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Tolkien: The Mastermind of Middle Earth

Jonny Wilkes discovers how d love, war and a fascination with language led JRR Tolkien to create his Middle Earth – a realm rooted not in fantasy lore, but in the sleepy hollows of middle England
JRR Tolkien relaxes in an idyllic spot in his beloved Oxford in 1972, a year before his death
BILL POTTER/CAMERA PRESS, ILLUSTRATION: SUE GENT

Stanley Unwin held a not unreasonable belief about chidren’s book publishing: the best way to know if the book was good was to have a child read it first. With that in mind, and being a publisher himself, he often took manuscripts home for his son, Rayner, to read. One day, the manuscript was a fantasy story, filled with wizards, dragons, elvish languages, mountainous treasures, magic rings and a race of creatures much like humans, but smaller.

“Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went on adventures,” began Rayner’s report, complete with spelling errors. “At last, Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they got to the lonley mountain; Smaug the dragon who gawreds it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home – rich! ... It is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”

Rayner received a shilling and his father, founder of George Allen & Unwin, was convinced to publish. The Hobbit, it quickly turned out, appealed to far more than the predicted age group. Published on 21 September 1937, it sold its initial print run by the end of the year. Its success heralded a new name in fantasy literature, JRR Tolkien, and a new world called Middle Earth. Readers of all ages couldn’t get enough.

Tolkien photographed in 1911, around the time that he moved to Oxford to study
ALAMY X2, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, ILLUSTRATION: SUE GENT
ABOVE: Perrott’s Folly in Edgbaston inspired the two towers in The Lord of the Rings
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About History Revealed

“Don’t let every little feeling be read in your face and seen in your manner.” Queen Victoria certainly took her own advice. But her personal feelings have since been revealed through her diaries and letters, and this issue we ask the celebrated historian Lucy Worsley how these private words have shed light on Victoria’s life and deeds. Plus: the tale of how modest Oxford don JRR Tolkien was inspired to create Middle Earth, an ancient Athenian whodunnit, our A-Z of executions, the most brilliant beards in history, and more.