John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892 in the capital city of Bloemfontein, a southern Africa republic then known as Orange Free State.
His father was an English bank manager for the Bloemfontein office.
When Tolkien was three years old, he went to England with his mother and younger brother on what was intended to be a lengthy family visit. His father, however, died in South Africa of rheumatic fever before he could join them.
This left the family without an income, so Tolkien’s mother took him to live with her parents in Kings Heath, Birmingham.
He enjoyed exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog and the Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills, which would later inspire scenes in his books, along with Worcestershire towns and villages such as Bromsgrove, Alcester, and Alvechurch and places such as his aunt Jane’s farm of Bag End, the name of which he would later use in his fiction.
Ronald, as he was known in the family, was a keen home schooled pupil.
His mother taught him a great deal of botany and awakened in him the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants.
Young Ronald Tolkien liked to draw landscapes and trees, but his favorite lessons were those concerning languages, and his mother taught him the rudiments of Latin very early on.
He could read by the age of four and could write fluently soon after.
Ronald read many books, some he disliked such as Treasure Island and The Pied Piper and thought Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was “amusing but disturbing”. In contrast, he liked stories about “Red Indians” and the fantasy works by George MacDonald.
In addition, the “Fairy Books” of Andrew Lang were particularly important to him and their influence is apparent in some of his later writings.
Then in 1904, when Tolkien was 12, his 34 year old mother died of acute diabetes at Fern Cottage in Rednal, which she was renting.
Prior to her death, Mabel Tolkien had assigned the guardianship of her sons to her close friend, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory, who was assigned to bring them up as good Catholics.
In 1910, while a student at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the 18 year old Tolkien was a member of the Officer Training Corps. He helped “line the route” for the coronation of King George V; and like other cadets was posted just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace.
Then in 1911, while still a cadet at King Edward’s School, Tolkien and three friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Christopher Wiseman, formed a semi-secret society they called the T.C.B.S. The initials stood for Tea Club and Barrovian Society, alluding to their fondness for drinking tea in Barrow’s Stores near the school and, secretly, in the school library.
After leaving school, the members stayed in touch and, in December 1914, they held a “council” in London at Wiseman’s home.
For Tolkien, the result of this meeting was a strong dedication to writing poetry.
In October of 1911, 19 year old Tolkien began studying at Exeter College, Oxford.
He initially studied Classics but changed his course in 1913 to English Language and Literature, graduating in 1915 with first-class honours in his final examinations.
Earlier, at the age of 16, Tolkien had met and fell in love with Edith Mary Bratt, who was three years his senior. His guardian, Father Morgan, viewed Edith as a distraction from Tolkien’s school work and horrified that his young charge was seriously involved with a Protestant girl, prohibited him from meeting, talking to, or even corresponding with her until he was 21.
He obeyed this prohibition to the letter.
So on the evening of his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote to Edith. He declared his love and asked her to marry him. Edith replied that she had already agreed to marry another man, but that she had done so because she had believed Tolkien had forgotten her. The two met beneath a railway viaduct and renewed their love. Edith returned her engagement ring and announced that she would marry Tolkien instead.
Following their engagement Edith reluctantly announced that she was converting to Catholicism at Tolkien’s insistence.
Edith and Ronald Tolkien were formally engaged in Birmingham, in January of 1913, and married at St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church, Warwick, on March 22, 1916.
World War I
In 1914, the United Kingdom entered World War I. Tolkien’s relatives were shocked when he elected not to immediately volunteer for the British Army. Instead, Tolkien elayed enlisting until completing his degree in July 1915.
He was then commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers.
He trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, for eleven months. In a letter to Edith, Tolkien complained, “Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed.”
Tolkien was then transferred to the 11th (Service) Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force, arriving in France on June 4, 1916.
His departure from England on a troop transport inspired him to write his poem, The Lonely Isle.
Tolkien’s time in combat was a terrible stress for Edith, who feared that every knock on the door might carry news of her husband’s death. To get around the British Army’s postal censorship, the Tolkiens developed a secret code for his letters home. By using the code, Edith could track her husband’s movements on a map of the Western Front.
Tolkien might well have been killed in the war, but he suffered from health problems and had to be removed from combat multiple times.
A weak and emaciated Tolkien spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties, being deemed medically unfit for general service.
During his recovery in a cottage in Little Haywood, Staffordshire, he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, beginning with The Fall of Gondolin.
Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, but he had recovered enough to do home service at various camps and was promoted to Lieutenant. It was at this time that Edith bore their first child, John Francis Reuel Tolkien.
Tolkien’s first civilian job after World War I was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked mainly on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W.
In 1920, he took up a post as Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, and became the youngest professor there.
In 1925, he returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College.
During his time at Pembroke College Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings, whilst living at 20 Northmoor Road in North Oxford (where a blue plaque was placed in 2002).
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, was published on September 21, 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction.
The book remains popular and is recognized as a classic in children’s literature.
Personal growth and forms of heroism are central themes of the story. Along with motifs of warfare, these themes have led critics to view Tolkien’s own experiences during World War I as instrumental in shaping the story. The author’s scholarly knowledge of Germanic philology and interest in fairy tales are often noted as influences.
Encouraged by the book’s critical and financial success, the publisher requested a sequel.
As Tolkien’s work on The Lord of the Rings progressed, he made retrospective accommodations for it in The Hobbit.
These few but significant changes were integrated into the second edition of The Hobbit.
