Reuel Tolkien (January 3, 1892 – September 2, 1973) was the author
of The Hobbit, its sequel The Lord of the Rings.
He attended King Edward's School, Birmingham and Oxford University;
he worked as reader in English language at Leeds from 1920 to 1925,
as professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford from 1925 to 1945, and of English
Language and Literature, also at Oxford, from 1945 to 1959. He was a
strongly committed Catholic, and admitted in letters that his faith
had a profound effect on his writings. He belonged to a literary discussion
group called the Inklings, through which he enjoyed a close friendship
with C. S. Lewis.
to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's published fiction
includes The Silmarillion and other posthumous books about what he called
a legendarium, a fictional mythology of the remote past of Earth, called
Arda, and Middle-earth (from middangeard, the lands inhabitable by Men),
in particular. Most of these posthumously published works come from
Tolkien's drafts and were put together as books by his son, Christopher
Tolkien. The enduring popularity and influence of Tolkien's works have
established him as the father of the modern high fantasy genre. Tolkien's
other published fiction includes adaptations of stories originally told
to his children and not directly related to the legendarium.
born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now
Free State), South Africa, to Arthur Tolkien, an English bank manager,
and his wife Mabel Tolkien (maiden name Suffield). As far as is known,
most of Tolkien's paternal ancestors were craftsmen. The Tolkien family
had its roots in Saxony (Germany), but had been living in England since
the 18th century. The surname Tolkien is anglicised from Tollkiehn (i.e.
German tollkühn, "foolhardy"). The character of Professor
Rashbold in The Notion Club Papers is a pun on the name. Tolkien only
had one sibling, his brother Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien, who was born
on February 17, 1894.
When he was
three, Tolkien went to England with his mother and brother on what was
intended to be a lengthy family visit. His father, however, died in
South Africa of a severe brain haemorrhage before he could join them.
This left the family without an income, so Tolkien's mother took him
to live with her parents in Birmingham for a short time. Soon after,
in 1896, they moved to Sarehole, then a Worcestershire village, later
annexed to Birmingham. He enjoyed exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley
Bog and the Clent and Lickey Hills, which would later inspire scenes
in his books along with other Worcestershire towns and villages such
as Bromsgrove, Alcester and Alvechurch, as would areas in Worcestershire
particularly his aunt's farm of Bag End, whose name would be used in
her two sons, and Ronald, as he was known in the family, was a keen
pupil. She taught him a great deal of botany, and she awoke in her son
the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants. Young Tolkien liked to
draw landscapes and trees. But his favourite lessons were those concerning
languages, and his mother taught him the rudiments of Latin very early.
He could read by the age of four, and could write fluently soon afterwards.
He attended King Edward's School, Birmingham, St Phillip's School, and
Exeter College, Oxford.
converted to Catholicism in 1900, despite vehement protests by her Baptist
family. She died of diabetes in 1904, when Tolkien was 12, and he felt
for the rest of his life that she had become a martyr for her faith;
this had a profound effect on his own Catholic beliefs. Tolkien's devout
faith was significant in the conversion of C. S. Lewis to Christianity
and in his writings, which express a Christian mythos and worldview.
subsequent orphanhood he was brought up by Father Francis Xavier Morgan
of the Birmingham Oratory, in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham. He lived
there in the shadow of Perrott's Folly and the Victorian tower of Edgbaston
waterworks, which may have influenced the iimages of the dark towers
within his works. Another strong influence was the romantic medievalist
paintings of Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood;
the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a large and world-renowned
collection of works and had put it on free public display from around
He met and
fell in love with Edith Bratt (later to serve as his model for Lúthien),
and despite many obstacles he succeeded in marrying her, on March 22,
childhood love of landscape, he visited Cornwall in 1914 and he was
said to be deeply impressed by the singular Cornish coastline and sea.
