John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3rd January 1892 in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State (now South Africa), to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. His parents, both originally from Birmingham, had moved to South Africa so that Arthur could pursue his career in banking. When Tolkien was three years old, his mother took him and his younger brother Hilary to visit their family in England. The visit became permanent when his father died unexpectedly in South Africa. Mabel settled with her two young sons in Sarehole, a small village just outside Birmingham, which was later to inspire the Shire in Tolkien’s writings.
Tolkien won a scholarship to the prestigious King Edward VI School in Birmingham when he was eight years old and the family moved back to the city for the remainder of his school-days. He excelled in languages studying French, German, Latin and Greek and also taking an interest in Old English, Middle English and Gothic. Unfortunately his mother developed diabetes when he was twelve years old and her health began to deteriorate rapidly. Mabel was a recent convert to Catholicism and she arranged for Father Francis Morgan, a sympathetic Catholic priest, to become the boys’ guardian. She died within the year and although Ronald and his younger brother Hilary were now orphans, Father Francis maintained daily contact with them and gave them love and financial support for the rest of his life.
At school Tolkien found a group of like-minded friends: Geoffrey Smith, Chris Wiseman and Rob Gilson were all precociously talented, in literature, mathematics and drawing respectively. They gathered in the school library illicitly brewing mugs of tea and when they were discovered and ejected, they decamped to Barrows department store where they could drink tea and continue their discussions uninterrupted. The Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or T.C.B.S. for short, was formed. These young men were drawn into close comradeship by a common desire to create something of beauty in the world but within a few years their dreams would be shattered by the war.
Tolkien applied to study Classics (Literae Humaniores, also known as Greats) at Oxford and on his second attempt he won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford, matriculating in 1911. After two years of fairly lax study, he was given permission to change from Classics to English, so that he could pursue his growing interest in Germanic philology, and more specifically Old Norse, Old English and Middle English. In the same year, 1913, he was reunited with Edith Bratt, a fellow orphan whom he had met in shared lodgings in Birmingham. Initially Tolkien’s guardian had tried to extinguish their youthful romance. Fearing that a relationship would distract Tolkien from his studies, he had banned any contact between them for three years. As soon as Tolkien reached his twenty-first birthday and the prohibition was lifted, he wrote to Edith and they became engaged within a week.
World War 1
The renewal of their relationship gave him a new focus and he worked harder at his studies, graduating with a first class degree in June 1915. He immediately enlisted in the army, taking a commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers where he hoped to be placed in the same battalion as his school-friend, Geoffrey Smith. After training for a year in Staffordshire and Yorkshire, he qualified as a signalling officer. Aware of the approaching danger, he and Edith married in March 1916 and three months later he was sent to France for the start of the Somme offensive. He saw first-hand the horrors of trench warfare and the utter destruction of man, beast and landscape. Five months later he was sent back to England on a hospital ship suffering from trench fever. He was plagued by this recurring condition for the next two years and spent long periods in hospital, punctuated by stints of defensive duty on the east coast. It was during this time that he began to write down ‘The Lost Tales’, a series of heroic tales of the Elves from a far-distant time. These stories were the forerunner of The Silmarillion, his epic history of Elves and Men and Gods, which occupied him throughout his life and from which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings eventually sprang. He may have been driven to write these stories down by the proximity of death. Certainly by the time the war ended Rob Gilson and Geoffrey Smith of the T.C.B.S. were dead, along with many of Tolkien’s university friends. Shortly before he died Geoffrey Smith had exhorted Tolkien to pursue the ideals they shared, ‘may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’
With a wife and young son to support, he returned to Oxford at the end of the war and found employment working on the Oxford English Dictionary as a lexicographer. A year later in 1920, he gained his first academic position as Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, becoming a professor there four years later. His Middle English Vocabulary, written for students using Kenneth Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, was published in 1922 and his edition of the medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, co-edited with Eric Gordon, was published in 1925. In the same year he returned to Oxford as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and a fellow of Pembroke College. For the next twenty years he taught Old English, Old Norse, Gothic and Germanic philology to undergraduates, supervised postgraduate research and pursued his own academic research. His British Academy lecture, ‘Beowulf: the monsters and the critics’ delivered in 1937, was a ground-breaking work which overturned decades of critical thought on this Old English epic poem. Another lecture, ‘On Fairy-stories’, delivered at St Andrew’s in 1939, set out to define fantasy and later came to be recognized as his justification for writing fantasy literature.
