J. R. R. Tolkien

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J. R. R. Tolkien in 1972, in his study at Merton Street (from J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography by H. Carpenter)
J. R. R. Tolkien in 1972, in his study at Merton Street (from J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography by H. Carpenter)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (January 3, 1892September 2, 1973) is best known as the author of The Hobbit and 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. He belonged to a literary discussion group called the Inklings, through which he enjoyed a close friendship with C. S. Lewis.

In addition 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.



The Tolkien family

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 etymological English translation would be dull-keen, a literal translation of oxymoron). The character of Professor Rashbold in The Notion Club Papers is a pun on the name.


Tolkien was 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). 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 hemorrhage 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, England 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 Hills 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 places such as his aunt's farm of Bag End, whose name would be used in his fiction.

Ronald and Hilary Tolkien in 1905 (from Carpenter's Biography)
Ronald and Hilary Tolkien in 1905 (from Carpenter's Biography)

Mabel tutored 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, and while a student there, helped "line the route" for the coronation parade of King George V, being posted just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. He later attended St Phillip's School and Exeter College, Oxford.

His mother converted to Roman Catholicism in 1900, despite vehement protests by her Baptist family. She died of diabetes in 1904, when Tolkien was twelve, at Fern Cottage, Rednal, which they were then renting. For the rest of his life, Tolkien felt 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 Anglicanism and in his writings, which express a Christian mythos and worldview.

During his 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 images 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 1908.

J. R. R. Tolkien in 1911 (from Carpenter's Biography).
J. R. R. Tolkien in 1911 (from Carpenter's Biography).


Tolkien met and fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior, at the age of sixteen. Father Francis forbade him from meeting, talking, or even corresponding with her until he was twenty one. He obeyed this prohibition to the letter.

In 1911, while they were at King Edward's School, Birmingham, Tolkien and three friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith and Christopher Wiseman, formed a semi-secret society which they called "the T.C.B.S.", the initials standing for 'Tea Club and Barrovian Society', alluding to their fondness of drinking Tea in Barrow's Stores near the school and, illegally, in the school library. After leaving school, the members stayed in touch, and in December 1914, they held a 'Council' in London, at Wiseman's home. For Tolkien, the result of this meeting was a strong dedication to writing poetry.

In the summer of 1911, Tolkien went on holiday in Switzerland, a trip that he recollects vividly in a 1968 letter (Letters, no. 306), noting that Bilbo's journey across the Misty Mountains ("including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods") is directly based on his adventures as their party of twelve hiked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, and on to camp in the moraines beyond Mürren. Fifty seven years later, Tolkien remembers his regret at leaving the view of the eternal snows of Jungfrau and Silberhorn ("the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams"). They went across the Kleine Scheidegg on to Grindelwald and across the Grosse Scheidegg to Meiringen. They continued across the Grimsel Pass and through the upper Valais to Brig, and on to the Aletsch glacier and Zermatt.

Tolkien in 1916, wearing his British Army uniform in a photograph from the middle years of WW1 (from Carpenter's Biography)
Tolkien in 1916, wearing his British Army uniform in a photograph from the middle years of WW1 (from Carpenter's Biography)

On the evening of his twenty-first birthday, Tolkien telephoned Edith and asked her to be his bride and she converted to Catholicism for him. They were engaged in Birmingham, in January 1913, and married in Warwick, England on March 22, 1916.

With his 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 eleventh 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 October 27, and was moved back to England on November 8. Many of his fellow servicemen, as well as many of his closest friends, were killed in the war. During his recovery in a cottage in Great Haywood, Staffordshire, England, he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, beginning with The Fall of Gondolin. Throughout 1917 and 1918, his illness kept recurring, but he had reconvalesced enough to do home service at various camps, and was promoted to lieutenant. When he was stationed at Kingston upon Hull, one day he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and Edith began to dance for him in a thick grove of hemlock. The memory of this is wrought into the account of the meeting of Beren and Lúthien, and Tolkien often referred to Edith as his Lúthien.

Leeds, Oxford

Tolkien's 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.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler unearthed a Roman Sleep temple at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire in 1928, with the assistance of a young Professor Tolkien. Some feel this incident may have influenced his later works. It was at Pembroke College where he later wrote the The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings.

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.

The last known photograph of Tolkien, taken 9 October 1972, next to one of his favourite trees (a Pinus nigra) in the Botanic Garden, Oxford.
The last known photograph of Tolkien, taken 9 October 1972, next to one of his favourite trees (a Pinus nigra) in the Botanic Garden, Oxford.

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. This strong dislike of industrialization influenced some parts of his work, such as the forced industrialization of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, where he mentions ugly brick buildings as a negative development.

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.

W.H. Auden was a frequent correspondent and long-time friend (although they rarely saw each other) of Tolkien's. Auden was among the most prominent early critics to praise The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote in a 1971 letter, "I am... very deeply in Auden's debt in recent years. His support of me and interest in my work has been one of my chief encouragements. He gave me very good reviews, notices and letters from the beginning when it was by no means a popular thing to do. He was, in fact, sneered at for it." ("Letters," no. 327).