After graduating from the University of Oxford with a first-class degree
in English language in 1915, Tolkien joined the British Army effort
in World War I and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th battalion
of the Lancashire Fusiliers. His battalion was moved to France in 1916,
where Tolkien served as a communications officer during the Battle of
the Somme, until he came down with trench fever on 27 October, and was
moved back to England on 8 November. Many of his fellow servicemen,
as well as several of his closest friends, were killed in the war. During
his recovery in a cottage in Great Haywood, Staffordshire he began to
work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, beginning with The Fall
first civilian job after World War I was at the Oxford English Dictionary
(among others, he initiated the entries wasp and walrus). In 1920 he
took up a post as Reader in English language at the University of Leeds,
but in 1925 he returned to Oxford as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke
College. In 1945 he moved to Merton College, Oxford, becoming the Merton
Professor of English Language and Literature, in which post he remained
until his retirement in 1959.
It may be
significant that Tolkien disliked intensely the devouring of the English
countryside by the suburbs, even though, given his profession, he generally
found it convenient to live in them. But for most of his adult life
he eschewed automobiles, preferring to ride a bicycle. Tolkien and Edith
had four children: John Francis Reuel (November 17, 1917), Michael Hilary
Reuel (October, 1920), Christopher John Reuel (1924) and Priscilla Anne
Reuel (1929). During the 1950s, Tolkien spent many of his long academic
holidays at the home of his son John Francis in Stoke-on-Trent.
on the stone at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, where he and his wife are
buried, are the names Beren and Lúthien, paying homage to one
of the great love stories of his fictional Middle-earth, which has been
certainly inspired in the real history of love between Tolkien and his
earliest literary ambition was to be a poet, but his primary creative
urge in his younger days was the invention of imaginary languages, including
early versions of what would later evolve into the Elvish languages
Quenya and Sindarin. Feeling that a language required a people to speak
it, and that a people would tell stories which influenced and reflected
their languages, he began writing (in English, but with many names and
terms from his invented languages) the mythology and tales of a fictional
people he associated with legendary fairies. In later works, Tolkien's
fairy-folk were replaced by Elves -- a name he adapted from English
folklore (with some regret, for he came to consider the name misleading).
Beginning with The Book of Lost Tales, written while recuperating from
illness during World War I, Tolkien devised several themes - including
the love story of Beren and Lúthien - that were reused in successive
mythologies. The two most prominent stories, the tales of Beren/Luthien
and of Turin, were carried forward into long narrative poems (published
in The Lays of Beleriand). Tolkien wrote a brief summary of the mythology
these poems were intended to represent, and that summary eventually
evolved into The Silmarillion, an epic history that Tolkien started
three times but never finished. The story of this continuous re-drafting
is told in the posthumous series The History of Middle-Earth. From around
1945, he began to incorporate into this framework the tale of The Fall
of Númenor, which was inspired by the legend of Atlantis.
Tolkien was strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon literature, Germanic
and Norse mythologies, Finnish folklore, the Bible, and Greek mythology.
Other inspirations included Babylon and Egypt. The works most often
cited as sources for Tolkien's stories include Beowulf, Kalevala, the
Poetic Edda, Plato's Atlantis, Volsunga saga and the Hervarar saga .
Tolkien himself acknowledged Homer and Oedipus as influences or sources
for some of his stories and ideas. His borrowings also came from numerous
Middle English works and poems.
In addition to his mythological compositions, Tolkien enjoyed inventing
fantasy stories to entertain his children. He wrote annual Christmas
letters from Father Christmas for them, building up a series of short
stories (later compiled and published as The Father Christmas Letters).
Other stories included Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, and Smith of Wootton Major.
Roverandom and Smith of Wootton Major, like The Hobbit, borrowed ideas
from the mythological compositions.
Tolkien never expected his fictional stories to become popular but he
was persuaded by a former student to publish a book he had written for
his own children called The Hobbit in 1937. However, the book attracted
adult readers as well, and it became popular enough for the publisher,
George Allen & Unwin, to ask Tolkien to work on a sequel.
