John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born the 3rd of January 1892 in Bloemfontein,
South Africa, to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. His brother Hilary was born in 1894. In 1895
Mabel took the two boys home to England for a visit. Shortly before they were to return to
South Africa, Tolkien's father was taken ill and died in February 1896. Tolkien was barely
four-years old. Mabel and her sons moved to Sarehole, a Warwickshire village that Tolkien
loved from the start. He later drew from his cherished memories to create The Shire. In
1900 the family moved from Sarehole to be near the schools of Birmingham.
Remembering Sarehole when he was seventy-four years old Tolkien said, "I could
draw you a map of every inch. I loved it with an intensity of love that was a kind of
Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism in 1900, instilling in her sons a faith as
fervent as her own. This caused an unfortunate rift with her family, the Suffields, and to
a certain extent with the Tolkien family. She and her sons experienced financial
repercussions since support was withdrawn. In 1904 Mabel Tolkien died at age 34 of
diabetes, a disease invariably fatal at that time. Tolkien was twelve-years old. Father
Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory who had befriended the family,
assumed responsibility as legal guardian of the boys and bestowed care and attention on
Of his early years Tolkien recalled "it was not an unhappy childhood. It was full
of tragedies, but it didn't tote up to an unhappy childhood."
Tolkien finished King Edward VI School in 1911 and entered Exeter College, Oxford
University. In June 1915 he completed his degree at Oxford with First Class Honours. The
world had gone to war in 1914, so Tolkien was commissioned immediately with the Lancashire
Fusiliers in July 1915 and served in France during the long Battle of the Somme. Trench
warfare was terrible for the soldiers; of his group of four close friends of many years,
two were killed in 1916. Tolkien contracted trench fever, a very serious case of it, and
he was evacuated in November 1916 to Birmingham.
For many years his inner life had been immersed in developing thoughts, plans and
yearnings to create a great epic, an encompassing mythology. Now, during his slow recovery
in and out of the hospital during 1916 and 1917, he set about the construction of his
mythology. He began creating and writing The Book of Lost Tales, subsequently known
as The Silmarillion. This proved to be an absorbing joy in the years to come as he
worked out the tales and legends that form his mythology, two elven languages, detailed
maps and drawings of the scenes that stood so vividly in his mind. Humphrey Carpenter in
his biography, Tolkien, uses these words, "When Tolkien began to write he drew
upon some deeper, richer seam of his imagination than he had yet explored; and it was a
seam that would continue to yield for the rest of his life."
Tolkien's military service ended in 1919, and he moved with his family to Oxford where
he assumed the post of junior editor on the Oxford English Dictionary, attesting to
his recognized skill as a philologist. Also, as John and Priscilla Tolkien relate,
"J.R.R.T. loved seeking out words and their provenance, so the job suited him very
well." Daniel Grotta in his biography J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle-earth,
tells us: "By that time he could read, write, or speak most of the Romance languages,
Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Finnish, Icelandic, German, Old German, Gothic, and several other
obsolete tongues, and had begun to build a reputation as a linguist as well as a
In 1921 Tolkien began his long teaching career as Reader in the English Language at the
University of Leeds, a post that was converted to a Professorship four years later. In
1925 he was elected Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He was
Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and a Fellow of Pembroke College from 1925 to 1945 and
Professor of English Language and Literature and a Fellow of Merton College from 1945 to
his retirement in 1959. J.R.R. Tolkien could be described variously as a medieval scholar,
a philologist, and a writer of fantasy. In fact, he was all three and he achieved
distinction in each area.
As a scholar his primary interest was the literary and linguistic tradition of the
English West Midlands, especially Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
His lectures in these two areas of his special interest generated excitement and became
famous among the students at Oxford. Tolkien was devoted to teaching and regularly gave at
least twice the number of lectures required by the University, many more than colleagues
gave. He earned a reputation as a creative and energetic lecturer, although his delivery
was often difficult to understand until one became accustomed to listening.
"Philology: The study of literary texts and of written records, the establishment
of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of the meaning."
Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary.
Tolkien's reputation as a philologist of note is indisputable. His lecture on Beowulf:
The Monsters and the Critics delivered as the annual Israel Gollancz lecture at the
British Academy in 1936 is "a landmark in the history of criticism of this great
Western Anglo-Saxon poem," to quote Carpenter who also says, "his paper on the
dialects of Chaucer's Reeve's Tale is required reading for anyone who wishes to
understand the regional variations of fourteenth-century English." Professor Alan
Bliss, who edited Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, was offered
Tolkien's lecture manuscripts after a 1966 visit with the retired Tolkien to discuss their
mutual interest in the subject. Professor Bliss writes in the Preface: "If Tolkien's
work had been published sooner, most of what others have written would not have been
written at all, or would have been written differently. . . . Not only had he anticipated
nearly all my ideas, but he had gone far beyond them in directions which I had never
considered." In June 1972 when Tolkien was 80 years old he received an honorary
Doctorate of Letters from the University of Oxford for his contribution to philology.
