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The boy who dreamt of dragons

Tolkien's world grew from all he saw, thought and read

by Payal Kapadia

More than a century ago, there was a 7-year-old boy who dreamt of a “green great dragon” and wrote his first short story about it.

He grew up, but he continued to dream — of goblins and elves and wizards — and one day he found himself writing: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”

That little boy was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, better known today as J.R.R. Tolkien. And from that hole in the ground emerged a whole world — Middle Earth.

If you didn’t guess that already, you’ve probably missed out on some of the greatest fantasy books ever written: “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. There’s no better time than now to catch up on your reading, because this weekend, the movie that Tolkien’s books inspired comes to Tokyo theaters. Directed by Peter Jackson, “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the first part of the trilogy, and it’s already bagged 13 Oscar nominations.

Great writers often start early, as children, by letting their imaginations run free. As Humphrey Carpenter writes in his famous biography of Tolkien, Ronald, as Tolkien was called, was like any other boy growing up in England 100 years ago. He played rugby, flew kites, sketched and took long walks. Everything he saw, all the people he met, became scenes and characters in his head, like the seeds of wonderful ideas to write about. In other words, his imagination was colored by his own experiences.

Trees were one of his greatest loves — he didn’t just like climbing them, he liked to talk to them and be with them. But he soon realized that not everyone shared his feelings. Carpenter’s book quotes him writing about a willow tree near his home, that he would often climb. “It belonged to a butcher on the Stratford Road, I think. One day they cut it down. They didn’t do anything with it: the log just lay there. I never forgot that.”

Perhaps his love for trees connected with his early memories of his father, who died when he was still a little boy. Arthur Tolkien was stationed in South Africa, and when Ronald was just a year old, he would watch his father tending their garden, making a small grove of cypresses, firs and cedars for him. Perhaps that memory lingered in his mind, like another old memory of stumbling upon a tarantula in their garden. It bit him and he fled in terror till a nurse picked him up and sucked the poison out. When he grew up, all he could recall of that day was the heat and his terrified run through dead grass. But in his stories, he often wrote of big spiders with painful bites.

When not climbing trees, Ronald’s other great love was reading. As a child, his favorite was the “Red Fairy Book” by Andrew Lang, especially the Norse tale of Sigurd who slew the dragon Fafnir. This tale was the inspiration for his own story about the “green great dragon.”

When he showed his story to his mother, she merely pointed out that he should have called it a “great green dragon.” From that day, Ronald became interested in how language works. He grew up to become a philologist, a person who studies the science of words. And even years later, as a professor at Oxford University, he never figured out why it couldn’t be a “green great dragon.” How would you write it?

Ronald’s love for languages was not just about English — even as a young boy he spoke German, French, Greek and Latin, though he hated the sound of French. When he moved to the city with his mother and younger brother to go to school, he missed the countryside deeply. But the family’s new house in Birmingham backed onto a railway line, and while watching the trains come and go, something else caught his attention. The names on the carriages were so odd — Nantyglo, Senghenydd, Tredegar — that he didn’t even know how to pronounce them. They were Welsh, and that was how Ronald discovered the music and the mystery of the Welsh language.

The boy loved languages so much, it wasn’t enough to speak as many as he could. He started making his own languages as well — as maybe you’ve done with your friends, for use when you want to keep secrets or make a rude joke. Ronald’s young cousins had made up their own language called “Animalic,” from the names of animals. So “dog nightingale woodpecker forty” meant “you are an ass.” Ronald found Animalic very funny, and he created a new language with his cousin Mary, called “Nevbosh.” I couldn’t guess what this verse, written in Nevbosh, meant. Can you?

Dar fys ma vel gom co palt ‘Hoc
Pys go iskili far maino woc?
Pro si go fys do roc de
Do cat ym maino bocte
De volt fact soc ma taimful gyroc!*

By the time Ronald grew up, he was familiar with many languages — from Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) and Gothic to Welsh and Finnish. Tolkien also created two languages, Quenya, influenced by Finnish, and Sindarin, influenced by Welsh. These two languages became the base for the four he created for “The Lord of the Rings” — Dwarvish, Adunaic, and high and low Elvish.

As a young man, another major formative experience in Tolkien’s life was World War I. He saw many of his close friends killed, and his writing evolved so that it was not so much about finding a magic weapon as destroying it.

When Tolkien had his own children, he told them bedtime stories of Carrots, a boy with red hair who climbed into a cuckoo clock and went off on a series of adventures, and Bill Stickers, a huge man who got away with anything. (Stickers’ name was taken from a notice on an Oxford gate warning people not to put up bills, or posters, with the words, “Bill stickers will be prosecuted.”)

One summer day, while he was at his desk grading his students’ papers, Tolkien came across a page that one of his students had left blank. And he wrote on it, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit” — the first line of “The Hobbit,” which took him another six years to complete. The three-book sequel, “The Lord of the Rings,” took 12 years. By then, Tolkien’s children had grown up and didn’t need to have bedtime stories read to them.

Almost 50 years after “The Lord of the Rings” was published, hundreds of children all over the world will be able to go to the cinema and see the monsters and the heroes that Ronald dreamt of — and even hear the Elvish language that he created.

All because he started out dreaming of a green great dragon and wrote about it.