“A pen is to me as a beak is to a hen.” – J.R.R. Tolkien.
J. R. R. Tolkien Biography
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, known as J.R.R. Tolkien, was born on 3 January 1892 in Bloemfontein in what was then called the Orange Free State but which is now part of South Africa. He is best known for his high fantasy works of fiction which take place in the prehistoric world Tolkien created.
When Tolkien was only three years old, he took a family trip to England that was supposed to be temporary. Unfortunately, however, his father died of rheumatic fever in Africa and was never able to see them again. His family had little to no income after his father’s death, so Tolkien’s mother sent him to live with her parents in Birmingham, England. Whilst growing up in Birmingham, and later in a Worcestershire village called Sarehole, he enjoyed exploring and later used these childhood experiences as a backdrop to write his fiction against.
Tolkien’s mother Mabel taught her children at home, and Ronald (as Tolkien was referred to at home), was an extremely bright student. He liked to draw landscapes and foliage, but what he most enjoyed learning were languages and his mother taught him basic Latin at a young age. Ronald could fluently read and write from around the age of four. His mother encouraged him to read quite a bit and he especially enjoyed Fairy Books written by Andrew Lang whose influences can be seen in his writings.
Mabel died in 1904 when Ronald was only 12 years old. She had acute diabetes which was untreatable because insulin would not be discovered until 20 years later. After his mother’s death, he attended King Edward School in Birmingham where he and a few of his friends formed a secret society known as the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, or T.C.B.S for short. After leaving the school, all the members remained in contact, and in December 1914 they had a meeting which would lead to Tolkien’s interest in poetry.
In 1911, Tolkien attended university at Exeter College, Oxford. At first, he studied classics but changed his path to study English literature, graduating with first class honors in his finals.
When he was 16 years old, he met Edith Brett who was three years older than him. He loved her for a long time and on his 21st birthday he wrote to her. There were a few complications in- between, but in 1916 they were married. They would have four children together and Tolkien was very close to each of them.
Three days after their wedding, on 5 June 1916, Tolkien had to go to France to serve in the First World War. There were many times when he had the potential to be killed, but because he suffered from health issues he was often removed from combat. Throughout the war, Tolkien was weak and emaciated, spending most of his time alternating between hospitals. While he was recovering, he started to write what he called The Book of Lost Tales which represented an attempt to create a mythology for England, but ultimately he would never complete the project.
In 1920, Tolkien left the army with the rank of lieutenant and entered civilian life. His first job as a civilian was at the Oxford Dictionary where he worked on the history and etymology of words, particularly those with a Germanic origin starting with the letter W. After this, he had a position as reader in English at the University of Leeds, becoming the youngest professor at the college.
In 1937, his most well-known work, The Hobbit was published, which quickly received critical acclaim and he was nominated for the Carnegie Medal as well as earning a prize from the New York Herald Tribune. While World War I was said to be the war to end all wars, unfortunately, another one loomed. In the lead up to World War II, Tolkien was selected to be a code breaker and in 1939 he was told to prepare to serve in the foreign office in the cryptographic department.
Tolkien was a very devout Catholic and was also close friends with British author C.S Lewis. Tolkien and Lewis were part of a literary group call “The Inklings”, where they would work on developing story ideas and read manuscripts together. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was the result of the Inklings meetings and can be considered a spiritual allegory of the Christian life, as well as the ultimate battle between good versus evil where good wins.
From retirement, up to his death in 1973, Tolkien gained a lot of public attention as well as literary fame. His book sales were so successful that he regretted not retiring earlier. In the 1960s, he had so much popularity in fact, that he became a kind of cult figure and had to take his phone number out of the directory.
His wife Edith died on 29 November 1971 at the age of 82. Tolkien put the name “Luthien” on her tombstone since his literary character had been inspired by her. Tolkien himself died almost 2 years later in September 1973 at the age of 81. He was buried in the same grave as his beloved wife.
Although JRR Tolkien is no longer with us, his impact on modern popular culture is undeniable with a film franchise inspired by his works making millions at the box office and not to mention the books that continue to be written by people whose imaginations have been sparked by his work.