At Oxford Tolkien met C.S. Lewis, a colleague in the English Faculty. They soon discovered a shared love of northern myths and legends and would converse late into the night, ‘of the gods & giants & Asgard’. They were invited to attend meetings of an undergraduate club called the Inklings and when the club later foundered, they attached the name to a group of their own friends who met in pubs or college rooms to read aloud their works-in-progress, to drink, talk and debate. The Inklings, and C.S. Lewis in particular, would become crucial in encouraging Tolkien to finish his great work.
In his spare time he continued to work on his legendarium; sketching out thousands of years of history, inventing languages, writing stories, plotting maps and painting landscapes. He also made up stories for his four children: John (born 1917), Michael (born 1920), Christopher (born 1924) and Priscilla (born 1929). Some of these stories were written down and illustrated, and one of them, The Hobbit, found its way to a publisher’s assistant who persuaded Tolkien to submit it for publication. It was published by George Allen & Unwin in 1937 with Tolkien’s own illustrations, maps and dust jacket design. The first print run sold out in three months and it became a perennial children’s classic.
The Lord of the Rings
The success of The Hobbit led his publisher, Stanley Unwin, to ask for more about hobbits. Tolkien submitted instead some of the unfinished prose and verse tales from ‘The Silmarillion’ but when these were roundly rejected, he sat down to write a Hobbit sequel. The story quickly outgrew its original form as a children’s story and burgeoned into an epic fantasy tale for adults. It took twelve years to complete, at the end of which Tolkien reflected, somewhat ruefully, that he had produced a ‘monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and very terrifying romance, quite unfit for children’. The work, The Lord of the Rings, was both a sequel to The Hobbit and to his unpublished legendarium, ‘The Silmarillion’. In fact the works were so closely related in Tolkien’s mind that he decided The Lord of the Rings could only be published in conjunction with the, as yet unfinished, ‘Silmarillion’. His publisher baulked at the idea and lengthy negotiations with a rival publisher, Collins, also stalled. Three years later Tolkien wrote a chastened letter to George Allen & Unwin, declaring, ‘better something than nothing’. The huge size of the work and doubts as to its potential readership were major concerns but Rayner Unwin (son of Sir Stanley) was convinced of its merits and decided to publish it even if the firm suffered a financial loss. It appeared in three volumes between 1954 and 1955. Literary critics were divided over its merits but sales far outstripped both the publisher’s and the author’s expectations and it has continued to sell in astonishing numbers and to be translated into an ever-increasing number of languages.
In 1945, while still struggling to finish The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. His academic focus now switched from Old to Middle English and he had to prepare an entirely new set of lectures and seminars for texts that he had not taught since 1925. In the same year he published a short allegorical story, Leaf, by Niggle, which reflected some of his own concerns that The Lord of the Rings would never be completed. A few years later he published another short story, the comic tale of Farmer Giles of Ham, illustrated by Pauline Baynes. He retired in 1959 having served as a professor at Oxford for thirty-four years.
In retirement Tolkien hoped to complete ‘The Silmarillion’, which he had been working on for over forty years, and for which his publisher (and his readers) were now clamouring. However the success of The Lord of the Rings created its own workload and he was constantly called on to answer fan mail, give interviews and make appearances. He also had academic work to complete and his long-awaited edition of Ancrene Wisse, a medieval prose work, was finally published in 1962. In the same year he published a volume of poetry from Middle-earth, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. A short fairy tale, Smith of Wootton Major, was published in 1967, described by Tolkien as ‘An old man’s book already weighted with the presage of “bereavement”‘, and in 1968 he collaborated with the composer Donald Swann to produce a songbook, The Road Goes Ever On.
He and Edith moved from Oxford to Bournemouth in 1968, hoping that in relative seclusion he would be able to complete his life’s work. Edith’s health was already failing though and she died in November 1971 leaving Tolkien bereft after fifty-five years of marriage. He returned to Oxford to live in a flat owned by Merton College but the completion of ‘The Silmarillion’ proved too great a task for him. He died on 2nd September 1973, aged eighty-one, while visiting friends in Bournemouth and is buried in Oxford alongside his beloved wife Edith. Their gravestone is marked with the additional names, Beren and Lúthien, whose love defeated the Dark Lord and overcame death itself in the First Age of Middle-earth.