Despite feeling uninspired on the topic, this request prompted Tolkien
to begin what would become his most famous work: the epic three-volume
novel The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955). Tolkien spent more than
ten years writing the primary narrative and appendices for Lord of the
Rings, during which time he received the constant support of the Inklings,
in particular his closest friend C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles
of Narnia. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set long after
The Silmarillion but Tolkien infused the Silmarillion and Númenor
myths into a new mythology which is properly called The
The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular with students in the
1960s, and has remained popular ever since, ranking as one of the most
popular works of fiction of the twentieth century, judged by both sales
and reader surveys. It was voted the greatest book of the 20th century
in a readers' poll conducted by the BBC, and the Waterstone's bookstore
chain and in 1999 a poll of Amazon.com customers judged The Lord of
the Rings to be the greatest book of the millennium. In 2002 Tolkien
was voted 92nd of a "Greatest Britons" poll conducted by the
BBC and in 2004 he was voted 35th in the Greatest South Africans. He
is the only person to appear in both the British and South African Top
100. His popularity is not limited just to the English-speaking world:
in 2004 a poll of more than one million Germans found The Lord of the
Rings (Herr der Ringe) to be their favourite work of literature by a
Tolkien at first thought that The Lord of the Rings would tell another
children's tale like The Hobbit, but it quickly grew darker and more
serious in the writing. Though a direct sequel to The Hobbit, it addressed
an older audience, drawing on the immense back-story of Beleriand that
Tolkien had constructed in previous years, and which eventually saw
posthumous publication in The Silmarillion and other volumes. Tolkien's
influence weighs heavily on the fantasy genre that grew up after the
success of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien was a professional philologist, and the languages and the mythologies
he studied clearly left an imprint on his fiction. In particular, the
dwarves' names in the Hobbit, are taken from the Völuspá
of the Edda, while certain plot-elements (for example: the thief stealing
a cup from a dragon's hoard) are taken from Beowulf. Tolkien was a recognised
authority on Beowulf, and published several important works on the poem.
A previously unpublished translation of Beowulf by Tolkien was found
in 2004 and is being edited for publication by Michael Drout. Many of
the names Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings may be found in Middle
English poems, The Bible, and other sources.
Tolkien continued to work on the history of Middle-earth until his death.
His son Christopher, with some assistance from fantasy writer Guy Gavriel
Kay, organised some of this material into one volume, published as The
Silmarillion in 1977. Christopher Tolkien continued over subsequent
years to publish background material on the creation of Middle-earth.
Note that the posthumous works such as The History of Middle-earth and
the Unfinished Tales contain unfinished, abandoned, alternative and
outright contradictory versions of the stories simply because Tolkien
kept inventing new mythologies which reused older ideas over the course
There is no true consistency to be found between the various works,
not even between The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the two most
closely related works, because Tolkien was never able to fully integrate
all their traditions into each other. He commented in 1965, while editing
The Hobbit for a third edition, that he would have preferred to rewrite
the entire book completely.
academic career and his literary production are inseparable from his
love of language and philology.
He specialized in Greek philology in college, and in 1915 graduated
with Old Icelandic as special subject. He worked for the Oxford English
Dictionary from 1918. In 1920, he went to Leeds as Reader in English
Language, where he claimed credit for raising the number of students
of linguistics from five to twenty. He gave courses in Old English heroic
verse, history of English, various Old English and Middle English texts,
Old and Middle English philology, introductory Germanic philology, Gothic,
Old Icelandic, and Medieval Welsh. When in 1925, aged 33, Tolkien applied
for the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon, he boasted
that his students of Germanic philology in Leeds had even formed a "Viking
Privately, Tolkien was attracted to "things of racial and linguistic
significance" and he entertained notions of an inherited taste
of language, which he termed the "native tounge" as opposed
to "cradle tongue" in his 1955 lecture English and Welsh,
which is crucial to his understanding of race and language. He considered
west-midland Middle English his own "native tongue", and,
as he wrote to W. H. Auden in 1955 (Letters, 163), "I am a West-midlander
by blood (and took to early west-midland Middle English as a known tongue
as soon as I set eyes on it)".
Parallel to Tolkiens professional work as a philologist, and sometimes
overshadowing this work, to the effect that his academic output remained
rather thin, was his affection for the construction of artificial languages.
The best-developed of these are Quenya and Sindarin, the etymological
connection between which are at the core of much of Tolkien's legendarium.
