J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien—called Ronald by his family and friends—was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father, Arthur, had moved his family to Africa from England in hopes of being promoted in his job as a manager at the Bank of Africa. Upon Arthur’s death in 1896, however, his wife, Mabel, brought the four-year-old Ronald back to the English Midlands, the region where she had grown up. Mabel eventually settled in a suburb of Birmingham, where she raised her family with her sister’s help.

The Tolkiens’ life in the Birmingham suburbs was poor. In 1900, Mabel converted to Catholicism, and in 1904 she was diagnosed with diabetes, which at that time was untreatable. Mabel died shortly thereafter; a Catholic priest who was friendly with the family cared for the orphaned boy. Ronald was placed in a variety of foster homes, ending up in the boarding house of a Mrs. Faulkner.

One of the lodgers at Mrs. Faulkner’s house was a nineteen-year-old girl named Edith Bratt, with whom the sixteen-year-old Ronald struck up a friendship and then a romance. The priest forbade Ronald from seeing Edith until the age of twenty-one. In 1911, Ronald was admitted to Exeter College at Oxford, where he specialized in the classics and developed a special passion for philology, the study and comparison of languages.

In addition to the typical course offerings in Greek and Latin, Tolkien studied more unusual ancient and modern languages, such as Gothic and Finnish. Also greatly interested in Old English, Anglo-Saxon, and Welsh poetry, Tolkien began to invent and develop entire languages of his own—languages that would form the groundwork for the world of Middle-earth in his novels.

While still at Oxford, Tolkien continued seeing Edith, who converted to Catholicism. In 1915, he graduated with the highest honors. The next year, it became clear that Tolkien would have to embark for France to fight in World War I. He and Edith married before he left for the front. While fighting, Tolkien contracted “trench fever,” a form of typhus, and he returned home to England to recover.

While recovering in 1917, Tolkien developed The Book of Lost Tales, the stories that would later form his mythology of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion. Tolkien lost all but one of his good friends in the war. In his famous 1938 essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien notes the effect of the war on his personal outlook regarding fantasy literature: “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war.”

After his recovery, Tolkien continued to pursue his love for philology, joining the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary. He took up his first English teaching post in 1920, later winning the prestigious Chair of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925. By 1929, he had had four children with Edith. Tolkien taught at Oxford for thirty-four years, living a rather reclusive life with his work and developing the mythology of The Silmarillion throughout the 1920s.

In 1928, while grading exams, Tolkien absentmindedly wrote on a blank sheet of paper, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” With this sentence, Tolkien began to imagine what “hobbits” might be like and what they might do. From these imaginings grew The Hobbit, a children’s story and Tolkien’s first published work of fiction. In 1936, a version of The Hobbit reached a representative of the publishing firm Allen and Unwin, which published the novel a year later. The novel was met with great success–and demand for a sequel.

During this period, Tolkien developed a friendship with another well-known Oxford professor and writer, C.S. Lewis. Tolkien convinced Lewis to devote his life to Christianity, although Tolkien, a devout Catholic, was disappointed that Lewis became a Protestant. The two critiqued each other’s work as part of an informal group of writers and scholars known as “the Inklings.”

Heartened by the profits of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s publisher encouraged him to start work on what later became The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien spent twelve years writing the novel. His initial goal was only to write a very long tale, but as the novel took shape, he related his story of Hobbits to the vast history and mythology of Middle-earth that he had developed in the Silmarillion stories. The Lord of the Rings, completed in 1949, was conceived of as a single novel, but published in three volumes—The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955)—for logistical reasons.

The Lord of the Rings was such a success that, by 1968, Tolkien had to get an unlisted phone number and move to the English seacoast town of Bournemouth with his wife. Though the novel made Tolkien a household name in England and America, he was never a public figure; he continued work on The Silmarillion and other tales, leading a quiet life. He remained comfortable with his middle-class surroundings, taking up residence down the road from C.S. Lewis and later joined by the poet W.H. Auden. Tolkien continued writing until his death, on September 2, 1973. His son, Christopher, edited and published The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s collected mythology of Middle-earth, in 1977.

J. R. R. Tolkien Study Guides

J. R. R. Tolkien Quotes

The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning.

I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones.

t gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.

I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.

J. R. R. Tolkien Novels

The Hobbit

Published 1937

The Fellowship of the Ring

Published 1954

The Two Towers

Published 1954

The Return of the King

Published 1955

J. R. R. Tolkien Plays

The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son

Published 1953

J. R. R. Tolkien Short Stories

Leaf by Niggle

Published 1945

Farmer Giles of Ham

Published 1949

J. R. R. Tolkien Essay Collections

On Fairy-Stories

Published 1947