The Preface Tolkien wrote for his poems assembled as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
and other verses from The Red Book is a delightful example of his sense of humor. He
turns a philologist's eye on these verses and offers a very learned treatise. "No. 12
is also marked SG [Sam Gamgee], though at most Sam can only have touched up an older piece
of the comic bestiary lore of which Hobbits appear to have been fond."
The Hobbit and The Lord of
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." Tolkien recalls writing these
words on a blank page in an exam paper he was grading one summer's day. "Names always
generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were
like." The Hobbit actually began as a tale to amuse his children. The three
boys recall hearing chapters during their regular "Winter Reads" after tea in
their father's study, and John and Michael recall hearing bits and pieces of stories much
earlier that were later incorporated. The original manuscript did not have final chapters
and remained in an unfinished state until Susan Dagnall from the London publishing house
of Allen and Unwin heard of his children's story, met Tolkien and asked to read it. She
urged him to complete it for publication, which he did.
His son Michael had recently injured a hand at school, as Carpenter tells us, and was
engaged by Tolkien to help with the typing using his left hand. The Hobbit was
published in September 1937 with some of Tolkien's own illustrations. The first edition
sold out before Christmas, a second edition was rushed through, and a few months later an
American edition met with similar success. The published asked for another book about
When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit his great mythology was so much a part of his
inner life that bits and pieces hovered in the background and came into the edges of the
tale. He did not associate hobbits with his mythology, however, and would have preferred
to publish The Silmarillion ("the Silmarils are in my heart"). But
another hobbit book was wanted, so he began the project. Only after he had been working on
"the new Hobbit" for a while did he realize that here was a part of his major
epic-another lost tale as it were.
The Lord of the Rings took twelve years to write. There were bumps in the
process and a long halt at the tomb of Balin in Moria followed by a few other prolonged
halts. Once it was C.S. Lewis, noticing that Tolkien had stopped writing, who encouraged
him to resume. The epic tale was finished in the autumn of 1949. Tolkien hoped for an
arrangement that would publish both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings,
which did not materialize, so it was not until September of 1952 that the manuscript was
handed to Rayner Unwin. Because of the size it was divided into three volumes, the first
to be printed in summer 1954 with the other two to follow at intervals. The print order
was modest since the publisher was not at all sure the book would be profitable. Carpenter
tells us that Tolkien wrote a friend, "I am dreading the publication, for it will be
impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at." The
second volume was published in November, and by the following March readers were demanding
the last volume from the publishers. Tolkien still had work to do, however, so the last
volume was published in October 1955, a few months before Tolkien's sixty-fourth birthday.
Sales of the books increased steadily and early in 1956 he began to receive profits, the
publishing cost having been recouped.
Tolkien's books have been translated into 24 languages, and have sold many millions of
copies worldwide. They remain best sellers to this day. According to Tolkien Enterprises,
"English language sales of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are
holding steady at about half a million copies per year; figures for The Silmarillion
run at about a tenth of this figure." In Spring of 1972 he was honoured with a C.B.E.
(Commander of the Order of the British Empire) presented to him by Queen Elizabeth in a
ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
With this in mind it is poignant to read Tolkien's response when, after The Hobbit
was published in 1937, Stanley Unwin, his publisher, wrote to say that "a large
public" would be "clamouring next year to hear more from you about
Hobbits!" Tolkien replied, "I must confess that your letter has aroused in me a
faint hope, I mean, I begin to wonder whether duty and desire may not (perhaps) in future
go more closely together. I have spent nearly all the vacation-times of seventeen years
examining, and doing things of that sort, driven by immediate financial necessity (mainly
medical and educational). Writing stories in prose or verse has been stolen, often
guiltily, from time already mortgaged, and has been broken and ineffective. I may perhaps
now do what I much desire to do, and not fail of financial duty. Perhaps!"
Perhaps, indeed! It took many years for the "next Hobbit story" to reach
print in 1954 and 1955. However, reach us it did.
Tolkien's list of publications contains a number of works published posthumously. His
perfectionism and his passion for revision and reworking were partially responsible for
the works not finished in his lifetime, as were his many responsibilities (and a touch of
that very human propensity to procrastinate). Carpenter offers another insight about
Tolkien's concentration on revising and polishing his mythology in The Silmarillion
instead of finishing it. He quotes Tolkien's friend Christopher Wiseman about the elves in
his early poems, "Why these creatures live to you is because you are still creating
them. When you have finished creating them they will be as dead to you as the atoms that
make our living food." Carpenter goes on to observe about Tolkien's first turning to
revision instead of completion of The Lost Tales, "Tolkien did not want to
finish because he could not contemplate the thought of having no more creating to do
inside his invented world."
For a full bibliography of all the published writings of Tolkien, commencing with a
poem in 1911 during his school years at King Edward's School, see Appendix C of Tolkien,
the biography by Humphrey Carpenter.
Works by J.R.R. Tolkien
(in order of publication)
Leaf by Niggle
Farmer Giles of Ham
The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
The Lord of the Rings
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
The Road Goes Ever On (with Donald Swann)
Smith of Wootton Major
Works published posthumously
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, edited by Christopher
The Father Christmas Letters, edited by Baillie Tolkien
The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien
Unfinished Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter
Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, edited by Alan Bliss
The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Bilbo's Last Song, illustrated by Pauline Baynes
Selections from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The
Adventures of Tom Bombadil read by J.R.R. Tolkien and Of Beren and Lúthien
from The Silmarillion read by Christopher Tolkien
Biographies about J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter
J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle-earth, Daniel Grotta
A Tolkien Family Album, John and Priscilla Tolkien
The Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter
The Art of J.R.R. Tolkien
From an early age Tolkien enjoyed drawing and painting, and became quite skilled. John
and Priscilla Tolkien reproduce examples of his drawings from youth in The Tolkien
Family Album. One is an excellent cover drawn by Tolkien for the Exeter College
Magazine. They also remember the wonderful coloured pencils and tubes of paint in
their father's study, adding that Priscilla clearly recalls her father showing her how
beautifully Chinese White could be used when he was painting Bilbo Comes to the Huts
of the Raft-elves, which they identify as his favourite painting. The stories Tolkien
wrote for his children were lavishly illustrated, as were the annual letters from Father
Christmas. Mr. Bliss and Roverandum were published posthumously
with his original drawings. He made many drawings and paintings of scenes from The
Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien left even more of a legacy in the world of art. His works have influenced many,
many artists. Beautiful volumes have been published filled with artists' depictions of the
scenes he describes so vividly. Annual Tolkien calendars are acquired and cherished each
year by people around the world.
Tolkien created two elven languages, Quenya and Sindarin, that are actively studied in
spoken and written form, and officially recognized. The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship
(E.L.F.) is an international organization devoted to the scholarly study of the invented
languages of J.R.R. Tolkien. The journal of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, a Special
Interest Group of The Mythopoeic Society, titled Vinyar Tengwar is a refereed
journal indexed by the Modern Language Association.
From a very early age Tolkien had a fascination for language and mythology, and began
constructing his elven languages while still a schoolboy. Writing to his future wife in
March 1916 he said: "I have done some touches to my nonsense fairy language-to its
improvement. I often long to work at it and don't let myself 'cause though I love it so it
does seem such a mad hobby!"
Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met in 1926 as Oxford colleagues, recognized a kindred spirit in
one another and developed a strong friendship. From early on they read their works to each
other, and Lewis was very strong in urging Tolkien to finish The Silmarillion.
Carpenter gives us a quote from Tolkien about these early exchanges with Lewis: "The
unpayable debt that I owe to him was not 'influence' as it is ordinarily understood, but
sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the
idea that my 'stuff' could be more that a private hobby."
Any story of their years of friendship inevitably leads to The Inklings, a group of
writers and scholars drawn together in the early 1930s that included Lewis, Tolkien,
Charles Williams and later Christopher Tolkien. They gathered regularly on Tuesdays at a
favorite Oxford pub, officially The Eagle and The Child but known to them as The Bird and
the Baby. On Thursday evenings they met in Lewis' rooms at Magdalen College to read aloud
their manuscripts and discuss and argue far-ranging philosophical topics. Tolkien's Hobbit
and Lord of the Rings were read aloud to the Inklings as chapters were finished.
This group continued meeting until the mid-1950s.
Humphrey Carpenter wrote a collective biography of these writers "whose literary
fantasies still fire the imagination of all those who seek a truth beyond reality."
From the flyleaf of Carpenter's The Inklings: "They were very much of their
period-that strange waiting time between two world wars. And yet in the protected
atmosphere of Oxford, an academic oasis, it was possible to live in a corner of the world
where the finer points of Anglo Saxon could still be absorbing and where speculations on
the theology of the Christian Church could be pursued with as much zeal and idealism as
the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps it was this almost eccentric detachment that gave to their
literary fantasies a compelling and timeless quality that is as challenging and exciting
today as it was when their authors first read them aloud."