Language and grammar for Tolkien was a matter of aesthetics and euphony,
and Quenya in particular was designed from 'phonaesthetic' considerations.
It was intended as an 'Elvenlatin', and was phonologically based on
Latin basis with ingredients from Finnish and Greek (Letters, 144).
A notable addition came in late 1945 with Numenorean, a language of
a "faintly Semitic flavour", connected with Tolkien's Atlantis
myth, which by The Notion Club Papers ties directly into his ideas about
inheritability of language, and via the "Second Age" and the
Earendil myth was grounded in the legendarium, thereby providing a link
of Tolkien's 20th century "real primary world" with the mythical
past of his Middle-earth.
The popularity of Tolkien's books has had a small but lasting effect
on the use of language in fantasy literature in particular, and even
on mainstream dictionaries, which today commonly accept Tolkien's spellings
dwarves and elvish (instead of dwarfs and elfish).
The name "Tolkien"
(pron.: Tol-keen; equal stress on both syllables) is believed to be
of German origin; Toll-kühn: foolishly brave, or stupidly clever
- hence the pseudonym "Oxymore" which he occasionally used.
His father's side of the family appears to have migrated from Saxony
in the 18th century, but over the century and a half before his birth
had become thoroughly Anglicised. Certainly his father, Arthur Reuel
Tolkien, considered himself nothing if not English. Arthur was a bank
clerk, and went to South Africa in the 1890s for better prospects of
promotion. There he was joined by his bride, Mabel Suffield, whose family
were not only English through and through, but West Midlands since time
immemorial. So John Ronald ("Ronald" to family and early friends)
was born in Bloemfontein, S.A., on 3 January 1892. His memories of Africa
were slight but vivid, including a scary encounter with a large hairy
spider, and influenced his later writing to some extent; slight, because
on 15 February 1896 his father died, and he, his mother and his younger
brother Hilary returned to England - or more particularly, the West
The West Midlands in Tolkien's childhood were a complex mixture of the
grimly industrial Birmingham conurbation, and the quintessentially rural
stereotype of England, Worcestershire and surrounding areas: Severn
country, the land of the composers Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Gurney,
and more distantly the poet A. E. Housman (it is also just across the
border from Wales). Tolkien's life was split between these two: the
then very rural hamlet of Sarehole, with its mill, just south of Birmingham;
and darkly urban Birmingham itself, where he was eventually sent to
King Edward's School. By then the family had moved to King's Heath,
where the house backed onto a railway line - young Ronald's developing
linguistic imagination was engaged by the sight of coal trucks going
to and from South Wales bearing destinations like" Nantyglo","
Penrhiwceiber" and "Senghenydd".
Then they moved to the somewhat more pleasant Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston.
However, in the meantime, something of profound significance had occurred,
which estranged Mabel and her children from both sides of the family:
in 1900, together with her sister May, she was received into the Roman
Catholic Church. From then on, both Ronald and Hilary were brought up
in the faith of Pio Nono, and remained devout Catholics throughout their
lives. The parish priest who visited the family regularly was the half-Spanish
half-Welsh Father Francis Morgan.
Tolkien family life was generally lived on the genteel side of poverty.
However, the situation worsened in 1904, when Mabel Tolkien was diagnosed
as having diabetes, incurable at that time. She died on 14 November
of that year leaving the two orphaned boys effectively destitute. At
this point Father Francis took over, and made sure of the boys' material
as well as spiritual welfare, although in the short term they were boarded
with an unsympathetic aunt-by-marriage, Beatrice Suffield, and then
with a Mrs Faulkner.
By this time Ronald was already showing remarkable linguistic gifts.
He had mastered the Latin and Greek which was the staple fare of an
arts education at that time, and was becoming more than competent in
a number of other languages, both modern and ancient, notably Gothic,
and later Finnish. He was already busy making up his own languages,
purely for fun. He had also made a number of close friends at King Edward's;
in his later years at school they met regularly after hours as the "T.
C. B. S." (Tea Club, Barrovian Society, named after their meeting
place at the Barrow Stores) and they continued to correspond closely
and exchange and criticise each other's literary work until 1916.
