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Quite a number of authors of English literature around the early 20th century published with initialed pen names (EM Forster, JRR Tolkien, TS Eliot, ...) whereas others did not (Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, ...), and I was curious as to what might lead an author to use initials for their given names.

To ask a concrete question, why did JRR Tolkien publish as such, as opposed to something like "Ronald Tolkien" or "J. Ronald Tolkien" since it seems he went by Ronald? Is there any record for why Tolkien chose (or was convinced) to use this?

(If you happen to know why other authors around this time period chose to use initials, I'd be happy hear about this also--the only case I know about is the recent case of JK Rowling.)

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In the present day, when an author like J. K. Rowling uses initials in the author's name on books, it is plausible that this was an explicit choice / conscious decision, and the author had a special reason for doing so. (In Rowling's case, the reason was that the publishers thought young boys might not want to read a book written by a woman.)

This plausibility is based on certain assumptions about "normal" names in the English-speaking world:

  • A person's "real" or "proper" name, used for most purposes in real life, is in the format "GivenName Surname". (For example, Rowling's name, at the time she was writing the books, was "Joanne Rowling", and she might be referred to formally as "Ms. Joanne Rowling".)
  • The name used by one's friends and family is either one's given name, or some diminutive form of it. (For example, Rowling is called "Joanne" or "Jo".)

Based on such assumptions, it is reasonable to wonder about other authors, like J. R. R. Tolkien: for example, one may speculate that he used initials because he was an academic scholar wishing to adopt a somewhat different pen name in his books for children, just as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson became "Lewis Carroll".

Most of us know, I guess, that these assumptions do not necessarily hold across different cultures. Even "obvious" assumptions may be false, and personal names around the world vary. (For instance, the children of V. S. Achuthanandan are named V. A. Arunkumar and V. V. Asha, and this is perfectly natural.) Pointers on Wikipedia: personal name, anthroponymy, personal names, personal names by culture.

But cultures vary not just across space but also across time: it is easy to forget that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”.

So if one is willing to abandon one's cultural conditioning and be a little open-minded about what sort of names people are allowed to have, it turns out that:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien was not doing anything unusual in using initials; it was a common practice at the time. (The fact that he was called “Ronald” by his friends and family implies nothing about his formal name: C. S. Lewis was called "Jack".)
  2. The name “J. R. R. Tolkien” was not a pen name that he used for non-academic works; it was simply his name.

This applies not just to Tolkien but to many early 20th-century English authors (as asked at the now-deleted question). Many authors used initials simply because many people in the late 19th / early 20th centuries used initials. We do not need to look for special literary reasons, because these authors were not doing anything special. The names with initials were not their noms de plume but simply their conventional names that they used in other aspects of life.

Let me elaborate on both these points separately.

Names with initials were common

We can take a deeper look at the milieu of E. M. Forster (born 1879), J. R. R. Tolkien (born 1892) and T. S. Eliot (born 1888), by looking at the styles of names in fields other than literature. As a proxy for getting a representative list of names, let's look at:

  • Film directors: in this List of British films before 1920, there are many directors who went by initialed names, including R.W. Paul (born 1869), G.A. Smith (born 1864), A. E. Coleby (b. 1876), W. P. Kellino (b ~1874), A.V. Bramble (b 1884). Note that many of these seem to have gone by different styles of names at different periods.
  • England cricket captains: A N Hornby (b 1847), W. G. Grace (b 1848), H. D. G. Leveson Gower (b 1873), C. B. Fry (b 1872), M. J. K. Smith (b 1933).
  • List of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom: H. H. Asquith (born 1852).
  • Nobel laureates from the United Kingdom: J. J. Thompson (b 1856), A. V. Hill (b 1886), C. F. Powell (b 1903).
  • English mathematicians: G. H. Hardy (b 1877), F. H. Jackson (b 1870), D. G. Champernowne (b 1912), I. J. Good (b 1916), W. T. Tutte (b 1917), J. W. S. Cassels (b 1922).

