J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “One of my strongest opinions that investigation of an author’s biography is an entirely vain and false approach to his works” And it is true that by looking strictly at the events of his life, one gains little insight to the creativity and inspiration behind The Lord of the Rings.
Events that did shape him were living in India for awhile as a child. That is where he was bitten by a tarantula and nearly died. So his use of giant spiders echoes his traumatic experience. He also fought during WWI, so that made his descriptions of war very vivid and realistic in many ways.
Sometimes it is a lifestyle or way of thinking that shapes an author’s books. The Lord of the Rings has the small man—the everyday man—become the hero. This makes sense because Tolkien was not nobility. He was not a Knight or a King. Tolkien once wrote, “I am, in fact, a hobbit in everything but size. I like gardens, trees, plain food, mushrooms and a simple sense of humor. I go to bed late, get up late and don’t travel much.”
His mother converted to Catholicism when he was a boy, which was an important even in his life. Though The Lord of the Rings was fantasy and full of mythology, it also has a strong Christian subtext. Manicheanism, the precursor to Christianity also played a role. The Similarian reflects this perhaps more than The Lord of the Rings though. Tolkien envisioned the Elves as Divine Beings like Angels. Gandalf was also divine in that he was a sorcerer-elf known as Mithrandir or The Grey Pilgrim.
Tolkien felt that the Gaelic language of the Irish was too complicated. He much preferred melodic language of the Finns. Elvish is then based off the language of Finland. He also preferred Teutonic Mythology to Celtic or Greek. In fact, Sauron is a lot like Odin and the magical Odin’s Eye.
I once said that a good way to understand an author was to to do a Lit-Bio—A Literary Biography. The would be examining all the books the author read and creating a biography just out of their reading habits! For example the slaying of the dragon Feninir by Sigurd in Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Tale book was an inspiration for the slaying of Smog in The Hobbit.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Beowulf were also very influential. As was the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, Tolkien disliked Shakespeare, Spencer, George McDonald and Hans Christian Anderson. It is likely that he took from the German poetry Epic The Nibelunglied. Both Nibelunglied and The Lord of The Rings involve magical rings!
Tolkien helped write the Oxford English Dictionary while he was a professor at Oxford. He knew many words and so the names in The Lord of the Rings were very meaningful. Hobbit came from Hol-bytla which meant Hole-Dweller, much like a Rabbit. Smaug is past tense of the word Smugan which means to squeeze through a hole Smeagan also means to inquire skillfully or with great craft! Frodo mean to be wise by experience. There is also a character from Norse mythology called Fróði is mentioned in Beowulf, where it is rendered in Old English as Froda
After The Lord of the Rings was published, many thought it was an allegory for WWI and WWII. They were quick to compare the Nazi’s to Orcs and Saruman and Sauron to Hitler. Tolkien refuted this by saying that he hated allegories. He further explained, “I think many confuse applicability with allegory.” And while you could apply The Lord of the Rings to Hitler and WWII, Tolkien never meant it to represent that exclusively. The Lord of the Rings is a universal tale of good versus evil and can be applied to many times and places, but it was never meant to represent anything specific.
Those who complain about George R.R. Martin taking a long time with the Fire and Ice Series would do well to remember that it took Tolkien 12 years to write the trilogy. That is just 3 books in 12 years. Martin has done more than that. In any case, Tolkien has become the bar that fantasy is judged by. Any writer of fantasy knows that publisher look for Tolkien quality work.