Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (1892-1973),writer and philologist, was born on 3 January 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, the elder son of Arthur Reuel Tolkien (1857-1896) and his wife, Mabel (1870-1904), daughter of John Suffield. His father and mother both came from Birmingham, but Arthur Tolkien had left England in 1889, and by 1892 was manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa.
Early life and education
J. R. R. Tolkien's early life bears witness to continuing emotional distress and insecurity, coupled with precocious and idiosyncratic intellectual development. His mother returned to England on a visit in 1895 with her two sons (Tolkien's younger brother Hilary was born on 17 February 1894), expecting her husband to join them later. But Arthur Tolkien died of rheumatic fever in Bloemfontein on 15 February 1896, leaving only a few hundred pounds in shares as support for his widow. For a time Mabel Tolkien economized by teaching her sons herself, and by setting up home in the hamlet of Sarehole, now part of the King's Heath suburb of Birmingham but at that time still outside the city. When her elder son, aged eight, passed the entrance examination for King Edward's School, Birmingham, then located in the city centre, she was obliged to move into town, living in one rented house after another. Her financial situation was not eased by her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1900, which caused an estrangement from some members of her family; and on 14 November 1904 she too died young, of diabetes, leaving her sons as wards of Father Francis Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. He arranged for the boys to be boarded, first with a distant relative of theirs and then with an acquaintance of his own. But Tolkien experienced a further painful separation when, at the age of sixteen, he fell in love with a fellow lodger, Edith Bratt (1889-1971), daughter of Frances Bratt, of Wolverhampton, a fatherless girl three years older than himself. When his guardian learned of the relationship, the pair were separated and Tolkien was obliged to promise not to communicate with Edith until he came of age-a promise he kept to the letter.
Meanwhile Tolkien's school-life was unusually happy and successful. He had sympathetic teachers, showed special aptitude for languages, and was introduced, or introduced himself, to Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Gothic. He also formed strong friendships with other members of an unofficial school literary society. In December 1910 he won an exhibition to Exeter College, Oxford, and went up to the university in 1911 to read honour moderations in classics. In 1913 he achieved only a second class, largely because of the time he had spent on Germanic languages outside the syllabus, and was allowed to change to the honours school of English, a large part of which was concerned with linguistic and philological study. Tolkien's tutor was Kenneth Sisam (1887-1971), but he was taught also by the Yorkshire philologist Joseph Wright. He found this course of study much more congenial, and achieved a first in his finals in 1915. He had also, just after midnight on his twenty-first birthday, while on vacation from Oxford, written again to Edith Bratt, the pair becoming engaged very soon after.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Tolkien did not rush to join up immediately on the outbreak of war, but returned to Oxford, where he worked hard and finally achieved a first-class degree in June 1915. At this time he was also working on various poetic attempts, and on his invented languages, especially one that he came to call Qenya [sic], which was heavily influenced by Finnish - but he still felt the lack of a connecting thread to bring his vivid but disparate imaginings together. Tolkien finally enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers whilst working on ideas of Earendel [sic] the Mariner, who became a star, and his journeyings. For many months Tolkien was kept in boring suspense in England, mainly in Staffordshire. Finally it appeared that he must soon embark for France, and he and Edith married in Warwick on 22 March 1916.
Eventually he was indeed sent to active duty on the Western Front
where he joined the 11th Battalion as a signals officer. From July to
October the regiment took part in the battle of the Somme, including
the fighting in the battle's later stages around the Schwaben redoubt.
One of Tolkien's closest friends from school was killed at the very
start of the battle, on 1 July, and another late in 1916. Tolkien, however,
succumbed to trench fever on 27 October, and was returned to England
the following month where he spent the next month in hospital in Birmingham.
By Christmas he had recovered sufficiently to stay with Edith at Great
Haywood in Staffordshire.
Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, although periods of remission enabled him to do home service at various camps sufficiently well to be promoted to lieutenant. It was when he was stationed at Hull that he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and there in a grove thick with hemlock Edith danced for him. This was the inspiration for the tale of Beren and Lúthien, a recurrent theme in his "Legendarium". He came to think of Edith as "Lúthien" and himself as "Beren". Their first son, John Francis Reuel (later Father John Tolkien) had already been born on 16 November 1917.
When the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, Tolkien had already been putting out feelers to obtain academic employment, and by the time he was demobilised he had been appointed Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (the "Oxford English Dictionary"), then in preparation. While doing the serious philological work involved in this, he also gave one of his Lost Tales its first public airing - he read The Fall of Gondolin to the Exeter College Essay Club, where it was well received by an audience which included Neville Coghill and Hugo Dyson, two future "Inklings". However, Tolkien did not stay in this job for long. In the summer of 1920 he applied for the quite senior post of Reader (approximately, Associate Professor) in English Language at the University of Leeds, and to his surprise was appointed.
