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 herself grew 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, 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 other, 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 for him. In 1915, he graduated with a coveted “first,” 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 met with great success, and there was 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’s fame was so great that he 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 joined later by the British 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.
Over the years, The Lord of the Rings has met with widely varied critical reception. Tolkien intended his novel to act as a mythology for England, a group of fantastic tales about the prehistory of a world in which the values embodied those of the common British individual. Tolkien did not wish to retell existing myths or legends, but rather to create new myths altogether, beginning with wholly invented languages and shaping his stories around those languages and their cultures. This complex philological basis for Tolkien’s work, while inaccessible to most readers, remains distinct from the simple and universal themes of the story of The Lord of the Rings. To some, the simple tale is uninteresting, too long, and artificially archaic. For others, it touches on the very principles of love, friendship, and sacrifice that are an integral part of human life. Scholars and critics continue to dispute whether The Lord of the Rings belongs alongside other serious works of modern British literature or whether it remains only a “period piece”—a work of fiction with only passing significance for its contemporary audience.
Regardless of this mixed critical reception, Tolkien’s work did much to change English-language publishing in the twentieth century. His publisher, Allen and Unwin, was astonished at the popular success of The Lord of the Rings, which it thought would prove too arcane for mainstream audiences, even though The Hobbit had already been a hit in 1937. The Lord of the Rings proved that there was a huge market for fantasy, not just among young readers, but among adults as well. The earlier dominance of the “serious” novel of ideas—exemplified by Graham Greene, among others—and of the lighthearted novel of social comedy was called into question in the wake of Tolkien’s popular tales of an imaginary world. The Lord of the Rings was serious writing full of deep social and moral ideas, but it could not be called an intellectual work as previous “serious” novels had been. Tolkien’s influence spread even further during the rise of the hippie movement and social radicalism of the 1960s, though he was often dismayed by the way that young counterculture spokesmen idolized his work.
Nevertheless, it is true that Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth present more than just an escapist fantasy about a magic, faraway world. Rather, they give us a view of the world as it was changing in the middle of the twentieth century, forcing us to consider the values that dominated the emerging era. Characters in the novel frequently comment on how the times are “dark,” as Éomer puts it in The Two Towers—echoing what many commentators said about World War II. The novel is a battle between the forces of good and evil, and the good side is represented by an alliance of various races with diverse customs and interests. The collaboration of Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Hobbits in pursuit of the common goal of saving the world—a sort of primordial version of the United Nations—presents an early vision of the global thinking that characterized postwar society. Cultural differences are present—we hear much about how different Dwarves are from Elves, for example—but they are put aside when collaboration is required. The pursuit of goodness and fellowship across races is part of what makes The Lord of the Rings so enduring in difficult historical times.