Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Flashes from the Past: A Lover of Words...

His father died when he was 4 years old, leaving him, his mother, and a younger brother to fend for themselves. His mother remained ambitious, making the decision to homeschool him (teaching him Latin, French, English, drawing, botany, and piano) in the hopes of having him admitted to the best grammar school in the city. He didn't get in at age 7, but he tried again at age 8, and got in.

From an early age, he loved words and loved to read. He started to read at 4 and his mother provided him with a steady supply of Arthurian legends, fairy tales and George MacDonald's Curdie books. By age 11, he was learning Greek and Shakespeare, and became fascinated by reading The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English. He also loved to play around with and make up words. His young mother died from diabetes when he was just 12 years old, but he and his brother were fortunate to be adopted by a parish priest, a family friend.

This young man's love of words continued to grow as he progressed through school, and corresponded in made up languages with two cousins. One language, "Animalic" consisted only of animal names. Apparently, "Dog nightingale woodpecker forty" meant "You are an ass."

Here's a limerick he wrote to his cousin in the imaginary language "Nevbosh":

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!"

The translation:

There was an old man who said "How
Can I possibly carry my cow?
For if I were to ask it
To get in my basket
It would make such a terrible row!"

Who was this budding philologist? This was J.R.R. Tolkien, later Oxford Professor and literary scholar, and author of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Silmarillion, among others. He often said he thought of names he liked first, then put them in stories.

Throughout his life, he was close to all of his children and told them stories to help them fall asleep. Many were apparently never recorded, but some were collected together for books that were published posthumously. The story of Roverrandom was told by him after one of his sons had lost a favorite toy on a vacation.

Tolkien often mentioned that everything he knew, he owed to his mother who died so young, and her deep religious faith. Quote, "However by name a Tolkien, I have the taste, talents and education of a Suffield.”

Tolkien Biography

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