Wordplay — billed as “Minnesota’s Largest Celebration of Readers, Writers and Great Books”— starts Saturday in downtown Minneapolis. More than 100 authors are attending, and many might be asked where their ideas come from.

From some, the answers may be as novel as the books themselves.

That’s the case with J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote “The Hobbit,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the posthumously published “The Silmarillion,” which Tolkien, who died in 1973, considered his masterpiece.

Tolkien’s work has inspired many writers, perhaps including some of the Wordplay authors, and the prolific process behind his work is the subject of an exhibit called “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

Tolkien’s life is inspirational, too. His formative years are depicted in a new movie “Tolkien,” which premiered on Friday.

The renewed focus isn’t the first rediscovery of Tolkien’s work, of course. Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle-earth awed audiences worldwide in his 2001-2003 “Lord of the Rings” film adaptations. Earlier readers also turned to Tolkien, especially during the turbulent 1960s, and subsequent generations have only generated more interest. Some even see his influence in another pop culture phenomenon, HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones.”

“He was hugely influential on fantasy writers” including “Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling, and others, said Janet Schrunk Ericksen, an associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota, Morris. And it wasn’t just Tolkien’s books, said Schrunk Ericksen, but “creating an entirely different world” that’s had lasting impact on other authors.

This different world is on display in the exhibit that features Tolkien’s imaginative maps, language, lineage of characters, paintings depicting Middle-earth and other elements essential to his creativity.

“He achieved something that no other author of fiction or fantasy sci-fi has ever achieved, and that’s the level of world building that is Middle-earth,” said John T. McQuillen, the exhibit’s curator. “Tolkien always said that the stories had to take place within a world, and he had to build that world first before any narrative could happen.”

In most stories, McQuillen continued, “the world only exists in the bounds of that story. But for Tolkien, the story exists in the bounds of the world.”

Tolkien’s world “came first, and the world is so expansive and has history, has languages, has relationships between cultural groups, that are to support all the infrastructure for whatever individual narrative there is,” McQuillen said. “That’s what makes Middle-earth and Tolkien’s literary creations so incredibly rich.”

While his literary creations were indeed rich, Tolkien’s family was not. As depicted in the film (which was not approved by Tolkien’s heirs), they were near destitute after the death of his father. But his loving mother nurtured the youngster’s love of storytelling and expanded his imagination, along with his knowledge of nearly every subject. Her untimely death during his adolescence crushed the young Tolkien, who then spent an initially rocky, but ultimately defining, time at an elite school where he formed a fellowship (perhaps a precursor to his later work) with three artistically inspired schoolmates.

All four attended Oxford, where Tolkien eventually returned as a professor of English language and literature. But first, the four went off to war, with the Battle of the Somme’s trenches another transformative experience.

“Tolkien lived through exceptional times with both world wars and his own personal life of transitions,” McQuillen said. “The literary works are not a direct reflection of the events of his childhood or World War I or World War II. But he was such an exquisite writer that when dealing with the major themes of history and world literature like evil, greed or the violence that people do to each other, you can see not direct correlations, but reflections of our own history.”

Tolkien’s early life, McQuillen continued, “brought a whole lot more richness and life and truth to literary works because he understood what war was, what loss was, what major life transitions are.”

Including love. Tolkien fell for a fellow orphan, Edith Bratt, with whom he eventually married and raised a family. Edith, just like his mother Mabel, encouraged his gifts. And in Mabel’s case, his Christianity, which was central to his life but more subtle in his writing.

“He was not as overt with his symbolism and content as C.S. Lewis was in the ‘Chronicles of Narnia,’” McQuillen said. “I think Tolkien trusted his readers a little bit to understand that the very deeply embedded Christian themes, particularly in the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ where you have the notions of mercy and acts of pity, the kind of idea of the meek shall inherit the earth” (particularly apparent in choosing hobbits as heroes, McQuillen added).

The impressive literary lineup at Wordplay (sponsored in part by the Star Tribune) includes Stephen King, who will be interviewed on an outdoor stage on Saturday. All of the authors, regardless of genre, likely recognize the extraordinary nature of Tolkien’s talent.

Or more, concluded McQuillen. “I think Tolkien is one of the few literary — and I would include literary figures and artists in the same kind of idea — for the 20th century that the actual word genius can be ascribed to, because his creation and his creative process were so complete.

“That these works are still read, still loved, and read by generations within the same family, there’s something to that continuity and that love that his books aspire that I think really underscores being able to call him a genius, because few authors or artists inspired that kind of devotion.”


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.