was right at home in academia and fit in remarkably well with the predominantly
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male culture.
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He reveled in the lectures, research, and exchange of ideas with students and fellow
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professors.
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Tolkien did not publish many scholarly articles yet he was extremely influential.
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One lecture worth mentioning altered the modern study of the Old English epic tale Beowulf
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and was first delivered in 1936.
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In “Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien argued the monsters: Grendel, Grendel’s
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mother, and the Dragon, are not merely extraneous to the narrative but should be a focus of
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study.
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Tolkien believed critics put too much emphasis on the historical elements of the tale instead
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of looking at it as a work of art.
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At Oxford, Tolkien befriended colleague C.S. Lewis, best known for his fantasy series,
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The Chronicles of Narnia.
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The two men bonded over their shared love of mythology and began meeting regularly for
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a glass, a joke, and to criticize each other’s poetry.
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The meetings were so enjoyable and useful, they invited others to join.
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The informal group, known as “The Inklings” eventually grew to 19 members and they met
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once a week, late at night, sometimes not wrapping up until two or three o’clock in
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the morning.
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As was the practice, Tolkien shared manuscripts of works-in-progress with The Inklings and
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received energetic feedback from the group.
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Among other writings, Tolkien brought original poetry, sections from The Hobbit, excerpts
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from “The Notion Club Papers,” and each new chapter of The Lord of the Rings.
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There is little evidence to support the suggestion by some that the men had a more spiritual
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purpose to their meetings, or an “inkling” of the Divine Nature.
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The Inklings continued to meet regularly for 19 years.
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Together with Tolkien and Lewis, some of the more distinguished members of The Inklings
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included Neville Coghill, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.
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In 1945 Tolkien changed his chair at Oxford to the Merton Professorship of English Language
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and Literature, which he held until his retirement in 1959.
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The Storyteller
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One hot summer day in 1928, Professor Tolkien was grading exam papers, which he described
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as “soul-destroying.”
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He came upon a blank page — and without thought —wrote down, “In a hole in the
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ground there lived a hobbit.”
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But, What was a hobbit?
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And, Why did it live in the ground?
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Tolkien needed to find the answers to these questions.
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He said later, “Names always generate a story in my mind.
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I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.”
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Then, in true Tolkien fashion, he dove headlong into the creative process and concocted a
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tale to tell his younger children, and share amongst The Inklings.
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In 1936, an incomplete copy of The Hobbit wound up in Susan Dagnall’s hands, an employee
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of the publishing firm of George Allen and Unwin.
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Recognizing the story’s potential, Dagnall convinced Tolkien to finish it and when complete,
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she presented it to her boss.
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He then tested it out on his 10-year old son who gave it a raving review.
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The Hobbit was published one year later in 1937, and was an immediate hit.
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In fact, it was so successful, the publisher asked Tolkien if he had any similar stories.
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Today, since the first publication, The Hobbit has sold over 100 million copies around the
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world and has been translated in over 50 languages.
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What makes The Hobbit so enduring?
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For one thing, it lacks female characters and it is not, nor ever has been, politically
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correct.
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It is also a very long tale with poetry, and unlike other children’s fiction, does not
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have a central child figure for whom young readers can easily identify with.
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Although, the protagonist Bilbo Baggins is “only a little hobbit,” so he kind of
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acts like a surrogate child.
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Tolkien’s colorful descriptions of Middle-earth and its complex characters (goblins, elves,
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orcs, wizards, dragons, and hobbits of course) are richly portrayed.
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And for all the fantasy writers who came after Tolkien, hardly any can say their worlds were
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not, at least in part, influenced by The Hobbit.
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But, what set the story apart is the depth of emotion and moral courage Tolkien weaves
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into his heroic fiction.
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There are examples of this throughout The Hobbit including the death of dwarf leader
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Thorin Oakenshield, and Bilbo’s internal struggles to do what is right — betraying
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his friends while they try to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug the dragon.
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Bilbo feels an obsessive greed has overtaken Thorin and when Bilbo finds the Arkenstone,
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the greatest treasure of all, he decides to first hide it and then give it to his friends’
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besiegers to be used as a bargaining chip.
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In the end Bilbo exposes himself and confesses because after all, they are friends.
