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EILEEN BATTERSBYponders Joseph Roth and JRR Tolkien

AT THE TIME of his birth 118 years ago tomorrow, writer Joseph Roth, a central European George Orwell, was born into the world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, admittedly at its extreme eastern edges in Brody, Galicia. Then it was part of Austria, now it is the Ukraine. Roth, the supreme chronicler of social and political chaos, would have loved the confusions. His father had left his mother while she was pregnant and he was to die in a lunatic asylum in Holland. Roth never met him and was raised by his mother and her family.

He was educated in Brody and later attended the University of Lvov, before transferring to university in Vienna. He was a natural observer and as a Jew always considered himself an outsider. This sense of distance and an abiding awareness of displacement so brilliantly evoked in his novella Hotel Savoy (1924) made him a writer, his genius did the rest. He served with the Austrian-Hungarian army, most probably as a reporter. His finest work, The Radetzky March (1932), is an elegy to the dying empire. As both novelist and journalist Roth remains unique through his interest in people – our dreams and our mistakes. His melancholic vision is ironic, shrewd, always sympathetic and vividly conveyed through his elegant prose.

Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, Russia and ultimately Paris where he died, an ailing alcoholic, self-exiled at 44, all come to life through his fiction and his extraordinary reportage. The literary equal of Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann and Robert Walser, he is a storyteller who brings history to life. Roth was the consummate witness, a romantic longing for the rebirth of the empire.

In common with Roth, JRR Tolkien who died 39 years ago tomorrow at the age of 81, also went to the Great War. He saw action on the Somme, an experience which influenced the many battles described in his epic odyssey The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Drawing on the early and medieval literature of which he was an international authority, Tolkien, the kindly academic intent on sustaining a story, reworked the traditional heroic quest narrative: the ring must be destroyed.

Tolkien was born in South Africa in January 1892. His parents returned to England when Tolkien was three but his father died the following year. The future writer was raised by his mother until she died, leaving him an orphan at 12. Happy years spent living with relatives in and around Birmingham left him with a love of the English midlands and a feel for the countryside.

Tolkien nerds the world over suffered spasms of territorial anxiety when it was announced that Peter Jackson was attempting a film version of our sacred text; the three movies released between 2001-2003, surpassed expectations. Now the vigil begins anew as the first of Jackson’s adaptations of The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, should brighten even the bleakest winter. Gandalf’s enticing announcement “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure” sets the scene, atmosphere and imagination will do the rest.

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