Today we celebrate the life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). The tremendous success of these novels has earned Tolkien the title “father of high fantasy”, yet he did more than create tales of elves and dragons. An Oxford professor and expert in Old English and mythology, Tolkien believed that all myths contain “fundamental truths” that speak deeply to the human condition. He imbued his novels with these primordial themes, and it is perhaps for this reason that his works have maintained such enduring popularity.
Born January 3, 1892 in modern-day South Africa, Tolkien had a difficult childhood. Tolkien’s father died when he was just three years old, leaving the family in financial straits. His mother returned to her parents in Birmingham, England where she taught Tolkien and his brother, Hilary, at home. By the age of four, Tolkien was reading and soon he learned the basics of Latin. In 1900, his mother converted to Roman Catholicism; her family was appalled and stopped all financial assistance. Four years later, when Tolkien was twelve years old, his mother died of type 1 diabetes.
His mother’s life and faith were integral to Tolkien’s own formation. A devout Catholic, Tolkien wrote, "My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith."
Tolkien Encounters Loves and War
Entrusted to the guardianship of Father Morgan, Tolkien attended King Edward’s School where he thrived as a student of languages. When Tolkien was sixteen, he and his brother moved into a boarding house where they met Edith Mary Bratt, also an orphan. Tolkien and Edith became close friends and soon fell in love. Father Morgan strongly objected to their relationship and forbade Tolkien from meeting or corresponding with Edith until he came of age, at 21 years old.
Tolkien strictly obeyed his guardian and entered Exeter College, Oxford. He began studying Classics but switched to English Language and Literature instead. In 1913, on the evening of his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote to Edith, professing his love and proposing marriage. Edith responded that she had become engaged to someone else, believing that Tolkien had forgotten her. She quickly broke off her engagement, however, and accepted Tolkien’s offer.
When the United Kingdom entered World War I in 1914, Tolkien finished his degree before enlisting in the army. He graduated in 1915 with first-class honors and joined the Lancashire Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant. Tolkien married Edith in March 1916 and was sent to France the same year, fighting with the 11th Battalion. In November, Tolkien was transferred back to England to recover from trench fever. Shortly afterwards, his battalion was almost entirely obliterated. Tolkien spent the rest of the war in convalescence, working in various camps between bouts of illness.
The Hobbit Begins on a Student Exam
After the war, Tolkien became the University of Leeds’s youngest professor. In 1925, he earned a fellowship at Pembroke College, Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. It was at Pembroke College that he began work on The Hobbit. According to Tolkien, he was grading exams when “one of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner), and I wrote on it: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually, I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that’s only the beginning.” From these origins, Tolkien developed the story until in 1936, he sent a manuscript to publisher George Allen and Unwin. The Hobbit was published in 1937 to immediate success and soon Tolkien’s publisher was asking for more stories.
Tolkien began work on The Lord of the Rings. Although initially intended as a children’s story like The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings became a more serious undertaking. He was encouraged in his work by a group of Oxford friends called “The Inklings.” Members, including Tolkien’s lifelong friend C.S. Lewis, met regularly to converse, drink, and share their writing. In 1945, Tolkien became a professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford. In 1948, after nearly a decade of work, he completed The Lord of the Rings.
Lord of the Rings Brings Unexpected Celebrity
Published in three volumes between 1954 and 1956, The Lord of the Rings catapulted Tolkien to literary fame. Although he was initially flattered, public attention became so intense that Tolkien switched to an unlisted phone number and moved away from Oxford, where he had lived for decades. He spent his retirement quietly, avoiding the public eye. He wrote, “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.”
In 1972, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Tolkien a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The same year, Oxford University granted him an honorary Doctorate of Letters. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973 at 81 years of age. He is buried with his wife at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.
A Selection of Collectible JRR Tolkien Books
The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1
Where it all began! The Book of Lost Tales was Tolkien's original exploration and detailing of Middle-Earth. He wrote the contents of The Book of Lost Tales in 1916, and left it incomplete, though the tales form the basis for the myths and legends that came to be called The Silmarillion. The stories were published for the first time in 1983 and are the first in a 12-volume set with Christoper Tolkien as editor. Details >>
The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth
The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth enhances the reader's enjoyment of Tolkien's books by bringing together in A-Z sequence all the key facts about names, places, languages and events from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. The first and definitive encyclopedia to these works, it's illustrated with 50 full-color paintings by acclaimed Tolkien artist Ted Nasmith. This copy is also signed by Nasmith. Details>>
Tree and Leaf
In his essay "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien discusses the nature of fairy tales and fantasy and saves the genre from those who would otherwise relegate it to juvenilia. This is aptly and elegantly illustrated in the short story "Leaf by Niggle," which tells the story of the artist Niggle, who has 'a long journey' to make and is seen as an allegory of Tolkien 's life. Details>>
The Tolkien Family Album
JRR Tolkien's eldest son John and his only daughter, Priscilla did what many children growing into their adult years do to commemorate their parents' lives. The family photograph album created by his children John and Priscilla tells the story of Tolkien and his beloved wife Edith and the wonderful life he created for his children. Details>>
Tolkien invented this tale of Mr. Bliss' adventures for his own children when they were young. It's a complete and highly imaginative tale of eccentricity. This volume is a reproduction of Tolkien's illustrated manuscript of Mr. Bliss in color on rectos, and on versos when appropriate transcriptions of the text in type. Details>>
- Ten Things You Didn't Know About The Lord of the Rings
- Ten Magnificent Tolkien Collectibles
- The Significance of J.R.R. Tolkien's Tree and Leaf
- Ten Quotes from the Inimitable J.R.R. Tolkien
- C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Friendship that Spurred Exceptional Literature
*Portions of this post were previously published on our blog.