There are even more that did not use initials, of course. This cherry-picked list of names is only to illustrate that people using names with initials were not uncommon, and presumably there aren't necessarily special literary reasons for being part of that trend. (It does seem to be a trend: the occurrence seems to peak in that rough period.)

Note that these non-literary people did not use their initials as "pen names" for some special literary purpose — these were simply the names by which they were known in real life, the names by which articles about them are still titled.

[I picked only people from the UK, but you can also look at people in the broader British-influenced countries: we have scientists like C. V. Raman, S. N. Bose, J. C. Bose (continuing to the present day), and people from the literary world like R. K. Narayan or V. S. Naipaul.]

Doing a statistical analysis over some larger and more representative dataset of names will let you know whether authors like Forster and Tolkien were picking a name style unusual for their time.

“J. R. R. Tolkien” was not a pen name

Was the name with initials a nom de plume he adopted for non-scholarly works? No! Here are the covers of a 1922 scholarly work of his, and the second edition of another:

Middle English Sir Gawain

(Middle English, not Middle Earth!)

Tolkien first published a work of fiction in 1937 (The Hobbit). If we search on Google Books for books before 1935, and look for strings like "Mr. J. R. R. Tolkien", "Mr. John Tolkien", "Mr. Ronald Tolkien", "Mr. John Ronald Tolkien" and "Mr. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien", we find results only for the first one.

Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1921: Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, Volume 4, Issues 22-23

The University Bulletin, 1922 The University Bulletin, Volume 1, Issue 1 - Volume 6, Issue 2

The Periodical, 1923: The Periodical, Volume 9

Studies in English, 1927: Studies in English

British Books in Print, 1920: British Books in Print, Volume 8

Take a look at these, especially the last one: do we really want to look for special literary reasons for, or even consider unusual, the fact that all these people had initials in their formal terms of address?

  • J. W. S. (Ian) Cassels may have been born in 1922, but he was still around until a couple of years ago :-) – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '17 at 1:45
  • Just to be clear, my now-deleted question was about the existence and reasons for such a trend. But to clarify your answer, are you saying Tolkien didn't go by Ronald or John Ronald? For instance, would people who knew him personally and wanted to refer to him by more than just his last name call him "Mr JRR Tolkien"? Or did anyone ever just call him "JRR"? – Kimball Mar 6 '17 at 3:25
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    @Kimball As I understand it, "J. R. R. Tolkien" was the name on all his publications (academic or not), and was effectively his "official" name. So e.g. his students/colleagues would indeed refer to him as "Mr J. R. R. Tolkien" (rather than "Mr. Ronald Tolkien" or "Mr. John Ronald Tolkien"). Of course, one's friends and family may use a different name (it doesn't have to be the first part of one's official name), just as C. S. Lewis was known as "Jack" to his friends. Tolkien seems to have been called "Ronald" by friends/family; pretty sure "Ronald Tolkien" was never used though. – ShreevatsaR Mar 6 '17 at 3:44
  • One of the random things I forgot to mention: see this page from a music periodical of 1886 (different Tolkien) where the names on the page (of composers) are: “Ciro Pinsuti”, “E. A. Sydenham”, “Frederick Tolkien”, “J. T. Field”, “W. G. Wood”, “George Gardner”, “Edward Bunnett”, “Gerard F. Cobb”, “J. R. Courtney”. That's something about the relative frequencies of different composers in 1886. – ShreevatsaR Mar 7 '17 at 1:11
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    @Valorum The improvements are entirely due to you. :-) Thanks for challenging me on this, and for suggesting the theory of an academic writing for children. Although the “reason” is the same (no special reasons, common practice), your comments showed me that an answer must try to make an argument to convince, and not just state conclusions. Thanks also for the idea of focusing on Tolkien even though the same could be done with other authors: it is usually better to proceed from the specific to the general (or the concrete to the abstract) and not the other way around, and I had forgotten that. – ShreevatsaR Mar 7 '17 at 17:48

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