World War II
In the run-up to World War II, Tolkien was earmarked as a codebreaker.
In January 1939, he was asked whether he would be prepared to serve in the cryptographic department of the Foreign Office in the event of national emergency. He replied in the affirmative and, beginning on March 27, took an instructional course at the London HQ of the Government Code and Cypher School. However, although he was “keen” to become a codebreaker, he was informed in October that his services would not be required at that time. Ultimately he never served as one.
In 1945, Tolkien moved to Merton College, Oxford, becoming the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, in which post he remained until his retirement in 1959. He served as an external examiner for University College, Dublin, for many years.
The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien had warned his publisher that he wrote quite slowly, and responded with several stories he had already developed. Having rejected his contemporary drafts for The Silmarillion, putting on hold Roverandom, and accepting Farmer Giles of Ham, Allen & Unwin thought more stories about hobbits would be popular.
So at the age of 45, Tolkien began writing the story that would become The Lord of the Rings. The story would not be finished until 12 years later, in 1949, and would not be fully published until 1955, when Tolkien was 63 years old.
His idea for the first chapter (“A Long-Expected Party”) arrived fully formed, although the reasons behind Bilbo’s disappearance, the significance of the Ring, and the title The Lord of the Rings did not develop until the spring of 1938.
Originally, Tolkien planned to write a story in which Bilbo had used up all his treasure and was looking for another adventure to gain more; however, he remembered the Ring and its powers and thought that would be a better focus for this new work.
Tolkien abandoned The Lord of the Rings during most of 1943 and only re-started it in April 1944, as a serial for his son Christopher Tolkien, who was sent chapters as they were written while he was serving in South Africa with the Royal Air Force.
Tolkien made another concerted effort in 1946, and showed the manuscript to his publishers in 1947.
The story was effectively finished the next year, but Tolkien did not complete the revision of earlier parts of the work until 1949.
The original manuscripts, which total 9,250 pages, now reside in the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection at Marquette University.
A dispute with his publisher, George Allen & Unwin, led to the book being offered to Collins in 1950. Tolkien intended The Silmarillion (itself largely unrevised at this point) to be published along with The Lord of the Rings, but A&U were unwilling to do this. After Milton Waldman, his contact at Collins, expressed the belief that The Lord of the Rings itself “urgently wanted cutting”, Tolkien eventually demanded that they publish the book in 1952.
Collins did not; and so Tolkien wrote to Allen and Unwin, saying, “I would gladly consider the publication of any part of the stuff.”
For publication, the book was divided into three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring (Books I, The Ring Sets Out, and II, The Ring Goes South), The Two Towers (Books III, The Treason of Isengard, and IV, The Ring Goes East), and The Return of the King (Books V, The War of the Ring, and VI, The End of the Third Age, plus six appendices).
This was due largely to post-war paper shortages, as well as being a way to keep down the price of the book.
The books were published under a profit-sharing arrangement, whereby Tolkien did not receive an advance or royalties until the books had broken even, after which he would take a large share of the profits.
It has ultimately become the third best-selling novel ever written, with over 150 million copies sold. Only A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry have sold more copies worldwide (over 200 million each) while the fourth best-selling novel is Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
During his retirement, from 1959 up to his death in 1973, Tolkien received steadily increasing public attention and literary fame.
The sales of his books were so profitable that he regretted that he had not chosen early retirement.
At first, he wrote enthusiastic answers to readers’ enquiries, but he became increasingly unhappy about the sudden popularity of his books with the 1960s counter-culture movement.
In a 1972 letter, he deplored having become a cult-figure, but admitted that “even the nose of a very modest idol […] cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense!”
Fan attention became so intense that Tolkien had to take his phone number out of the public directory, and eventually he and Edith moved to Bournemouth, which was then a seaside resort patronized by the British upper middle class.
Tolkien’s status as a best-selling author gave them easy entry into polite society, but Tolkien deeply missed the company of his fellow Inklings.
Edith, however, was overjoyed to step into the role of a society hostess, which had been the reason that Tolkien selected Bournemouth in the first place.
Edith Tolkien died on November 29, 1971, at the age of 82.
According to Simon Tolkien:
“My grandmother died two years before my grandfather and he came back to live in Oxford. Merton College gave him rooms just off the High Street. I went there frequently and he’d take me to lunch in the Eastgate Hotel. Those lunches were rather wonderful for a 12-year-old boy spending time with his grandfather, but sometimes he seemed sad. There was one visit when he told me how much he missed my grandmother. It must have been very strange for him being alone after they had been married for more than 50 years.”
Tolkien was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours of January 1, 1972 and received the insignia of the Order at Buckingham Palace on March 28,1972.
Also in 1972, Oxford University conferred upon him an honorary Doctorate of Letters.
Tolkien had the name Lúthien engraved on Edith’s tombstone at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.
When Tolkien died 21 months later on September 2, 1973, at the age of 81, he was buried in the same grave, with Beren added to his name. The engravings read:
Edith Mary Tolkien
In Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, Lúthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and forsook her immortality for her love of the mortal warrior Beren. After Beren was captured by the forces of the Dark Lord Morgoth, Lúthien rode to his rescue upon the talking wolfhound Huan. Ultimately, when Beren was slain in battle against the demonic wolf Carcharoth, Lúthien, like Orpheus, approached the Valar, the angelic order of beings placed in charge of the world by Eru (God), and persuaded them to restore her beloved to life.
Now WE know em