John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, was a major scholar of the English Language although he is best known for his fantasy stories, especially The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-5) which are set in a world known as Middle-Earth. Born of English parents at Bloemfontein, South Africa on Jan. 3, 1892, when Tolkien died in England on Sept. 2, 1973, he was one of the most successful living English authors. Although regularly condemned by the English Literature establishment his work was and still is loved by millions of readers worldwide.
Tolkien's father, Arthur, was a bank clerk who emigrated from England to South Africa in the 1890s in search of promotion. Here Ronald Tolkien was born although he returned with his family to England in 1896 when his father died.
Upon their return to England, the Tolkiens took up residence in Sarehole, near Birmingham, and Tolkien was sent to King Edward's School in Birmingham but by 1900, the family had moved to the more pleasant suburb of Edgbaston and, through their conversion to Catholicism, had become estranged from their relatives.
In 1904, Tolkien's mother died from diabetes leaving her two children orphans. At this point their parish priest, Father Francis, took over, and arranged for the boys to be lodged with an aunt and later with a Mrs. Faulkner. By now, Ronald was already demonstrating his linguistic gifts having mastered Latin and Greek while teaching himself other modern and ancient languages, most notably Gothic and Finnish. Together with his friends from St. Philip's Grammar School, Tolkien amused himself by making up languages in conjunction with his school friends.
Ronald also became friendly with a young woman, Edith Bratt, who was lodging with Mrs Faulkner, but when Father Francis found out he forbad Ronald to see or correspond with Edith for three years. Accordingly, Ronald went up to Exeter College, Oxford in 1911, where he stayed until 1913, studying the Classics and the Germanic and Celtic languages, before returning to resume his relationship with Edith. Receiving a second class degree, Tolkien changed course to English Language and Literature where reading the Crist of Cynewulf inspired him to start writing.
The Impact of the First World War
Tolkien did not join up on the outbreak of war in 1914, unlike many of his contemporaries, but returned to Oxford, where he continued working towards the degree which he achieved in June 1915. At the same time Tolkien was also writing poetry often in languages which he had himself invented, especially the one that he came to call Quenya and which was heavily influenced by Finnish.
In 1915, Tolkien enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers as a second lieutenant whilst working on his ideas of Earendel the Mariner, a character who appears in the Silmarillion. After training in Staffordshire for many months, Tolkien was told that he was to be sent to France, whereupon he married Edith in Warwick on 22 March 1916.
Posted to active duty on the Western Front, Tolkien participated in the Battle of the Somme but after four months in the trenches, he succumbed to "trench fever", a form of typhus. In early November, therefore, he was returned to England, where he spent the next month in hospital in Birmingham although he spent Christmas with Edith at Great Haywood in Staffordshire.
During this time, all but one of Tolkien's close school friends had been killed in action and partly as an act of remembrance but also as a reaction to his war experiences, Tolkien began to order the stories which he had already written and to work on new ones. These eventually developed into the Book of Lost Tales, in which most of the major stories of the Silmarillion, such as the war against Morgoth, the sieges of Gondolin and Nargothrond and the tale Beren and Lúthien, appear in their first form.
Throughout 1917 and 1918 Tolkien's trench fever recurred, although during his periods of remission he performed home service at various infantry camps and was promoted to lieutenant. It was also at this time that his first son, John, was born. By the time that he was demobilized at the end of the war, Tolkien had already arranged himself an academic appointment as Assistant Lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary, although by the summer of 1920 he had achieved the position of Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds. While at Leeds, Tolkien continued to write and refine his invented languages as well as collaborating on the famous edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Two more of his children were born in 1920 and 1924 before Tolkien successfully applied for the Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.
Throughout his time at Oxford, Tolkien continued to develop his mythology and languages. It is possible that he was inspired by stories he told to his children, but according to his own account, he was marking a paper when he discovered that a page had been left blank. On this he wrote on a sudden impulse "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit".
He then decided to follow up on this idea by finding out what a Hobbit was and why it might live in a hole and this elaboration eventually grew into a story that he told his younger children. In 1936 an incomplete typescript that Tolkien had given to one of his friends came into the hands of the publishing firm George Allen & Unwin. Recognizing a good story, their representative asked Tolkien to finish it, whereupon it was presented to Stanley Unwin. After his son Rayner wrote a favorable review, the manuscript was published as The Hobbit in 1937.
The extraordinary success of The Hobbit prompted Unwin to ask Tolkien if he had any similar material and in return, Tolkien provided him with what is now known as The Silmarillion. However, it was decided that the eclectic mixture of prose and poetry was not commercially publishable and Tolkien was asked if he was prepared to write a sequel to The Hobbit. The sixteen year period between this request and the printing of The Lord of the Rings is highly complex and it was only through careful negotiation that Allen & Unwin agreed to incur a probable loss of £1,000 for the publication in three parts over 1954 and 1955.
The Lord of the Rings
However, it soon became apparent that both author and publishers had greatly underestimated the work's public appeal. Although The Lord of the Rings received mixed reviews, the volume of hardback sales were great enough to make Tolkien wish that he had taken early retirement. However, when pirated paperback copies of the book began to circulate, it was brought to public attention both as it was cheaper and because of the publicity provided by the copyright dispute. Although Tolkien was pleased with the book's success he was less than ecstatic about the attitudes of some of his fans. Accordingly, he changed addresses, and removed his number from the telephone directory. After his retirement in 1969, Tolkien moved to Bournemouth where his wife died on 22 November 1971. Within two years, J.R.R. Tolkien had died as well and he was buried with Edith in a suburb of Oxford. The epigraph on their tombstone reads
Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889-1971
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973