Biographical Information

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 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 favour of initials. The name Tolkien is of Saxon (that is German) origin and means ‘foolhardy’.

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’ writer 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.

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 publishers, 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 the 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 upon 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).

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 thirty-five years, until 1959, and again lived until his death, in 1973.

What was the author’s favourite food?

Oysters, served with lemon.

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 forty-five 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 1960s, 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 to the enduring quality and depth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s storytelling.

Literary Questions

What are the other stories set in Middle-earth, in addition to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings?

The Silmarillion tells of the creation of the world in which Middle-earth itself is contained—up to the complete upheaval marking the end of the Second Age, a few thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings.

The Children of Húrin, as the name implies, relates the tragic ‘romance’ of Húrin’s dynasty, and so develops one of the many stories already told (though in briefer form) in the sweeping historical epic that is The Silmarillion.

Those who wish to know more will find additional incarnations and developments of the Middle-earth stories in Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth.

To what extent can J.R.R. Tolkien be considered an author of children’s stories?

While The HobbitThe Father Christmas LettersMr. Bliss and Roverandom were indeed written with children in mind (especially the author’s), Tolkien’s other works (such as The Lord of the RingsThe Silmarillion, but also The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, etc.) were intended for adults; and though they are often categorized as ‘young-adult fiction’ in today’s parlance, they remain accessible to a younger public.

What proportion of Tolkien manuscripts has been published by Christopher Tolkien since the death of the author in 1973?

Concurrently with the publication of books that relate to Tolkien’s scholarly work, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight… (1975) and the collection of essays published as The Monsters and the Critics (1983), and after preparing for publication The Silmarillion (1977), Christopher Tolkien provided a commented edition of the ‘Silmarillion’ stories, first in Unfinished Tales (1980), and subsequently in the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth (1983–96): The Book of Lost TalesThe Lays of BeleriandThe Shaping of Middle-earthThe Lost Road, etc. He also edited The Children of Húrin (2007), a complete version of the story of Túrin (already found in The Silmarillion in greatly reduced form).
More recently, Christopher Tolkien went on to edit some of his father’s poems with medieval themes: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) and The Fall of Arthur (2013), as well as Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2014). Which proves that The Lord of the Rings, for all its qualities, is really just the tip of the iceberg!

Was The Hobbit related to The Silmarillion from the outset?

No. When The Hobbit was conceived, it was unrelated to the legends of the Elder Days. Tolkien invented the hobbit-story to please his own children, and did not consciously tie it in with the mythology he had created in ‘The Silmarillion’.

When his editors asked for ‘a Hobbit sequel’, he turned to The Lord of the Rings, which grafted itself almost against his will onto the mythological world of Arda; and in the years that followed, Tolkien would often go back to The Hobbit in an attempt to bring the 1937 story into line with The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

How are The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth related?

As Christopher Tolkien explains at the beginning of The Book of the Lost Tales (published in 1983 as the first part of the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth), in 1977 he had wanted to publish ‘The Silmarillion’ as ‘a single text, selecting and arranging in such a way as seemed to me to produce the most coherent and internally self-consistent narrative’. This narrative also had to be concordant with The Lord of the Rings, the work J.R.R. Tolkien had already published and used as a reference.

But as Christopher Tolkien points out, in the 1977 Silmarillion which it was his task to edit, the long evolution and multiplicity of versions that produced the ‘final’, published text were not readily apparent.

For this reason, Christopher Tolkien decided to embark on a series of twelve volumes (1983–96) aiming to present the original manuscripts, and throwing additional light on the creative process of his father. We see how ‘The Silmarillion’ remained in a state of constant evolution through the numerous rewritings and refashionings carried over by Tolkien for more than half a century; and how the invented world came to be expanded considerably with the creation of The Lord of the Rings and its famous backdrop, Middle-earth—where before there had been only Valinor and Beleriand.

Did Tolkien invent everything about Middle-earth, or did he draw upon other sources?

Tolkien’s legendarium is not a ‘mythology’ in the strict (and modern) sense of the word, because his stories are the work of a single individual and not of a whole people. They are, however, reminiscent of famous mythological accounts; and some readers have tried to identify the ‘source’ of this story or that from The Silmarillion or The History of Middle-earth.

But Tolkien did not rely solely upon his imagination. He drew in part on European literature and tradition, of which there are as many forms as there are languages (and Tolkien, of course, knew both). Norse mythology comes to mind; but even where there are similarities, the personal additions and gradual transformations brought about by Tolkien are so numerous, so essential, and the whole business of invention so elaborate, that both the casual reader and the specialist agree upon the supreme originality of his creation.

The sustained influence that Tolkien’s work continues to exert over fantasy authors, decades after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, is proof of that. More than a passing down of traditions, it has become a model in itself.