However, another complication had arisen. Amongst the lodgers at Mrs
Faulkner's boarding house was a young woman called Edith Bratt. When
Ronald was 16, and she 19, they struck up a friendship, which gradually
deepened. Eventually Father Francis took a hand, and forbade Ronald
to see or even correspond with Edith for three years, until he was 21.
Ronald stoically obeyed this injunction to the letter. He went up to
Exeter College, Oxford in 1911, where he stayed, immersing himself in
the Classics, Old English, the Germanic languages (especially Gothic),
Welsh and Finnish, until 1913, when he swiftly though not without difficulty
picked up the threads of his relationship with Edith. He then obtained
a disappointing second class degree in Honour Moderations, the "midway"
stage of a 4-year Oxford "Greats" (i.e. Classics) course,
although with an "alpha plus" in philology. As a result of
this he changed his school from Classics to the more congenial English
Language and Literature. One of the poems he discovered in the course
of his Old English studies was the Crist of Cynewulf - he was amazed
especially by the cryptic couplet:
Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast
In the summer
of 1913 he took a job as tutor and escort to two Mexican boys in Dinard,
France, a job which ended in tragedy. Though no fault of Ronald's, it
did nothing to counter his apparent predisposition against France and
Meanwhile the relationship with Edith was going more smoothly. She converted
to Catholicism and moved to Warwick, which with its spectacular castle
and beautiful surrounding countryside made a great impression on Ronald.
However, as the pair were becoming ever closer, the nations were striving
ever more furiously together, and war eventually broke out in August
2. War, Lost
Tales And Academia
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, just
in time for the Somme offensive. After four months in and out of the
trenches, he succumbed to "trench fever", a form of typhus-like
infection common in the insanitary conditions, and in early November
was sent back to England, 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.
During these last few months, all but one of his close friends of the
"T. C. B. S." had been killed in action. Partly as an act
of piety to their memory, but also stirred by reaction against his war
experiences, he had already begun to put his stories into shape, . .
.. in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents,
even some down in dugouts under shell fire [ Letters 66]. This ordering
of his imagination developed into the Book of Lost Tales (not published
in his lifetime), in which most of the major stories of the Silmarillion
appear in their first form: tales of the Elves and the "Gnomes",
(i. e. Deep Elves, the later Noldor), with their languages Qenya and
Goldogrin. Here are found the first recorded versions of the wars against
Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond, and the tales
of Túrin and of Beren and Lúthien.
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
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.
3. 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.
However, his rare scholarly publications were often extremely influential,
most notably his lecture "Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics".
His seemingly almost throwaway comments have sometimes helped to transform
the understanding of a particular field - for example, in his essay
on "English and Welsh", with its explanation of the origins
of the term "Welsh" and its references to phonaesthetics (both
these pieces are collected in The Monsters and the Critics and Other
Essays, currently in print). His academic life was otherwise largely
unremarkable. In 1945 he changed his chair to the Merton Professorship
of English Language and Literature, which he retained until his retirement
in 1959. Apart from all the above, he taught undergraduates, and played
an important but unexceptional part in academic politics and administration.
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 of Headington.
However, Tolkien's social life was far from unremarkable. He soon became
one of the founder members of a loose grouping of Oxford friends, (by
no means all at the University), with similar interests, known as "The
Inklings". The origins of the name were purely facetious - it had
to do with writing, and sounded mildly Anglo-Saxon; there was no evidence
that members of the group claimed to have an "inkling" of
the Divine Nature, as is sometimes suggested. Other prominent members
included the above-mentioned Messrs Coghill and Dyson, as well as Owen
Barfield, Charles Williams, and above all C. S. Lewis, who became one
of Tolkien's closest friends, and for whose return to Christianity Tolkien
was at least partly responsible. The Inklings regularly met for conversation,
drink, and frequent reading from their work-in-progress.
4. The Storyteller
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
In typical Tolkien fashion, he then decided he needed to find out what
a Hobbit was, what sort of a hole it lived in, why it lived in a hole,
etc. From this investigation grew a tale that he told to his younger
children, and even passed round. In 1936 an incomplete typescript of
it came into the hands of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishing
firm of George Allen and Unwin (merged in 1990 with HarperCollins).
