7 Things to Know about Tolkien

And how to create culture...

It’s one thing to consider which works of art build up culture. But what about the artists that make them, and the elements of someone’s life that drive him to create something epic…

Something that inspires hope, courage, and transcendence in millions of lives?

If there’s one landmark culture-builder of the past century, it’s J.R.R. Tolkien.

His works consistently rank among the most popular books of all time. But they’re more than just popular: they’re a well of beauty, truth, and spiritual strength that keeps readers coming back year after year.

7 things you must know about him…

1. He Wasn’t a Writer

Tolkien was 45 when he published his first book. Before gaining acclaim as a writer, his resume included:

  • Linguist (spoke / read ~15 languages)

  • Philologist (analyzed languages and their relationship to culture and history)

  • Code-breaker (recruited and trained for WWII, though not called into action during the war)

  • Conlanger (invented his first language around age 12; invented at least 15 during his life)

  • Soldier (served in WWI, often near the front lines)

  • Professor (taught Anglo-Saxon studies at Oxford)

  • Mythologist (specialized in Anglo-Saxon myths)

Tolkien’s broad background didn’t subtract from his prowess as a writer, it fuelled it. He experienced all that life had to offer, from the libraries of Oxford to the trenches of the Somme. He made and lost good friends. He came to grips with the deepest agonies and greatest joys of life.

Without that experience, how could he have written books that connected with generations of readers across all ages and cultures?

Tolkien didn’t set out to be a great writer, but he did choose to face every circumstance life brought him with courage. His existential honesty is an often-forgotten prerequisite for creating great art — and for building great culture. 

2. He Re-Enchanted England

King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table experience a vision of the Holy Grail

As a scholar and lover of old stories, Tolkien knew the value of mythology.

He understood that cultures need a foundational story to guide their decisions and make sense of life events. But, as he grew up, he watched England lose its cultural identity to the grip of modernity. Machines replaced mystery, efficiency replaced enchantment.

He also sensed that the world around him lacked great myths and tales, and had instead come to see history as “one damn thing after another.” England, he wrote in his letters, lacked the mythology that Greek, Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian traditions enjoyed. Besides the Arthurian legends (pictured), England was missing great stories of its own, “bound up with its tongue and soil”.

Though Tolkien himself didn’t use the phrase directly, his publishers described his works as the “mythology for England” that he so longed for.

It’s an appropriate description for a story that:

  • Takes inspiration from England’s Anglo-Saxon roots

  • Is infused with spiritual elements

  • Connects its narrative to today’s world

In fact, one of the most common criticisms of Tolkien’s work is that he insisted on connecting The Lord of the Rings to our own times. Critics argue that Middle-Earth doesn’t make sense as a long-ago version of our own world, and that it ought to be a completely imaginary time and place.

But Tolkien knew what he was doing. He wanted England to reclaim an enchanted, mythological worldview — to connect it to its past and guide its future.

3. He Hated Disney

It’s not speculation, and it’s not hyperbole.

Tolkien committed his thoughts about Disney to writing, so we know for sure he found those stories “disgusting,” claiming “a heartfelt revulsion” and “nausea” toward them.

Even early in the 20th century, Disney was taking a sugar-coated approach to storytelling — one that offended Tolkien’s creative intuition.

Tolkien saw fairytales as a form of mythos, and an essential element of a well-rounded culture. Disney Studios, however, reduced them to childish entertainment. Although Tolkien thought children should read fairy tales, he believed in their benefits for adults too. He thought Disney’s presentation infantilized important stories and robbed them of their value for adults.

Tolkien kept the rough edges in his stories. Even The Hobbit, published as a children’s book in 1937, featured danger, hardship, horror, evil, loss of friends, and death.

Even today, “Disneyfication” means transforming something that’s uncomfortably real into something safe, attractive, and commercially appealing. That’s exactly what Tolkien refused to do, and what makes his stories enduringly real.

4. He Was a Christian, Not an Ideologue

Galadriel is often compared to the Virgin Mary

Orphaned at age 12, Tolkien lived the rest of his childhood in the care of priests. He learned, prayed, ate, and was an altar boy in a Catholic boarding school.

To say that Tolkien’s faith influenced his writing is an understatement. His Catholicism lit up his imagination. Christianity is the frame of reference within which all his stories come to life.

Tolkien himself wrote: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” For those who speak the same symbolic language, it’s impossible to miss the references to Catholicism:

  • Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn represent Christ’s roles of priest, prophet, and king, respectively

  • The 3 main female characters reflect different aspects of the Catholic view of Mary

  • Lembas, the mystically nourishing bread given to the Company by elves, reflects the Catholic theology of the Eucharist

And that’s just scratching the surface!

Tolkien’s faith gave his stories the robust worldview that makes them so compelling. At the same time though, he avoided a common pitfall of faith-inspired artists: alienating readers with heavy-handed messaging.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” he wrote. “I much prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”

Tolkien even criticized his friend C.S. Lewis for the heavy-handed allegory in Chronicles of Narnia. He believed that allegory — disguising a hidden literary meaning behind symbols — creates a moralizing, two-dimensional story with limited value to readers.

Tolkien instead created a world saturated with meaning and truth. This “feigned history” approach pays dividends: virtually everyone who reads The Lord of the Rings discovers a character or event that resonates with them, offers insight into their struggles, and encourages them to keep fighting.

It’s precisely because the spiritual dimension of the story remains in the background that so many readers can access it.