At Leeds as well as teaching he collaborated with E. V. Gordon on the famous edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and continued writing and refining The Book of Lost Tales and his invented "Elvish" languages. In addition, he and Gordon founded a "Viking Club" for undergraduates devoted mainly to reading Old Norse sagas and drinking beer. It was for this club that he and Gordon originally wrote their Songs for the Philologists, a mixture of traditional songs and orginal verses translated into Old English, Old Norse and Gothic to fit traditional English tunes. Leeds also saw the birth of two more sons: Michael Hilary Reuel in October 1920, and Christopher Reuel in 1924. Then in 1925 the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford fell vacant; Tolkien successfully applied for the post.
Professor Tolkien, The Inklings And Hobbits
In a sense, in returning to Oxford as a Professor, Tolkien had come
home. Although he had few illusions about the academic life as a haven
of unworldly scholarship (see for example Letters 250), he was nevertheless
by temperament a don's don, and fitted extremely well into the largely
male world of teaching, research, the comradely exchange of ideas and
occasional publication. In fact, his academic publication record is
very sparse, something that would have been frowned upon in these days
of quantitative personnel evaluation.
His family life was equally straightforward. Edith bore their last
child and only daughter, Priscilla, in 1929. Tolkien got into the habit
of writing the children annual illustrated letters as if from Santa
Claus, and a selection of these was published in 1976 as The Father
Christmas Letters. He also told them numerous bedtime stories, of which
more anon. In adulthood John entered the priesthood, Michael and Christopher
both saw war service in the Royal Air Force. Afterwards Michael became
a schoolmaster and Christopher a university lecturer, and Priscilla
became a social worker. They lived quietly in the North Oxford suburb
Meanwhile Tolkien continued developing his mythology and languages.
As mentioned above, he told his children stories, some of which he developed
into those published posthumously as Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, etc. However,
according to his own account, one day when he was engaged in the soul-destroying
task of marking examination papers, he discovered that one candidate
had left one page of an answer-book blank. On this page, moved by who
knows what anarchic daemon, he wrote "In a hole in the ground there
lived a hobbit".
By this time Tolkien had begun to make his Legendarium into what
he believed to be a more presentable state, and as he later noted, hints
of it had already made their way into The Hobbit. He was now calling
the full account Quenta Silmarillion, or Silmarillion for short. He
presented some of his "completed" tales to Unwin, who sent
them to his reader. The reader's reaction was mixed: dislike of the
poetry and praise for the prose (the material was the story of Beren
and Lúthien) but the overall decision at the time was that these
were not commercially publishable. Unwin tactfully relayed this messge
to Tolkien, but asked him again if he was willing to write a sequel
to The Hobbit. Tolkien was disappointed at the apparent failure of The
Silmarillion, but agreed to take up the challenge of "The New Hobbit".
The Lord of the Rings rapidly came to public notice. It had mixed reviews, ranging from the ecstatic (W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis) to the damning (E. Wilson, E. Muir, P. Toynbee) and just about everything in between. The BBC put on a drastically condensed radio adaptation in 12 episodes on the Third Programme. In 1956 radio was still a dominant medium in Britain, and the Third Programme was the "intellectual" channel. So far from losing money, sales so exceeded the break-even point as to make Tolkien regret that he had not taken early retirement. However, this was still based only upon hardback sales.
The really amazing moment was when The Lord of the Rings went into a pirated paperback version in 1965. Firstly, this put the book into the impulse-buying category; and secondly, the publicity generated by the copyright dispute alerted millions of American readers to the existence of something outside their previous experience, but which appeared to speak to their condition. By 1968 The Lord of the Rings had almost become the Bible of the "Alternative Society".
This development produced mixed feelings in the author. On the one hand, he was extremely flattered, and to his amazement, became rather rich. On the other, he could only deplore those whose idea of a great trip was to ingest The Lord of the Rings and LSD simultaneously. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick had similar experiences with 2001- A Space Odyssey. Fans were causing increasing problems; both those who came to gawp at his house and those, especially from California who telephoned at 7 p.m. (their time - 3 a.m. his), to demand to know whether Frodo had succeeded or failed in the Quest, what was the preterite of Quenyan lanta-, or whether or not Balrogs had wings. So he changed addresses, his telephone number went ex-directory, and eventually he and Edith moved to Bournemouth, a pleasant but uninspiring South Coast resort (Hardy's "Sandbourne"), noted for the number of its elderly well-to-do residents.
Despite all the fuss over The Lord of the Rings, between 1925 and
his death Tolkien did write and publish a number of other articles,
including a range of scholarly essays, many reprinted in The Monsters
and the Critics and Other Essays (see above); one Middle-earth related
work, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil; editions and translations of Middle
English works such as the Ancrene Wisse, Sir Gawain, Sir Orfeo and The
Pearl, and some stories independent of the Legendarium, such as the
Imram, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, The Lay of Aotrou
and Itroun - and, especially, Farmer Giles of Ham, Leaf by Niggle, and
Smith of Wootton Major.
After his retirement in 1959 Edith and Ronald moved to Bournemouth.
On 22 November 1971 Edith died, and Ronald soon returned to Oxford,
to rooms provided by Merton College. Ronald died on 2 September 1973.
He and Edith are buried together in a single grave in the Catholic section
of Wolvercote cemetery in the northern suburbs of Oxford. (The grave
is well signposted from the entrance.) The legend on the headstone reads: