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J.R.R. Tolkien | Biography

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J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar, linguist, mythmaker, and creator of Middle-earth. He was born in South Africa on January 3, 1892. As a child in South Africa a huge hairy spider he encountered terrified him. Although Tolkien was too young to remember and had to be told later about the experience, it clearly had an impact and influenced the inclusion of spiders into his books. The spiders became nightmarish creatures in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

When Tolkien was four his father died, and the family immigrated to England and settled in Birmingham. Four years later his mother died, and he and his sister became wards of the state. Tolkien studied at Oxford University, focusing on English language and literature and earning both bachelor's and master's degrees. He also mastered several languages and loved incorporating that knowledge into his stories.

When World War I started the commanders thought it would be a good idea to put men from the same village in the same troop because they would fight better together. While this was good in theory, Tolkien's village still lost many of its men. Tolkien would have likely been another casualty of war had he not been medically evacuated for typhoid fever. Most of his friends and community members were killed while he was recovering from the illness. It was at this time that he wrote The Book of Lost Tales, which was set in a fantasy world and in which he created the many kingdoms that would be found in later works.

After serving in the war, Tolkien worked on The Oxford English Dictionary and later obtained a post at the University of Leeds. In 1925 he became an Anglo-Saxon Professor at the University of Oxford and later served as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature before retiring from Oxford in 1959.

Tolkien appears to use the works of English artist and author William Morris as a model for his style, while some characters seem to emulate those in The Black Douglas by Scottish novelist Samuel R. Crockett, whose stories featured a wizard. Also, Tolkien's depiction of goblins was based on The Princess and the Goblin by Scottish author and poet George MacDonald. Finally, Journey to the Center of the Earth by French novelist Jules Verne inspired plot elements such as a hidden message and significant celestial alignment.

The publication of The Hobbit created a demand for more stories set in Middle-earth, and a 12-year effort resulted in The Lord of the Rings, a novel originally published in three parts: The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954, followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King in 1955. The three books were wildly popular, and their sales made Tolkien's later life very comfortable. In addition to these popular works, the writer is respected for his analysis of Beowulf and other scholarly contributions. Tolkien's experience with war also played a big part in his writing, but he never tried to romanticize the death and destruction that came with that experience.

At age 16 Tolkien met and fell in love with Edith Bratt; five years later the couple married. Edith was the inspiration for a fictional elf character named Lúthien Tinúviel, whose love interest, Beren, was a mortal modeled on Tolkien himself. They originally appeared in the story Tale of Tinúviel, published in The Book of Lost Tales. Edith died in 1971, and Tolkien followed two years later on September 2, 1973. Their tombstone bears their character names: Lúthien and Beren.

An abridged list of Tolkien's published works:

  • The Hobbit (1937)
  • The Lord of the Rings (1954–55)
  • The Silmarillion (portions of a first draft date to 1925; edited and published posthumously 1977)
  • The History of Middle-Earth (posthumously, 1983–1996; 12 volumes)
  • Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (posthumously, 2014)
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