John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontain, South Africa. His parents had moved there from England so that his father, Arthur, could work for the bank of Africa. Tolkien lost both parents early in life—his father died in Africa in 1896 after the rest of the family had returned to England, and his mother, Mabel, died in 1904 near Birmingham, England. After Mabel’s death, Tolkien and his younger brother, Hilary, came under the care of Father Francis Morgan, a friend of the family’s. Soon after, Tolkien went to King Edward’s School and then to Oxford.

At Oxford, Tolkien pursued a degree in English language and literature. He developed a particular passion for philology, the study of languages. While studying Old English, Anglo-Saxon, and Welsh poetry, he continued experimenting with a language of his own, which he had started to do in his youth. This language would form the groundwork for his imagined world known as Middle-Earth.

By 1916, Tolkien had received his degree and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt. He eventually took a teaching position at Oxford. By 1929, he had had his fourth child with Edith. During these years, he also began his great mythology of Middle-Earth, a compendium of stories called The Silmarillion. Out of these stories grew The Hobbit (1936), his first published work. A simple children’s story about a small person who takes part in great adventures, the novel’s playful tone and imagery made it a hit both with children and adults. The Hobbit’s success also gave Tolkien a huge public that was anxious to learn more about the meticulously developed world that he had created around his invented language and mythology, only a small part of which was detailed in The Hobbit.

The Hobbit’s plot and characters combined the ancient heroic Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian epics Tolkien studied with the middle-class rural England in which he lived. In many ways, the novel’s charm and humor lie in transplanting a simple, pastoral Englishman of the 1930s into a heroic medieval setting. Tolkien acknowledged that his hero, Bilbo Baggins, was patterned on the rural Englishmen of his own time.

By the time Tolkien began to work on the sequel to The Hobbit, he had developed a friendship with another well-known Oxford professor and writer, C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia. Their friendship lasted for many years. Tolkien helped convert Lewis to Christianity (although Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, was disappointed that Lewis became a Protestant), and the two critiqued each other’s work as part of an informal group of writers known as the Inklings.

From 1945 to 1959, Tolkien continued to teach at Oxford and wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which served as a follow-up to The Hobbit. The trilogy brought Tolkien fame in England and America, but he was never a public figure. He continued work on The Silmarillion and other tales and led a quiet life. Despite his public acclaim, he was most comfortable with middle-class surroundings and peace in which to write and think. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973. The Silmarillion was edited and published posthumously by his son Christopher in 1977.