Originally published on JRR Tolkien Examiner on 1/3/2010.
JRR Tolkien circa 1972 via Wikimedia. See below.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE, Oxford University professor, and author of the globally beloved fantasy epics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was born eleventy-eight years ago today, on January 3rd, 1892, in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, a British colony and a province of the Union of South Africa.
(In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins celebrates his “eleventy-first,” or 111th birthday. Since Tolkien’s own eleventy-first birthday in 2003, fans have counted his birthdays according to the halfling neologism.)
After the death of their father when Tolkien was three, the boy and his younger brother Hilary were raised by their mother in England’s West Midlands. The Worcestershire towns and villages of Tolkien’s childhood served as the inspiration for The Shire, including his aunt’s farm at Bag End. Mabel Tolkien converted herself and her sons to Roman Catholicism in 1900, and Tolkien was a committed Catholic his entire life. After her death in 1904 from diabetes, Mabel’s sons were cared for by Francis Xavier Morgan, a Catholic priest.
At the age of 16 Tolkien met 19-year-old Edith Mary Bratt; Morgan forbade him to marry her because she was a Protestant. Tolkien obeyed Morgan, but reinitiated contact with Bratt on his 21st birthday. She broke off her pre-existing wedding engagement, converted to Catholicism, and married Tolkien in 1916. Tolkien fathered four children with Edith Tolkien between 1917 and 1929: John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla.
Tolkien graduated from Exeter College, Oxford in 1915. But just after his marriage, he went to fight in the Great War. He contracted trench fever in France, and spent the rest of the war in England, in and out of hospitals. During his recovery he began writing The Book of Lost Tales, which would later evolve into The Silmarillion.
After the war, Tolkien went to work as an editor on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. By 1924, he was a professor at the University of Leeds, where he produced a scholarly edition of the 14th century Chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with fellow philologist E. V. Gordon.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Tolkien was a key member of The Inklings, a discussion group of prominent literary figures, largely Oxford academics. The Inklings were often the first to hear readings of Tolkien’s latest work on The Silmarillion. Through the Inklings, Tolkien befriended Irish Oxford professor and atheist CS Lewis, and helped convert Lewis to Christianity. Their close friendship eventually soured and ended, in part because Tolkien resented the convert Lewis’ ambitions as a leading Christian apologist; and he felt Lewis’ Narnia stories were inferior to and plagiaristic of his own Middle-earth tales.
In 1932 Tolkien finished work on The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, a children’s story composed for his own sons, which was set vaguely within the same world as The Silmarillion, featuring at least one character from the latter (Elrond Halfelven). It was published in 1937 to immediate success, and publisher Stanley Unwin asked for a sequel that would take Tolkien 17 years to write.
In 1936, Tolkien gave a seminal lecture that legitimized the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf as a subject of scholarly study (read my review of Beowulf here). In 1945, he became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford, where he remained until his retirement in 1959.
Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, the 1,137-page high-fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings, was published as three volumes in 1954 and ’55. It met with mixed reviews, but began its rise to enormous popularity in the 1960s, largely through unauthorized paperback editions in the United States.
After his retirement, Tolkien became increasingly reclusive, due to his rising fame, his declining health, and his desire to work on a final, definitive version of The Silmarillion that would be suitable for publication. Edith passed away in 1971, and Tolkien was was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972.
Tolkien died September 2nd, 1973, at age 81, and was buried next to Edith. On their tombstone they are referred to as Beren and Lúthien, characters from The Silmarillion.
Tolkien left instructions to his son Christopher to finish editing The Silmarillion for publication; it was released in 1977. Christopher Tolkien has since edited and published thousands of pages of his father’s writings, most recently The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.