She asked Tolkien to finish it, and presented the complete story to
Stanley Unwin, the then Chairman of the firm. He tried it out on his
10-year old son Rayner, who wrote an approving report, and it was published
as The Hobbit in 1937. It immediately scored a success, and has not
been out of children's recommended reading lists ever since. It was
so successful that Stanley Unwin asked if he had any more similar material
available for publication.
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".
This soon developed into something much more than a children's story;
for the highly complex 16-year history of what became The Lord of the
Rings consult the works listed below. Suffice it to say that the now
adult Rayner Unwin was deeply involved in the later stages of this opus,
dealing magnificently with a dilatory and temperamental author who,
at one stage, was offering the whole work to a commercial rival (which
rapidly backed off when the scale and nature of the package became apparent).
It is thanks to Rayner Unwin's advocacy that we owe the fact that this
book was published at all - Andave laituvalmes! His father's firm decided
to incur the probable loss of £1,000 for the succès d'estime,
and publish it under the title of The Lord of the Rings in three parts
during 1954 and 1955, with USA rights going to Houghton Mifflin. It
soon became apparent that both author and publishers had greatly underestimated
the work's public appeal.
5. The "Cult"
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
Meanwhile the cult, not just of Tolkien, but of the fantasy literature
that he had revived, if not actually inspired (to his dismay), was really
taking off - but that is another story, to be told in another place.
6. Other Writings
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.
The flow of publications was only temporarily slowed by Tolkien's death.
The long-awaited Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, appeared
in 1977. In 1980 Christopher also published a selection of his father's
incomplete writings from his later years under the title of Unfinished
Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. In the introduction to this
work Christopher Tolkien referred in passing to The Book of Lost Tales,
"itself a very substantial work, of the utmost interest to one
concerned with the origins of Middle-earth, but requiring to be presented
in a lengthy and complex study, if at all" (Unfinished Tales, p.
6, paragraph 1).
The sales of The Silmarillion had rather taken George Allen & Unwin
by surprise, and those of Unfinished Tales even more so. Obviously,
there was a market even for this relatively abstruse material and they
decided to risk embarking on this "lengthy and complex study".
Even more lengthy and complex than expected, the resulting 12 volumes
of the History of Middle-earth, under Christopher's editorship, proved
to be a successful enterprise. (Tolkien's publishers had changed hands,
and names, several times between the start of the enterprise in 1983
and the appearance of the paperback edition of Volume 12, The Peoples
of Middle-earth, in 1997.)
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:
Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889-1971
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973
Reuel Tolkien, as he was christened, was born in Bloemfontein, South
Africa in 1892. His early and barely memorable years were spent divided
between the city and a country farm. His father, an English banker,
was making efforts to establish a branch in that country. Many of Tolkien's
early memories of South Africa, including an incident when he was bitten
by a tarantula while visiting a rural district, are reported to have
influenced his later works.
He left South Africa to return to England with his mother and his brother,
Hilary. His father, Arthur, was supposed also to return to England within
the next few months. However, Arthur Tolkien died of rheumatic fever
while still in South Africa. This left the grieving family in relatively
dire straights and on a very limited income.
They soon moved to Birmingham, England, so that young Tolkien could
attend King Edward VI school. His mother, Mabel, converted to Catholicism
and the religion would have a long lasting effect on young Tolkien.
The family was befriended by the Parish Priest, Father Francis Morgan,
who would see the Tolkiens through some troubled times.
An avid reader, Tolkien was influenced by some of the great writers
of his day including G.K. Chesterton and H.G. Wells. It was during this
period of financial hardship, but intellectual stimulation that Tolkien
suffered the loss of his devoted mother. She succumbed to diabetes in
1904 when Tolkien was only 12 years of age.
Father Morgan took over as his guardian, placing him first with an aunt
and then at a boarding house for orphans. It was at this boarding house,
at the age of 16 that he would meet and fall in love with Edith Bratt.