Tolkien’s most celebrated works (The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion) were published in the 1950s and 1970s, and are set in a very distant past. What do they tell us about our own time?

A book’s publication date is not an indicator of contemporary relevance or interest! In Tolkien’s case, reflections on man, technology, war and the use of force, friendship among peoples, and, of course, nature, indisputably make him an author for our time.

That may explain the fascination he held (and continues to hold) for generations of readers, in that he draws upon his vast knowledge of the culture of bygone days to write about themes that are timeless—beyond the pleasures of storytelling and the epic sweep of heroic romance.

Why was The Children of Húrin published in 2007, between The History of Middle-earth (1983-1996) and ‘neo-medieval’ poems such as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) and The Fall of Arthur (2013)?

Christopher Tolkien published the book in 2007 for two main reasons: because he believed that it was a very fine example of his father’s writing, and of his story-telling; and because, being set in an earlier age of Middle-earth, long before the times depicted in The Lord of the Rings, it opens up to those who know only that work and The Hobbit how extensive the history of Middle-earth truly is.

Also, it had always been Christopher’s primary concern that J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings should be published in a manner that was appropriate to its subject matter and its essential nature as literature. The world of Middle-earth is seen by many as a playground. The true nature of Tolkien’s invented world and the themes and subject matter of his stories are frequently serious and dark, as The Children of Húrin shows.

How does The Children of Húrin fit into J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘mythology’? When does it take place relative to The Lord of the Rings?

The Tale takes place during the First Age of Middle-earth. Túrin was born in the year 464 from the first rising of the Sun after Morgoth destroyed the two trees of Valinor and died in the year 499. This would have been 5,000 years after the awakening of the Elves in Middle-earth, and 978 years after Fëanor completed the forging of the Silmarils. The recorded coming of Men occurred at the first Sunrise, and Beren and Lúthien, who encountered each other in the year of Túrin’s birth, achieved their quest for the Silmaril when Túrin was a young boy.

Túrin died approximately 100 years before the Drowning of Beleriand which marked the beginning of the Second Age lasting for three and a half millennia. Sauron forged the One Ring around the year 1600 of the Second Age. Bilbo met Gollum in the year 2941 of the Third Age, and the Fellowship met up and formed in Rivendell in the year 3018. The One Ring was destroyed in 3019. Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and Elrond (who by that time was 6,500 years old and was born 33 years after Túrin’s death) departed from Middle-earth in 3021, marking the end of the Third Age.

So, you can probably take it from there, and anyway it’s safe to say that the Tale of the Children of Húrin took place “a very long time ago”!

A detailed discussion of the reckoning of time in the First Age can be found in Morgoth’s Ring and The War of the Jewels, Vols X and XI of The History of Middle-earth.

What is the difference between The Silmarillion and the ‘Silmarillion’?

The Silmarillion (with italics) refers to the book as published by Christopher Tolkien in 1977, four years after J.R.R. Tolkien’s death.

‘The Silmarillion’ refers to the more or less complete version that J.R.R. Tolkien proposed to his publishers in the late 1930s, which was turned down. It is sometimes used as a title for the major segment of the Legendarium, which Tolkien called by its Elvish name, Quenta Silmarillion, ‘the Story of the Silmarils’.

Finally, the ‘Silmarillion’ refers to the entire body of work, composed of a multitude of manuscripts, documents, poems, written over the years.

In what order should the Middle-earth stories be read?

From a chronological standpoint, The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin come before The Hobbit, which is in turn a prelude to The Lord of the Rings; but there is no need to follow this particular order.

Tolkien’s own contemporaries first discovered The Hobbit (1937), then The Lord of the Rings (1954–5), and they had to wait until 1977 for The Silmarillion. Today, The Lord of the Rings seems a good place to start, especially since the story of The Hobbit is recalled in all essential points at the beginning of the book.

But new readers may act on their inspiration after leafing through the books—or they can follow this rule of thumb: up until twelve years old, The Hobbit seems more suitable; but it makes sense for older readers to start with the author’s most famous work, and that is of course The Lord of the Rings. Then there is The Silmarillion—altogether different in tone and form—which tells of the creation of the World, the Awakening of the Elves and the beginnings of Men, the first Great Wars, the forging of the Ring and the destruction of the Ancient World: all the things that lie in the past of The Lord of the Rings, so to speak. But since 2007, The Children of Húrin opens a window on this distant past for readers (preferably adult, for the tale is dark and tragic) who wish to approach it in the context of a fully developed, 200-page story.

Lastly, the twelve volume History of Middle-earth presents a number of previously unpublished texts (or manuscript versions of published stories), mostly in their chronological order of composition.

What exactly is The Silmarillion?

