J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was an English writer and academic with a love of languages. His interest in myths and legends brought us The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the many races of Middle-earth. These stories made him the father of the fantasy genre.

J R R Tolkien, 1916

J R R Tolkien, 1916

J. R. R. Tolkien had a aptitude for languages from an early age. His love of myths and legends and a desire to tell stories brought us the tales of Middle-earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But before the fiction came service in World War I and an academic career.

Family Life

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3 January 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State. His father, Arthur Reuel, manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa, died of rheumatic fever in 1896. Tolkien then settled with his mother, Mabel, and younger brother, Hilary, in Sarehole near Birmingham, England.

In 1900, Mabel converted to Catholicism, and Tolkien was a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. When their mother died of diabetes in 1904, John and Hilary became wards of a Catholic priest, Father Francis Morgan. He arranged for the boys to be boarded with an acquaintance.

At the age of 16, Tolkien met and fell in love with a fellow lodger, Edith Bratt. His guardian disapproved of the match and they were separated. Tolkien was made to promise that he would not communicate with Edith until he came of age. He kept this promise, only writing his first letter just after midnight on his 21st birthday.

The pair were soon engaged and were married on 22 March 1916. The marriage produced four children: John (1917), Michael (1920), Christopher (1924) and Priscilla (1929).

Education and War Service

Tolkien was educated at home by his mother until the age of eight. He then passed the entrance examination to King Edward’s School, Birmingham. His time at school was very happy. He excelled at languages, and it was at this time that he had his first introduction to Old and Middle English.

In 1911, he started at Exeter College, Oxford, first reading classics and then changing to English, concentrating on linguistics and philology, the study of the history and development of language. He achieved a first class BA degree in 1915.

After graduating, Tolkien joined the army. He was sent to France in June 1916 to join the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers as a signals officer. From July to October 1916 he saw action at the Somme before succumbing to trench fever on 27 October. He returned to England in November and remained there in poor health until the end of the war.

After the war he returned to his studies, gaining an MA in 1919 from Exeter College. He also worked for a short while on the staff of The New English Dictionary (later to become The Oxford English Dictionary) before moving on to an academic career.

Academic Career

Tolkien’s academic career began in 1920 at the University of Leeds. His first post was as a reader in English language but in 1924 he was made a professor. With his colleague, E. V. Gordon, Tolkien published what has become the standard edition of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1925.

Also in 1925, he was elected to the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair of Anglo Saxon at Oxford. Tolkien’s major academic achievement in this period was his 1936 British Academy lecture entitled Beowulf: the monsters and the critics. The study of this poem took a new direction after the lecture.

Tolkien’s 1945 move to the Merton chair of English language and literature marked the start of the final chapter in his academic career. He held this post until his retirement in 1959. His whole academic career was shaped by the idea that language and literature must be studied as one.

Very little academic work was published by Tolkien after 1940. In part this was due to other academic duties, but it was mainly a shift in emphasis towards fiction.

The Hobbit

Fiction had been a constant interest throughout Tolkien’s career. As early as 1915 he had started to develop his invented Elvish languages of Quenya and Sindarin. These languages needed a world in which to grow, and so Middle-earth was born. The early fantasy tales eventually came together as The Silmarillion.

With his love of myths and legends, a desire to tell stories and four young children to entertain, it is no surprise that Tolkien’s tales became something more than an amusement. The longest of these children’s stories began in 1930 and was published as The Hobbit in 1937 with drawings by the author.

In a tale of wizards and dwarves, dragons and magic rings, Tolkien’s central character, Bilbo Baggins, embarks on an heroic quest to recover a lost treasure. The book was such an unexpected success that Tolkien’s publisher, Stanley Unwin, asked him to write a sequel.

The Lord of the Rings

The wait for the sequel lasted 17 years. As the book was written the tale became longer and darker. Where The Hobbit had been written for children, its sequel was intended for an older audience.

Tolkien read his work in serial form to an Oxford group called the Inklings. The group’s members, including C. S. Lewis, provided feedback and support for the project.

The story centres on the ring found by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, now discovered to be the powerful One Ring. In a reversal of most heroic quests, the One Ring must be destroyed rather than found. To succeed in this quest, Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, and his friend, Sam, must travel across Middle-earth to Mordor.

This imagined land was brought to life with the inclusion fantastic creatures, including elves, dwarves and orcs. Elvish languages gave the sense of a foreign land with a history of its own. But maps were provided to help the reader navigate through its alien landscape.

Although it is often thought of as a trilogy, The Lord of the Rings was written as a single work. It was published in three volumes to reduce the risk to the publisher if it wasn’t popular enough to sell. Between July 1954 and October 1955 the three parts, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, were published to popular acclaim.

The Lord of the Rings has achieved a cult status with students and has been named the best book of the 20th century in several polls. By the beginning of the 21st century it had been translated into 30 languages and sold 50 million copies worldwide.

Death and Reputation

J. R. R. Tolkien died on 2 September 1973 in Bournemouth, England. He was buried next to his wife, who had died in 1971, in Wolvercote cemetery near Oxford.

Since his death the stories of Middle-earth have been just as popular as when they were first published. Tolkien never finished editing his collection of early stories, but they were published by his youngest son, Christopher, as The Silmarillion in 1977. Other stories and letters were also published posthumously.

Although The Lord of the Rings could not be classified on publication, it now belongs to the hugely popular genre of heroic fantasy. It has also spawned a variety of films and games. In the 1970s, animated versions of the books were made. Recently, Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films of The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) were a critically acclaimed success. With new films due for release in the next few years of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s creations look set to remain in the public’s imagination for a long time.

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