As a dedicated reader who prefers nonfiction, I have come to the awareness that I don’t know enough about the amazing man and writer, J. R. R. Tolkien. His influence is truly extraordinary.
Tolkien’s Prodigious Influence
Just how popular has Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), been in terms of sales and influence? It’s estimated that Tolkien’s blockbuster fantasy series LOTR has sold over 150 million copies.1 The documentary I’ll introduce below even places the LOTR series as the fourth-best-selling book of all time behind only the Bible, the Qur’an, and Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s The Little Red Book.2 However, other sources I’ve reviewed differ with the claim of LOTR being ranked that high. Moreover, in determining such a book ranking there are challenges in terms of gathering reliable data, knowing what constitutes a book, and categorizing how a book sells (single book, book series, etc.).3
While we can debate the specific ranking, there’s no doubt that Tolkien’s masterful work has sold amazingly well and has influenced untold numbers of people. The three-volume work was first published in the years 1954–1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring: 1954; The Two Towers: 1954; The Return of the King: 1955).
I frequently recommend books to people who ask about various theological, apologetics, and literary topics, but if you would like to learn about Tolkien and all things Middle-earth and enjoy documentaries, let me recommend an informative film. While I’m not a Tolkien scholar, I do think that if you watch just one program about this renowned author, then Tolkien—The Father of Fantasy Documentary might be the one. It’s an excellent introduction that tells the story of the remarkable life and influence of fantasy writer John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973). Here are a few brief highlights from the film.
Tolkien was born in South Africa but was raised in Birmingham, England. His father, Arthur, died when he was very young and Tolkien and his brother Hilary were raised by their mother, Mabel. She was diligent in educating her boys and John, who could read and write by age four, developed a lifelong interest in languages. The family converted to Roman Catholicism, which deeply influenced John for the rest of his life. Tragically, John’s mother died when he was only twelve years old so he and his brother became orphans and were watched over by a caring Catholic priest.
Tolkien met and later married Edith Mary Bratt (1889–1971) who also had a difficult upbringing. Their wedding took place in 1916 just before Tolkien went off to fight in the Great War (1914–1918). Tolkien had a long and devoted marriage with Edith and she served as his lifelong loving muse for 55 years. Together, the Tolkiens had four children: John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla.
While studying at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, Tolkien helped found an intellectual club of students known as the TCBS (“Tea Club, Barrovian Society”). It was named for their love of drinking tea at Barrow Stores and discussing literature (no doubt a forerunner to the famous Inklings group). Tolkien graduated from the University of Oxford in 1915 with a prestigious first-class honors degree in English language and literature.
Tolkien joined the Officer Training Corps at Oxford where he became a British officer and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. As a signals officer, Tolkien was in charge of communications and used, among other means, Morse code to help facilitate troop movements.
Tolkien took part in the ominous First Battle of the Somme4 (1916), in which millions of troops participated and casualties (dead and wounded) reached the incredible number of one million men. Two of Tolkien’s TCBS friends died in the war. For his part, Tolkien suffered from trench fever and was sent back to England in 1916 to recover. His illness kept recurring so he would spend the rest of the war on the home front.
Oxford Scholar and Writer
Tolkien served at Oxford as a Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) for more than three decades. He was a philologist (student of language in historical sources) and would go on—with his friend C. S. Lewis—to found the literary discussion group known as the Inklings. With encouragement, especially from Lewis, Tolkien would proceed to publish The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955). According to the documentary, LOTR took Tolkien twelve years to write and four years to edit. Tolkien’s work, The Silmarillion, which consists of a collection of myths and stories in varying styles was edited and published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977. The Silmarillion has also sold millions of copies.
The Father of Fantasy
As the documentary notes, J. R. R. Tolkien is considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and arguably the father of modern fantasy literature. Tolkien’s writings are modern classics. So if you’re looking for a relatively short documentary that is overflowing with information about all things Tolkien and Middle-earth, this is it.
Reflections: Your Turn
If you’ve read some of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis’s fantasy literature, do you have a preference? Why?
- For a book that can get you started on Tolkien and his work, see Colin Duriez, Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings: A Guide to Middle-earth.
- For an online resource on Tolkien, see The Tolkien Society.
- For a work that explores the worldview implications behind Tolkien’s LOTR, see Peter J. Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview behind The Lord of the Rings.
1. “Lord of the Rings Stats,” WordsRated, October 19, 2021.
2. See “Tolkien—The Father of Fantasy Documentary,” YouTube, September 1, 2022. Here’s a source that is in essential agreement with the Tolkien documentary claim: “Top 10 Best-Selling Books of All Time,” All Top Everything, accessed March 27, 2023.
4. Wikipedia, s. v., “Battle of the Somme,” last edited March 22, 2023.