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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
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
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,
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Return of the King!