Naturally, their relationship was frowned upon. Tolkien and Edith were
caught in affectionate circumstances - they bicycled together out to
the countryside surrounding the city and had a picnic.
Edith became somewhat of an obsession for Tolkien, and his guardian,
Father Morgan, determined to separate the young couple. For, it seemed
that their relationship was interfering with Tolkien's studies and leaving
him ill-prepared to take exams to enter college. This was driven home
to him when he failed to enter the college on his first try. Tolkien
temporarily swore off the love of his life an knuckled down to the work
at hand. On his second try he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship to
Throughout his life, Tolkien had cultivated a love of language, especially
ancient languages. At Oxford he would major in philology, which is the
study of words and language. He would be much influenced by Icelandic,
Norse and Gothic mythology. Even some of the characters and place names
he would later develop would be drawn from the names from ancient sagas.
The forest of Mirkwood, which played a prominent roll in both "The
Hobbit" and in "The Lord of the Rings" was borrowed from
Icelandic mythology. The names of many of the dwarves in "The Hobbit"
were actual placenames in the myths.
Having reached the age of maturity in 1914, while still attending college,
he looked up his lost love, Edith Bratt, and proposed marriage. She
had accepted a proposal from another quarter, but in the end was persuaded
to return to Tolkien. They would marry in 1916.
World War I, the war to end all wars, came in 1914. It would forever
mark the end of many of the Empires of Europe and would unleash death
across the European Continent. Tolkien lost many of his friends in the
war, and he himself would serve as an officer on the front lines at
the Battle of the Somme. He caught trench fever in 1917 and was sent
back to England to recuperate. He would not see front line service again.
Throughout his schooldays he had been a determined poet and scholar.
His interest in language was such that he had even developed his own
languages based loosely on Finnish and Welsh. It was while recuperating
in Birmingham, with his wife at his side, that he began to create a
mythology behind his languages. This work would one day result in his
It was about this time that Tolkien was blessed with the first of his
four children. After the war he was offered a professorship at the University
of Leeds. Besides lecturing, he continued work on his mythology. He
felt that he, in a sense, was creating England's mythology.
In 1925 Tolkien with a colleague published a translation and analysis
of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." It was a turning point
in his career. It brought him notice at Oxford where he was offered
the professorship of Anglo-Saxon.
"The Hobbit", the work that would make him famous, came out
in 1936. He began it one evening while grading exam papers. Seated at
his desk, he opened up an exam booklet to find the first page blank.
He was surprised and pleased that the student had somehow entirely skipped
the page. It seemed an invitation to write, and in that space he began
his work on "The Hobbit".
The finished manuscript of "The Hobbit" fell into the hands
of George Allen and Unwin, Publishers. Unwin paid his ten year old son
a shilling to read the story and report on its publishability. The young
man lavished praise on the book, and Unwin decided to take a risk on
"The Hobbit" soon became a best seller and made Professor
Tolkien famous. He was already well-known as a scholar for his work
in Philology, and he was also part of a group of friends who called
themselves the Inklings. The center of this group was C.S. Lewis who
would long be one of Tolkien's best friends and admirers.
In the late 1930's Tolkien began writing the "Lord of the Rings".
Work on the story would go on for ten and a half years. He gave first
chance at publication to Allen & Unwin, the publishers of "The
Hobbit". But it was rejected by a staff editor when Unwin was away
on business in France. The younger "Unwin" was now in the
family publishing business. He found out about the rejected manuscript,
wrote to his father in France, requesting permission to take on the
project. Recalling the success of "The Hobbit", but skeptical
about a "hobbit book" written for adults, he acquiesced to
his son's request reluctantly.
"The Lord of the Rings" was published in three parts and would
become a huge publishing success.
Fame and fortune were both a blessing and a bane for Tolkien. He enjoyed
the popularity of his work. Yet, he was burdened with work responding
to his adoring public. After his retirement at Oxford, he and his wife
Edith moved to Bournemouth in 1966. Edith died in 1971. The loss of
his life's companion did not sit well with Tolkien; yet he struggled
on for some two years till his death of Pneumonia on 2 September 1973.