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J.R.R. Tolkien | Biography


John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892, to British parents. In 1896 his father died, and the family—J.R.R. and his brother Hilary, along with mother Mabel—moved back to England.

Tolkien spent the rest of his childhood in the West Midlands of England, spending time in the urban area of Birmingham as well as quaint, rural Sarehole. These experiences allowed him to see, firsthand, the effects of industrialization and to consider the significant differences between big-city and small-town life. This tension is reflected in The Lord of the Rings, which moves from the peaceful Shire to cities both grand and forbidding.

In 1900 Tolkien's mother converted to Roman Catholicism, causing her family to shun her. This created a dark childhood memory for Tolkien, which he attributed to his mother's early death. When she died of diabetes in 1904, their priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, took an active role in making sure the two boys were cared for. Tolkien remained a member of the Catholic Church throughout his life, and its rituals, stories, and doctrines provided inspiration for the spiritual backstory of Middle-earth, as well as the underpinnings of its ethics.

As a teenager Tolkien lived for some time in a boarding house; at age 16 he met and fell in love with a fellow lodger, Edith Mary Bratt, who was 19. Father Francis told Tolkien to wait until he turned 21 to initiate a romantic relationship with Edith; with much reluctance Tolkien agreed. He gained his education in the years until his 21st birthday, earning a degree in English Language and Literature (Comparative Philology, the study of changes in a language or language family over time, being his strongest area) from Oxford University. It was then Tolkien reignited his romance with Edith. They married in 1916, just before Tolkien went off to war. The couple would go on to have four children.

Tolkien's months in the trenches of World War I were dirty and full of violence and grief. His company participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where, because of a general's tactical error, some 19,000 British soldiers were killed in a single day. Most of his close friends died, and Tolkien himself became so sick with "trench fever," he spent weeks in the hospital before being sent home. He suffered from the effects of trench fever for a period of nearly 18 months. Close on the heels of these wartime griefs, Tolkien translated his experiences into stories set in Middle-earth—a translation of the Old English word Middangeard, which he had encountered in his university studies. Tolkien was aware that, unlike some countries of Central and Northern Europe, England had no prominent legends that formed a complete cosmology. Therefore, he set out to create a "mythology for England."

After the war, Tolkien returned to the workforce as a philologist for The New English Dictionary. He became a tutor in 1919, and a year later, he became Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds. He gained full professorship in 1924 when he joined the Leeds English Department. In 1925 he was appointed Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. Tolkien spent his time teaching and writing stories and the occasional scholarly paper. He wrote many of the stories for his own children's entertainment. He helped to found the Inklings, a group of writers—including C.S. Lewis—who would meet to share and discuss their work. During this time, he first had the impulse to write about hobbits. According to Tolkien, he was grading papers when suddenly, on a blank page and for no real reason, he wrote the line: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Later he says, he had to write more about hobbits so he could find out about them. He wrote a hobbit story for his children, and it was published as The Hobbit in 1937. The book became surprisingly successful, and the publisher asked Tolkien for a second book about hobbits.

Tolkien took on this challenge, but he now believed the hobbit story line should become part of the larger history he had been developing of Middle-earth, complete with its own languages, epic heroes, and terrible villains. It took him more than 10 years to incorporate these materials into The Lord of the Rings, which was published in three parts between 1954 and 1955. When it was published, some critics loved it, while others thought it silly, but over time—and partly due to its paperback release in the United States—it became a best seller. Today it is considered a classic of the fantasy genre, with copies sold in the hundreds of millions. During his lifetime Tolkien also published many scholarly essays and labored over a translation of the Old English classic Beowulf. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, but his publishing career did not end then. Five years later his son Christopher, Tolkien's literary executor, oversaw publication of The Silmarillion, a history of the First Age of Middle-earth, which Tolkien had continuously redrafted for decades.

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