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After Tolkien’s publication of The Hobbit, he presented portions of The Silmarillion,
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including incomplete stories of Lúthien and Beren, to Stanley Unwin hoping for a warm
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reception but his reader felt the stories were not commercially publishable.
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They contained too much poetry.
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Tolkien was disappointed at the news but soon found himself busy writing the sequel to The
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Hobbit.
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Tolkien’s opus, what would become The Lord of the Rings, was first published in three
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parts: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King between
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1954 and 1955.
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And, it took him over a decade to write it.
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Unwin’s son, who was by now an adult, was heavily involved in pushing a tempermental
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Tolkien along to finish it.
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Thinking it would be a relative unimpressive release, and a loss to the firm, the publishers
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grossly underestimated The Lord of the Rings public appeal.
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True, it had mixed reviews — from damning to glowing and everything in between.
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BBC adapted it into 12 condensed episodes, elevating its popularity further.
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Then, in the mid-1960s a pirated paperback version was released which caught the attention
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of American readers.
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A sort of cult developed based on the newfound popularity of fantasy literature and Tolkien
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was made a rich man.
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He was not entirely happy though, even if he was flattered.
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Partly, because rumors circulated of party-going cult readers ingesting LSD and reading The
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Lords of the Rings.
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And some overzealous fans, who Tolkien referred to as lunatics, were calling his home demanding
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to know if Frodo had succeeded in his quest.
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The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings certainly receive all the glory but Tolkien authored
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a number of other articles and essays during his lifetime including: The Monsters and the
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Critics and Other Essays; one Middle-earth related work, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil;
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editions and translations of Middle English works such as the Ancrene Wisse, Sir Gawain,
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Sir Orfeo and The Pearl, and stories the Imram, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s
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Son, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, Farmer Giles of Ham, Leaf by Niggle, and Smith of
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Wootton Major.
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Following his death, The Letters from Father Christmas were released by the Tolkien estate,
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and later, son Christopher saw to it that his father’s Silmarillion and a number of
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other incomplete writings under the title of Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth
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were published.
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After his retirement from Oxford Tolkien moved to Bournemouth and on November 29, 1971 the
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love of his life, Edith died.
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Nearly two years later on September 2, 1973 Tolkien followed.
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As a final testament to their love, and at Tolkien’s instruction, they were buried
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in a single grave.
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On their tombstone, “Beren” is engraved under his name and “Luthien” appears under Edith’s.
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Accomplishments & Legacy
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Tolkien shall remain a celebrated literary figure through the ages as his life work continues
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to inspire the fantasy genre.
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Around the world, his characters and places have become the namesake of various street
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names, companies, mountains, plants, and objects.
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There are even asteroids named after Bilbo Baggins and Tolkien himself.
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In England, there are seven blue plaques that commemorate places associated with Tolkien.
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Tolkien was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II
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in 1972.
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And, he holds a number of other achievements and awards including: an honorary degree from
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The National University of Ireland and University of Liege in 1954, and the Locus Award for
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Best Fantasy novel for The Silmarillion in 1978.
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In the 2000s, Tolkien ranked on BBC’s ‘greatest Britons’ list and The Lord of the Rings
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was the UK’s ‘best loved novel’ (2003) and ranked among ‘The 100 Greatest British
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Novels’ (2015).
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Tolkien was placed sixth on the list of ‘The 50 greatest British writers since 1945’
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published by ‘The Times’ in 2008.
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In 2009, he was listed as the fifth top-earning ‘dead celebrity’ by Forbes.
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From 2001 to 2003, New Line Cinema released The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy directed
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by Peter Jackson.
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The series was extremely successful and won numerous Oscars.
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From 2012 to 2014, Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema released The Hobbit, a series of three
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films based on The Hobbit.
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The first in 2012, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the second in 2013, The Hobbit: The
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Desolation of Smaug, and the final instalment in 2014, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five
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Armies.
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Most recently, Amazon retained the rights to adapt The Lord of the Rings for its Prime
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streaming service.
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The multi-season adaptation, will focus on “previously unexplored stories based on
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J.R.R.
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Tolkien’s original writings,” according to a representative for the Tolkien Estate.
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Tolkien’s Middle-earth is surely the gift that keeps on giving.
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And It is quite amazing, considering he wrote it all in his spare time.


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Photo credit: Screenshot from video.