- “Wingless fluttering”: Some Personal Connections in Tolkien’s Formative Years
It may be bold to say that the approaches to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien based chiefly on the biographical aspect have been infrequent. This statement does not mean that it is unusual to find a sketch of the author in the studies referred to him, nor that there are not any specifically biographical books. However, in the first case most authors usually depend on the same source, the authorized biography by Humphrey Carpenter published in 1977 which, despite being valuable, is by no means complete or free of errors. On the other hand, other works that could be described as biographical, often focus on very specific matters about the life of Tolkien, for example, his participation in World War I or his connection to the Inklings.1 Going against this tide, the present essay concentrates mainly on biographical issues and personal relationships of Tolkien from his formative period. It seems unwise to minimize or ignore the importance of Tolkien’s circumstances in his childhood and youth because doing so would deny the important role played by certain events and people in the shaping of his personality and world view. In fact, the relevance of these years in the further development of the personality and the fictive world of Tolkien is highlighted within his family environment. Adam Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandson and son of Christopher Tolkien) explicitly emphasizes the importance of this period on the author:2
My great-grandfather died when my grandfather was four and his mother died when he was twelve. . . . He was marked by death in his early years and also by the disappearance of an era. His early childhood was spent during the nineteenth century, his adolescence in early twentieth century, before the World War I, which meant a complete break with the previous century, and he matured during the war. I think he identified the disappearance of this period with the disappearance of all the people he loved, so this existential angst is what inspired his world view, a pessimistic world view, despite his Catholic faith, but not defeatist. . . . I think when we read some of his writings we find someone struggling with a form of hopelessness, which today we would call depression and once was called melancholia.(Tolkien 35).
The changes in the social field in this epoch, with a great amount of cultural and epistemological transformation, certainly affected Tolkien [End Page 51] too, although to assess how they could influence him the words of Anna Vaniskaya are pertinent:
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, historians, sociologists, politicians, and writers of different religious and political persuasions were as polarized on the fundamental issues as ever before or after, but they thought about them in the same period specific terms: evolution vs. degeneration, individualism vs. collectivism, organic vs. mechanical, patriotism vs. cosmopolitanism, the common man vs. the elite, modern mass society vs. traditional localized community, and so on. Not all of these apply to Tolkien—no single person could have embraced all the existing cultural strands in their diversity—but it is possible to demonstrate just how much he shared in the received habits of thought.(Vaniskaya 6–7) 3
However, despite all these cultural strands, if anything defines Tolkien during this period it is how he cemented his firm commitment with the religious (Catholic) phenomenon which became the strongest component of his ideological positioning. The strength of this thinking was undoubtedly inspired by his contact with various people during his childhood and youth, primarily his mother, but also with those with whom he shared his life (especially after her death). Of these Father Francis Morgan is the most significant.
Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan Osborne was a Catholic priest of the Birmingham Oratory born in Spain, although his ancestors were a mixture of Spaniards, English, Germans and Welsh,4 a result of the amalgam of nationalities that converged in the cosmopolitan region of Cadiz in Spain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to the economic potential of the area (especially linked with the Sherry trade). The Tolkien family met him...