J.R.R. Tolkien

2nd September 2021 marks the 48th anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, academic and, of course, author of The Lord of the Rings.

To the best of my knowledge, Tolkien never wrote about Alexander the Great. He would have known about him: after arriving at Oxford in 1911 Tolkien studied Classics for two years before switching to English Language and Literature. As a don, his focus was Anglo Saxon and medieval literature. In that capacity, he would surely have read the medieval version of The Alexander Romance.

I record the anniversary of Tolkien’s death here, though, because it seems to me that in his Middle-earth writings, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion specifically, he gives us in story what Alexander gave us in life: heroism, nobility, disaster, and decline. I could go on as there are many crossovers. Tolkien wrote about lives lived on an epic stage. Alexander built that stage and then strode across it like a colossus.

For my whole life, I have loved reading about heroism. I don’t remember the moment as a young boy when I said to myself, ‘this is what I like’, but given that I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings back then, it wouldn’t surprise me if they started it all off. Today, I appreciate the fragility of Man as well. I am very grateful to Tolkien for showing me both, and to those who wrote about Alexander’s life for not shying away from his (for the most part. Looking at you Arrian). I applaud Alexander himself for striving to be the best despite his weaknesses. Alas, they took him into some very dark places, but until the end – even after Hephaestion’s death – he continued on. That’s all we can ever do.

The photograph below is one of the last that was taken of Tolkien. He is standing next to one his favourite trees – a pinus nigra at the Oxford Botanical Gardens

Some years ago – in the 00s – I persuaded a friend to visit Oxford with me so that I could see that same pinus nigra. My friend was a very good sport and took what is still one of my favourite photos of myself, standing next to that same tree.

Alas! the tree is no more: it suffered damaged 2014 and had to be pulled down. I am more grateful than I can say to have been able to visit it.

Here is a close up of Tolkien’s grave. As you can see, he is buried with his wife, Edith; Beren and Luthien are two of the characters from Tolkien’s mythology, and with whom he identified himself and his wife.

In 1975, Mary Renault published The Nature of Alexander. By coincidence, HarperCollins has today published a collection of essays by Tolkien in which he discusses various aspects of his mythology. The book is titled The Nature of Middle-Earth.

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