Retirement, Old Age

During his life in retirement, from 1959 up to his death in 1973, Tolkien increasingly turned into a figure of public attention and literary fame. The sale of his books was so profitable that Tolkien regretted he had not taken early retirement. While at first he wrote enthusiastic answers to reader inquiries, he became more and more suspicious about emerging Tolkien fandom, especially among the Hippy movement in the USA. Already in 1944, he made a somewhat sarcastic comment about a fan letter by a twelve year old American reader ( It's nice to find that little American boys do really still say 'Gee Whiz'., Letters no. 87). In a 1972 letter he deplores having become a cult-figure, but admits that

even the nose of a very modest idol (younger than Chu-Bu and not much older than Sheemish) [idols in a story by Lord Dunsany] cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense! (Letters, no. 336).

Fan attention became so intense that Tolkien had to take his phone number out of the public directory, and eventually he and Edith moved to Bournemouth at the south coast.

Tolkien was awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on March 28, 1972.

Edith Tolkien died on November 29, 1971, at the age of eighty two, and Tolkien had the name Lúthien engraved on the stone at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, and when Tolkien died, twenty one months later at the age of eighty one on September 2, 1973, he was buried in the same grave, with Beren added to his name, so that the engraving now reads: Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889-1971 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973

Posthumously named after Tolkien are the Tolkien Road in Eastbourne, East Sussex, and the asteroid 2675 Tolkien. Tolkien Way in Stoke-On-Trent is named after J.R.R.'s son, Father John Francis Tolkien, who used to be the priest in charge at the nearby Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Angels and St. Peter in Chains.


Cover design for the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
Cover design for the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien

Tolkien's 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 drafts of his mythology. The two most prominent stories, the tales of Beren/Luthien and of Túrin, 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 published. The story of this continuous re-drafting is told in the posthumous series The History of Middle-Earth. From around 1936, he began to extend this framework to include the tale of The Fall of Númenor, which was inspired by the legend of Atlantis, stemming from Plato's Critias.

Tolkien was strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon literature, Germanic and Norse mythologies, Finnish folklore, the Bible, and Greek mythology. The works most often cited as sources for Tolkien's stories include Beowulf, the Kalevala, the Poetic Edda, Plato's Atlantis, Volsunga saga and the Hervarar saga [1]. Tolkien himself acknowledged Homer, Oedipus, and the Kalevala 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 (19541955). 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 were connected to and expanded upon the mythology Tolkien began in that work.

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. In the 2003 "Big Read" survey conducted by the BBC, The Lord of the Rings was found to be the "Nation's Best-loved Book". In 1999 a poll of Amazon.com customers judged The Lord of the Rings to be their favourite book of the millennium. In 2002 Tolkien was voted the ninety second "greatest Briton" in a poll conducted by the BBC and in 2004 he was voted thirty fifth in a list of the Greatest South Africans, the only person to appear in both lists. His popularity is not limited just to the English-speaking world: in a 2004 poll inspired by the UK’s "Big Read" survey, about 250,000 Germans found The Lord of the Rings (Herr der Ringe) to be their favourite work of literature by a wide margin.

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 Poetic 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. In 1980 Christopher Tolkien followed this with a collection of more fragmentary material under the title Unfinished Tales, and in subsequent years he published a massive amount of background material on the creation of Middle-earth in the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth.

All these posthumous works contain unfinished, abandoned, alternative and outright contradictory accounts because they were always a work in progress, and Tolkien only rarely settled on a final, definitive version for any of the stories. There is not even complete consistency to be found 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.

The library of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin preserves many of Tolkien's original manuscripts, notes and letters; other original material survives at Oxford's Bodleian Library. Marquette has the manuscripts and proofs of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, manuscripts of many "lesser" books like the Farmer Giles of Ham, and Tolkien fan material, while the Bodleian holds the Silmarillion papers and Tolkien's academic work.


See also Languages of Middle-earth.

Both Tolkien's 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 Club".

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 tongue" 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 Tolkien's 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 'phonæsthetic' 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.

Tolkien considered languages inseparable from the mythology associated with them, and he consequently took a dim view of auxiliary languages. In 1930 A congress of Esperantists were told as much by him, in his lecture A Secret Vice, "Your language construction will breed a mythology", but by 1956 he concluded that "Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Novial, &c &c are dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legends." (Letters, 180).

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). Other terms he has coined, like legendarium and eucatastrophe are mainly used in connection with Tolkien's work.


Fiction and poetry

See also Poems by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Academic works

Posthumous publications

See Tolkien research for essays and text fragments by Tolkien published in academic publications and forums.

Audio recordings

  • 1967 Poems and Songs of Middle-Earth, Caedmon TC 1231
  • 1975 JRR Tolkien Reads and Sings his The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings, Caedmon TC 1477, TC 1478 (based on an August, 1952 recording by George Sayer)

^ Houghton Mifflin

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:

For story-internal references, see the links sections on Middle-earth and Lord of the Rings.





Derivative art (see also main article):

Further reading

A small selection of books about Tolkien and his works:

  • 1979 O'Neill, Timothy R. The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien and the Archetypes of Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-28208-X.
  • 2002 Birzer, Bradley J. J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books. ISBN 1-932236-20-1. DDC 823.914--dc22. LC PR6039.O32 Z555.
  • 2003 Agøy, Nils Ivar. J.R.R. Tolkien – Mytenes mann.
  • 2003 Chance, Jane (Ed.). Tolkien the Medievalist. London, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-28944-0. DDC 823.912. LC PR6039.
  • 2003 Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 0-664-22610-8. LC PR6039.
  • 2004 Anderson, Douglas A., Michael D. C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger (Eds.). Tolkien Studies, Vol 1.
  • 2004 Chance, Jane (Ed.). Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, a Reader. Louisville: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-813-12301-1.
  • 2005 Caldecott, Stratford. The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings.

See also

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