Following the death of J.R.R. Tolkien in 1973, his son Christopher undertook the daunting task of presenting the bulk of his father’s writings to the reading public, some of which dated as far back as 1910. He started by publishing The Silmarillion (1977), a book intended to shed light on the legends of the Elder Days, which Tolkien had begun to fashion as early as World War I, but which he set aside during the composition of The Hobbit (1937).

How are the three central books—The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion—related?

The Silmarillion tells of the creation of the World, the Awakening of the Elves and the beginnings of Men, the Wars between Morgoth and the other gods, and finally, the rising of Sauron and the forging of the Ring. That same ring, found by Bilbo down in Gollum’s lair in The Hobbit, becomes the central element of The Lord of the Rings, which ends the cycle.

The plot of The Silmarillion thus spans several thousands of years, whereas most of the story of The Lord of the Rings takes place over the course of single year, in 3018–9 of the Third Age… So the events of The Lord of the Rings, however momentous, form only a short chapter in the history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world.

What is ‘HoMe’?

HoMe is an acronym for The History of Middle-earth. This series, edited by Christopher Tolkien, collects the previously unpublished ‘Middle-earth’ works of J.R.R. Tolkien—stories, poems, chronologies, notes on languages, etc.—and encompasses twelve volumes.

How can I know which Tolkien books are available in my language?

You can find out which firm holds the publishing rights in your language and visit their website. For example, the French publisher is Christian Bourgois éditeur; the Spanish publisher is Minotauro.

What literary works did Tolkien draw inspiration from, and can these be found online?

Most of these works are in the public domain, and so can be consulted online without infringing on copyright.

Will readers of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion find any interest in Tolkien’s ‘scholarly’ works and his discussions on medieval literature?

Tolkien’s work is to be considered as a whole, and any reader can find interest in a book with which he is unfamiliar. The essays collected in The Monsters and the Critics—lectures on medieval poetry (BeowulfSir Gawain), on fairy-stories, on linguistic invention—are not readily accessible to younger readers and may at times seem difficult; but at least three of them are thought to hold important keys to understanding Tolkien’s fiction and poetry.

The first of these, which concerns the epic poem Beowulf, reflects on the meaning of the hero’s actions, and heroism in general; the second, On Fairy-stories, establishes the importance of the supernatural and elucidates some of Tolkien’s literary choices; finally, the mischievously named essay A Secret Vice tackles linguistic invention, providing additional examples of languages invented by Tolkien. These three essays, some of the most accessible in the collection, relate directly to The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit or The Children of Húrin.

Another important source of information is the collection of Letters published in 1981. In it, Tolkien comments at great length on his literary creations, answering ‘fan mail’ or pleading his case with editors, and in so doing, answers tantalizing questions about his most famous works.

How long did it take Christopher Tolkien to produce The Children of Húrin?

Without Christopher Tolkien’s previous work on his father’s papers – starting with The Silmarillion in 1977, and concluding with the twelfth volume of The History of Middle-earthThe Peoples of Middle-earth, in 1996 – it would almost certainly have been impossible for him to produce such a faithful and complete version of the tale of the children of Húrin. As such this book can be said to be a culmination of about thirty years’ work.

According to Christopher Tolkien, the most precise estimate possible would be that to compile the necessary material it took several years of complex work, in the course of his entire study of his father’s papers.

Why an illustrated edition?

We have always admired the work of Alan Lee, ever since he was commissioned to illustrate The Lord of the Rings at the time of J.R.R. Tolkien’s centenary. While preparing the story for publication, Christopher Tolkien decided that to have the book illustrated from first publication would also underline its essential quality as a story rather than a scholarly work.

How much of The Children of Húrin had already been published ?

A quick answer is that approximately 75% of the actual story appears in interrupted form in Unfinished Tales. Also, a brief version of the tale can be found in The Silmarillion and there are variations of parts of the story and references to it throughout the History of Middle-earth series, and most notably in vols. II, III, IV, V, and XI.

Is there any point reading this book if I’ve already read Unfinished Tales, The Lays of Beleriand, etc.?

This would have to be up to you. If you have read any or all of the above works, there may be little to surprise you in the actual storyline. You will however be reading a stand-alone version of the tale, constructed with the reader’s pleasure in mind, rather than to give a precise and analytical explanation of how the story evolved, which is the approach adopted by The History of Middle-earth. As such, you may find that the flow of the story brings new pleasure and insight to your reading.

What is the importance of the tale of The Children of Húrin in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings?

The tale was of great personal importance to the author, and probably one of the main springboards for his entire Legendarium. He worked at the tale all through his life, returning to it again and again, and it was a source of great frustration to him that he never managed to complete it.

It is a story of Middle-earth in an altogether different literary mode than The Lord of the Rings, taking place in a different time. But it also stands out from other tales of the First Age in its much greater elaboration, and in its study of character. We believe it to be a work of great emotional power and tragic interest in its own right.

