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Biographical Information

To learn more about J.R.R. Tolkien's life, you might also take a look at our Timeline.

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When did J.R.R. Tolkien live?

J.R.R. Tolkien was born at the end of the 19th century, on January 3, 1892, and lived to witness some of the 20th century’s most significant events. He served as an officer during the First World War, and was also personally affected by the troubles of World War II. He died in 1973, on the 2nd of September.

What was J.R.R. Tolkien's nationality?

J.R.R. Tolkien was British, of British descent. Born of english parents in the town of Bloemfontein —where his father was working in a bank— in the Orange Free State, now part of modern-day South Africa. In 1895, at the age of three, he made the journey back to England with his mother and brother, and spent his childhood in the Birmingham area. He went on to live in Oxford, where he taught for 35 years, until 1959, and lived until his death, in 1973.

What do the initials ‘J.R.R.’ stand for?

John Ronald Reuel. John was his grandfather’s first name, and Reuel was his father’s middle name; but to his relatives he was mostly known as Ronald. As we can see in his published Letters, he was liable to use any of his given names depending on the addressee, and sometimes omitted them altogether in favor of initials. The name Tolkien is of Saxon (that is German) origin, and means ‘foolhardy’.

What was the author's favorite food?

Oysters, served with lemon.

Was J.R.R. Tolkien a ‘professional’ writer?

To the register office in Britain, he was mainly a Professor of English Language and Literature (in Leeds, and then—from 1925 up to 1959—in Oxford); and more generally, a philologist, analysing the relationship between text and language, and specialising in the study of ancient texts. As he said in a conference on "English & Welsh", the same year The Lord of the Rings was published (1955) : "I am ... a philologist in the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic field".

Tolkien therefore was not a 'professional' witer in that precise sense, however his work as a scholar was closely connected with his writing, and vice versa. He worked tirelessly for the University and his students, produced modern editions of medieval texts, and broke new academic ground with seminal research papers, all the while raising a family of four. Yet, stealing (by his own admission) time here and there ‘from time already mortgaged’, he wrote thousands of pages detailing the world that sprouted from the languages he never ceased to invent and develop. Thus, Tolkien’s fictional output can also be considered a form of philology.

Was J.R.R. Tolkien successful as an author in his own day?

This of course depends on how we define success! But if we mean "fame and fortune":

J.R.R. Tolkien was a hard-working professor with four children, and both he and his wife were orphans, so he was not by any means well-off until late in his life. The Hobbit was published in 1937, when he was already 45 years old. And he was nearing retirement age when The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954-55, but he was alive to see the 'first wave' of celebrity in the 1960's, when the books also enjoyed huge success with their American readers.

The later global fame of the 'Tolkien' name, and the confusion that has resulted between the man, the author, the professor, the books, the worlds he invented, and the adaptations they have enjoyed, is a far more recent phenomenon, due in the main part to the huge success of Peter Jackson's film adaptations, but also, we like to think, to the enduring quality and depth of J.R.R. Tolkien's storytelling.

Did Tolkien ever write about himself, and if so, where can these writings be found?

The first and best place to look remains the collection of Letters published after his death, and containing, among other correspondence, letters addressed to his family and friends, discussions with his editors, and detailed answers to questions sent by readers. As such, this work offers a uniquely personal window into how he went about writing the books that made him famous (and creating the characters that populate them), while answering many questions that, up until then, had remained open for debate. (For more on this, see our Letters section.)

The 1966 Foreword to The Lord of the Rings is, perhaps, the most famous instance where J. R. R. Tolkien is known to have confided his views. In it, he describes the long and arduous composition of the book (1937–1954), and comments its interpretation by critics—some of whom seemed to him a little too intent on finding the ‘inner message’ or ‘allegory’ of the story.

To this short foreword can be added the brilliant retirement speech which he gave in June 1959, when leaving the University of Oxford, and where the indefatigable storyteller and inventor of languages also appears as a down-to-earth academic who is as committed to the educational welfare of students as he is to the defence of literature (‘Valedictory Address’, in The Monsters and the Critics).


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