The father of fantasy

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is often referred to as the father of modern fantasy fiction. And for good reason.

Tolkien spent much of his childhood in and around Birmingham in England. If you ever visit England, go see the rolling hills of Shropshire and Staffordshire – you’ll see the Shire around every turn. Notably for Tolkien fans, his Aunt Jane’s Worcestershire farm was called Bag End!

From an early age, Tolkien showed an affinity for languages. He mastered Latin, Greek, Finnish and Gothic (ancient German) and even invented his own. These skills eventually led him to study at Oxford. He began with a focus on the Classics, Old English and Germanic languages but then moved into English language and literature. He was still studying when World War I broke out in 1914.

Tolkien did not immediately enlist, but instead chose the unpopular path of postponing so he could finish his degree. Upon its completion, and under much social and familial pressure, he enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers in July 1915. Tolkien was sent to France just in time for the Battle of the Somme a year later.

He suffered continuous health problems throughout the war, which took him off the front lines and probably saved his life. By 1918, Tolkien had lost all but one of his close male friends.

At end of the war, Tolkien worked as a lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (which would later become the Oxford English Dictionary). He then started lecturing, first at Leeds University and then returning to Oxford. Throughout his academic career, Tolkien published substantial academic works on early literature, translation and philology.

Tolkien’s superb knowledge of languages and literature was deepened by his interest the fairy tales, mythology and folklore of Europe. His impressive academic background, along with the unique experience of his childhood and the First World War greatly influenced his two most famous works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These stories (and others Tolkien wrote while at Oxford) describe the pre-history of an incredibly rich alternative world to our own, Middle-earth.

The Hobbit

One day, when marking exam papers, Tolkien wrote on the blank back of a page ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’. He didn’t know what a hobbit was or why it would live in a hole in the ground, but he wanted to find out. We’re all very lucky that he did.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his four children. He started writing it in the early 1930s, and had a complete draft by 1932, at which time he gave it to his friend C.S. Lewis for a good read through (as you do). While Tolkien never intended for The Hobbit to be published, it hit the bookstands in September of 1937. It sold out by December and has never been out of print since.

Tolkien started writing its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, soon after The Hobbit was published. Because the stories were so closely linked, he made some notable changes to the second edition of The Hobbit printed in 1951. Several of these changes were made to chapter five ‘Riddles in the Dark’, which tells the story of how Bilbo Baggins acquires the one ring from Gollum. These significant edits make the storylines of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings more consistent, place more emphasis on the one ring and foreshadow Gollum’s role in the latter tale.

I won’t recount The Hobbit here, because it’s such a familiar tale, but a quick two-sentence summary looks something like this:

The Hobbit is an episodic quest in which Bilbo Baggins is tricked into traveling across Middle-earth with a group of dwarves (and occasionally a wizard) to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the dragon called Smaug in return for a share of the dragon’s treasure. The journey is both literal and metaphorical, as the home-loving Bilbo grows in maturity, confidence and worldliness, returning home with a greater sense of self than he had before.

It’s a truly beautiful story, made complex by the historic, literary, religious and anthropological references so intertwined with its message. Unsurprisingly, The Hobbit received rave reviews upon publication and, although it was intended as a children’s book, found a large adult audience as well.

Honey cakes

Hobbits are like my cats – food is always at the forefront of their minds. So there are actually a lot of great food references throughout both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ll revisit Tolkien in later posts… but this time, I’m happy to say we’re going to focus on a CAKE. Specifically, Beorn’s twice-baked honey cakes.

Gandalf, Bilbo and the 13 dwarves seek shelter with Beorn in his home between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood Forest. Beorn is a ‘skin-changer’, or an exceptionally large, strong man with the ability to turn into a bear. As such, there’s a great honey theme throughout our company’s visit to his home. Beorn and his children, Beornings, are renowned in Middle-earth for their baking, and honey cakes are a specialty. In Beorn’s hall, Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves eat and drink heartily:

There they had a supper, or a dinner, such as they had not had since they left the Last Homely House in the West and said good-bye to Elrond…. They sat long at the table with their wooden drinking-bowls filled with mead… At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug – he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drunk at least a quart of mead.

These loaves are honey cakes, and when it was time for the travelers to leave, Beorn gave the travelers a whole bunch of them:

He would lade them with food to last them for weeks with care, and packed so as to be as easy as possible to carry – nuts, flour, sealed jars of dried fruits, and red earthenware pots of honey, and twice-baked cakes that would keep going a long time, and on a little of which they could march far. The making of these was one of his secrets; but honey was in them, as in most of his foods, and they were good to eat, though they made one thirsty.

Later, in The Lord of the Rings, Gimli says that the twice-baked honey cakes have a similar effect as lembas bread, in that they provide an unimaginable amount of sustenance from just a small bite.

So we have a cake made with honey that is filling, delicious and makes you thirsty. I know Eric has an awesome recipe for you next week, and then we’ll have a special guest post from our resident wine expert, Chris Baker, who will tell us  all about mead, an ancient (and delicious) honey wine.

I have a serious sweet tooth, so have been pretty excited about this post for a while!