During his last years at King Edward School, Tolkien and his brother lodged at a
boarding house run for orphans. Living there at the time was another orphan named Edith
Mary Bratt. She and Tolkien developed a mutual affection that grew into love. When these
feelings became known, both of their guardians disapproved and they were separated
immediately. Tolkien was forbidden further contact with Edith until he was twenty-one. For
the next few years he was energetically involved in his Oxford studies and activities.
However, on his twenty-first birthday, January 3, 1913, he wrote immediately to Edith and
they were soon engaged. They were married in March 1916 and celebrated their 50th wedding
anniversary in 1966. Edith died in November 1971 at the age of 82, eighteen months before
Some weeks after Edith's death Tolkien wrote to his son, Michael, "I do not feel
quite 'real' or whole, and in a sense there is no one to talk to. Since I came of age, and
our three years separation was ended, we had shared all joys and griefs, and all opinions
(in agreement or otherwise), so that I still often find myself thinking 'I must tell E
about this'-and then suddenly I feel like a castaway left on a barren island under a
heedless sky after the loss of a great ship. . . . I remember after the death of my mother
vainly waving a hand at the sky saying 'it is so empty and cold.'"
Four children were born to Ronald and Edith Tolkien: John, Michael, Christopher, and
Priscilla. Reuel was his father's middle name as well as one of his own, and each of the
four children also received Reuel as a middle name. Several of Tolkien's published works
are an outgrowth of his creativity as a father. Mr. Bliss, the adventures of the
driver of a motor car written and illustrated by Tolkien; Roverandum, written and
illustrated to console a very young Michael after he lost his favorite toy dog on the
beach; and The Father Christmas Letters, a collection of illustrated letters sent
each Christmas to the young Tolkiens. According to John and Priscilla, who prepared The
Tolkien Family Album in 1992 to celebrate the centenary of their Father's birth
(Michael died of leukemia in 1984), these letters were carefully preserved in a corner of
their father's desk until they were edited and published after Tolkien's death by
Christopher's wife, Baillie.
Christopher Tolkien, Literary
John and Priscilla remember that Christopher from a very young age was always much
concerned with the consistency of the stories. They recount an occasion when Tolkien was
reading a manuscript chapter of The Hobbit to the young children and Christopher
interrupted to point out a discrepancy from a prior telling. They quote Christopher's
foreword to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Hobbit: "Last time, you
said Bilbo's front door was blue, and you said Thorin had a golden tassel on his
hood, but you've just said that Bilbo's front door was green, and the tassel on Thorin's
hood was silver."
Christopher was deeply involved with the writing of the Lord of the Rings,
reading manuscript chapters, typing them and drawing maps. While Christopher was stationed
in South Africa during WWII Tolkien kept him apprised of progress, as for example: 5 April
1944, "At the moment they [Sam and Frodo] are just meeting Gollum on a
precipice." Tolkien had just reread the manuscripts and adds, "What a lot of
work you put into the typing, and the chapters written out so beautifully! I wish I still
had my amanuensis and critic near at hand." 4 May 1944, "I saw Lewis (solo) on
Monday and read another chapter: am busy now with the next; we shall soon be in the
shadows of Mordor at last." Just on the eve of going to print in 1955 with The
Return of the King, the third book in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien still had
much work to do on the last map and his publisher was urgently pleading for it. Tolkien
described the press deadline later. "I had to call in the help of my son-the C.T. or
C.J.R.T. of the modest initials on the maps-an accredited student of hobbit-lore. . . .he
worked for 24 hours (6 a.m. to 6 a.m. without bed) in re-drawing just in time."
Academically Christopher emulated his father's professional path as a philologist and
scholar, studying and later lecturing at Oxford in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Old
Norse. He was invited to become an Inkling in 1945 when he was twenty-one. In 1975
Christopher resigned his fellowship at New College to devote his time to editing his
father's unpublished works. He prepared The Silmarillion for publication in 1977, Unfinished
Tales in 1980, and then undertook the massive twelve-volume History of Middle-earth
drawing on his father's notes of a lifetime.
On the 2nd of September 1973 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died in Oxford at the age of 81
after a short illness. In the Tolkien Family Album John and Priscilla reproduce a
newspaper clipping headed HOBBITS IN MOURNING. The article begins, "Bilbo found a
scrap of black twist and tied it round his arm. The little hobbit wept bitterly." The
article concludes, "The kingdoms that Tolkien created will not pass away. He used the
English language as a master artist uses his brushes and colours, and left us Lord of
To Professor Tolkien, the world of Middle-earth portrayed in The Hobbit, The
Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales was very real.
It is a reflection of his creative genius that he made this world real for millions of
others around the world.
Some Links to Biographical