5. He Witnessed the Dead Marshes

Tolkien’s legendarium is populated by elements inspired by his real-world experience, filtered through the lens of fantasy. That’s why his stories are so relatable.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Dead Marshes are an ominous wetland that lingers at the site of a long-ago battle. A hazy mist hangs over the landscape, and in the pools of water, treacherous spirits of fallen soldiers lurk with their dead bodies.

Tolkien connected the marshes to his experience at the Battle of the Somme. WWI’s trench warfare left a hellish landscape of bodies strewn across no-man’s land. As rain fell, bomb craters filled with water, creating a marsh in which soldiers of both sides floated eerily together.

It’s a testament to Tolkien’s imaginative strength that he turned this horror into art. Not only that: he used it to offer a vivid warning to others.

Those who get distracted by the bodies floating in the marshes will be pulled down and drowned. Tolkien must have struggled with seeing his friends and comrades lying dead in no-man’s land. But he seems to warn that dwelling too long on the horrors of war will pull you into a depth of despair that is nearly impossible to escape.

6. He Opposed Industrialization

One of the most memorable scenes in Tolkien’s works is the Ents’ attack on Isengard. After Saruman lays waste to swathes of beautiful woodland, the trees fight back. They savage Saruman’s machines and flood his factory.

For those who love nature as much as Tolkien did, it’s a satisfying comeuppance. But this is not the only example of villainized industrialization:

  • Mordor uses war machines and gains power through industry

  • At the end, the four hobbits have to save the agrarian Shire from industrial revolution

Tolkien described Saruman as having “a mind of metal and wheels.” His quest for power crowds out his compassion for the natural world. For Tolkien, there’s a clear link between industrialization and a power-hungry attitude that makes a willing alliance with evil.

Again, this aspect of Tolkien’s world was inspired by his own experience: watching the peaceful England of his childhood gradually fall prey to grimy industrialism. He saw this as the tragic loss of an old world.

Interestingly, Tolkien also set The Lord of the Rings in a transitional time; it’s what brings the Third Age of Middle-Earth to a close.

Even though Sauron’s defeat is a victory for the free peoples of Middle Earth, it marks the bittersweet end of an era: the elves leave the world for a heavenly realm. Their departure leaves Middle Earth less beautiful and enchanted, and closer to the mechanized reality we all know.

Tolkien acknowledged that change is inevitable, but one can’t help but mourn the loss of beauty never to be seen again.

7. He was a Hobbit

“I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size),” the professor wrote. “I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food.”

Tolkien made light of his connection to his half-sized heroes, but he had more in common with them than he let on. Like his protagonists, Tolkien left his quiet country home to fight a war. Like them, he faced an enemy of overwhelming power, and he returned to find his home changed for the worse by industrialization. 

But there’s more, too.

Tolkien’s surname comes from an earlier Germanic word that means “foolishly brave.” Perhaps he saw that quality in himself, but there’s no doubt he saw it in his hobbits.

Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin have a habit of running into battle and piping up in dangerous situations without considering the consequences. But they’re not selfishly impulsive: they dive into danger not for glory or from plain stupidity, but out of love for their friends.

Why does all of this matter to Tolkien’s cultural legacy?

Although he created a world bursting with nuance, life, and power, it wasn’t the immense armies or great heroes that defeated Middle-Earth’s evil. Victory came down to one small act of mercy.

Bilbo’s compassion for Gollum — a creature who had already shown his treachery — seemed foolish. But this small decision is what led to the One Ring’s eventual destruction. At the heart of Tolkien’s narrative was the power of one hobbit’s courageous, merciful act to render the great wars meaningless.

His faith in the “little people” of the world was verified in his own life. He didn’t set out to be a warrior or wizard, someone powerful enough to push back the tide of modernism.

And yet, armed with the Sting of his own life experiences and imagination, he produced a work of art that resonated with millions, harkening them away from the grind of modernity to a simpler and more beautiful life.

Character is Culture

Some fantasy epics are soap operas dressed up in scales and sword fights. They burn fast and bright, ending up in the cultural trash heap just as quickly.

Others ascend to the level of true myth. They offer hope and meaning to generations. Instead of fading from the cultural consciousness, they define it — Tolkien’s incredible epic is culture creation at its finest.

Although in later life he dedicated himself to scholarship, that’s not what defined his contribution to culture. It was his integrity, moral courage, and human insight that made his books everything they are.

In other words, it was ultimately his character that transformed the culture.

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Art of the Week

The Hay Wain, John Constable (1821)

Nostalgia for the simple life is as old as Western culture, reaching back to ancient Greek writers’ description of the ideal landscape of Arcadia.

But yearning for harmony with nature reached a new peak during the Romantic movement of the late 19th century. Pressured by mounting industrialism, poets and painters turned to fields, forests, rivers, and skies to rediscover the wonder of the natural world. 

Growing up in the idyllic countryside of Suffolk and Essex, John Constable fell in love with the pastoral landscape and the country lifestyle of its people. 

His best-known work, The Hay Wain, captures a rural summer day. On first glance, it seems like a simple scene, but the painting is replete with detail that reveals Constable’s love of country living. 

The wagoners are stopping to cool the wagon’s wheels (the hot day could cause the iron rims to expand, damaging the wheels) and refresh the horses. The cottage in the background belonged to one of Constable’s neighbors. Overhead, the changing sky suggests both clear sunshine and cool shade.

Not all classic works offer political critique or moral instruction. Constable’s painting is simply a love letter to the home of his childhood and the simplicity he knew would disappear all too soon. 

Is the simple life a subject worthy of art? Perhaps Tolkien’s words are the best commentary:

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”


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