Fantasy, Recovery, Consolation and Escape (and that's just for adults)

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Would J R R Tolkien have been surprised by the vast global success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, written painfully over a dozen years?

Not necessarily: drawing on his deep scholarly knowledge of myth and legend, the Oxford University specialist in medieval English knew exactly how to tap into the primal sources of hope, fear and sheer excitement.

In 1964, 10 years after the trilogy's first volume appeared, he wrote: "Fairy stories offer: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people."

If any writer ever grasped how to reach the "inner child" of adults everywhere, it was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He was born in South Africa in 1892, but moved to Britain after his father died and was brought up by his mother in the West Midlands. That landscape, with its decent people, inspired his fictional Shire.

After a Catholic upbringing and a brilliant Oxford career, his service in the First World War laid the emotional foundations for his epic depictions of Good and Evil in endless combat. He wrote, but did not publish, The Silmarillion in the 1920s. The Hobbit followed in 1937, and then the long, interrupted labour of his trilogy. (At 33, he became one of Oxford's youngest professors.) As The Lord of the Rings took shape, he also completed shorter works: the Father Christmas stories written each year for his four children, and tales such as Farmer Giles of Ham.

What would have shocked Tolkien far more is that, while the film of his work is poised to take the world's cinemas by storm, religious leaders in Britain now fret about the survival of their churches. The values of traditional Christianity lie so deeply embedded in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that secular readers may miss them entirely. His friend and colleague C S Lewis perhaps sensed the threat to belief more acutely than Tolkien; hence the sharper didactic edge in Lewis's fables.

They used to discuss each others' work at the weekly meetings of The Inklings, a club of like-minded Oxford dons that gave Tolkien much of his intellectual framework. But on one occasion, according to a famous anecdote, Tolkien's mythical inventions exhausted even Lewis. As he was reading the latest instalment of what became The Lord of the Rings, Lewis was heard to mutter: "Not another fucking elf."