Tolkien at a turning point in his career found ancient Greek too logical and neat. He fell in love instead with the runes of the North, the almost indecipherable prehistory of Denmark and Finland, a time of chain-mailed nobility and a belief in dragons. He made an imaginary past place, Middle Earth, in which to revive the old tales, the old ways, the ancient morals that survive as English fair play, honor, and decency.
When, fifty years ago, I attended Tolkiens lectures, I realized that I was absolutely ignorant of the Far North, its Wagnerian gods and heroes. Pprofessor Tolkien lectured to the floor, had a speech impediment, and was all too often given to wandering off into Welsh cognates. The Lord of the Rings was, for me, a redeeming gift for having learned the principal parts of Anglo-Saxon verbs, fifty every Friday. Further redemption came when I met, here in Kentucky, a classmate of Tolkiens who told me that good old Ronald ("whatever became of him?") was deeply inquisitive about backwoods Kentuckians, who grew pipeweed and had names like Baggins and Barefoot.
excerpted from Harpers Magazine, September 2001