What is ‘The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’?

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, published by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1945, is a poem in the tradition of the medieval ‘lay’, also illustrated by the Lay of the Children of Húrin, and in the Lay of Leithian.

This 556-verse-long poem tells the tragic story of a lord who sacrifices his life for love: in order to have a child with his wife, then to remain faithful to his spouse, he gives his life to a witch – but his wife dies out of grief.

J.R.R. Tolkien and Fantasy

What is fantasy? How is it different from science fiction?

Fantasy emerged as a literary genre at the end of the 19th century; and the success of The Lord of the Rings has made it very popular, especially since the 1990s. It remains somehow difficult to define, and exists in many varieties: heroic fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy… It is however possible to agree on this minimal definition: in it, the supernatural is always present; it is set in an imaginary world or era; the medieval atmosphere (harking back to the origins of the genre) and level of technological advancement it portrays are consistent with the era.

Put in crude terms, you might say a fantasy novel is populated with dragons, not flying saucers, as would be the case with science fiction.

Should Tolkien’s stories be regarded as ‘escapist literature’, since they belong to the fantasy genre?

It would be a mistake to consider fantasy as a facile exercise, ruled by a set of conventions. Tolkien consciously opted for fantasy (in large part) because he wanted the reader to lose his bearings and consider the world around him in a different way.

His belief, as he explained in his renowned essay On Fairy-stories, was that we are cut from reality, and that only fantasy—that is to say ‘adult fairy-stories’, like The Lord of the Rings, which create a ‘secondary world’—can help us regain ‘a clear view’ of the real world. Clearly, the purpose is not to escape from reality, but rather the reverse!

Does J.R.R. Tolkien’s work belong to Fantasy? Did he invent Fantasy?

We don’t believe any author should be pigeonholed. The Lord of the Rings, for example, could perfectly well be enjoyed by fans of historical fiction. But if you insisted on categorizing him, you could compare his works to the authors he mentions in his private correspondence (see Letters): William Morris (1834–1896), artist and author, member of the Arts and Craft movement and of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; Lord Dunsany (1878–1957), an Irish author; or E.R. Eddison (1882–1945).

Tolkien did leave a deep imprint on fantasy; and since the 1960s, a number of authors have taken their inspiration from him. He did not, however, invent the genre.

Invented Languages and Names

Why are languages so important in Tolkien’s writings, to the point where linguistic invention is often cited as one of their most original aspects?

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that he had written The Lord of the Rings to create a world ‘in which a common greeting would be elen síla lúmenn’ omentielmo, and that the phrase long antedated the book’. Even though this statement was meant partly in jest, it is undeniable that languages were often the starting-point of his stories: as Tolkien remarked in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, those of ‘The Silmarillion’ were ‘primarily linguistic in inspiration and [were] begun in order to provide the necessary background of “history” for Elvish tongues’.

An inventor of languages since his youth, he pursued this hobby during the First World War, as he composed the first versions (The Book of Lost Tales, published in The History of Middle-earth) of what would become ‘The Silmarillion’. And the languages continued to evolve with the stories. For Tolkien—the scholar—was as much a specialist of literature as he was a specialist of languages.

How reliable are the things you find about ‘Tolkien’s languages’ on the Internet?

As reliable as anything you find on the Internet!

We can however recommend at least the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (ELF), and their work on Elvish languages.

Can Tolkien’s invented languages be learned and spoken just like other languages?

As the work of a single man, these languages cannot exist beyond what the man has created: you cannot ‘invent’ new vocabulary without betraying the genius of the author, no more than you can continue the stories he wrote.

You can study the grammar, the lexicon and the evolution of the languages, but you cannot ‘speak’ any of them. Moreover, you should be particularly suspicious of anything you find on the Internet purporting to be Tolkien’s own invention. Though his most ‘advanced’ languages show a fair amount of grammatical and lexical development, and though their pronunciation is reasonably well-documented, these languages do not constitute a system, and have evolved and matured over the course of Tolkien’s lifetime—so much so that the information we possess about them is often found to be contradictory.

It is therefore not possible to make use of them like we would with ‘real-world’ languages; but we may still wish to learn all that we possibly can about Tolkien’s fascinating linguistic creations.

What is the meaning and correct pronunciation for the name Smaug?

“The dragon bears as name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest.” (In a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to The Observer, in 1938.)

The name ‘Smaug’ is pronounced sm-ow-g, as in ‘owl’ or ‘howl’. (And therefore not sm-aw-g, as in ‘law’ or ‘board’, and most definitely not sm-o-g, as in “smog”!)

Originally, the dragon was named Pryftan, from the Welsh pryf: “worm”; and tan: fire.