J.R.R. Tolkien: Life, Major Facts, & Accomplishments
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is remembered for his lasting contribution to academia especially to English literature. The scholar lived through two world wars and created a setting and a language of his own for the tales which have become some of the most celebrated fantasies and literary works of the 19th century, and a profound inspiration to many modern artists.
Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 when his father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, was head of the British bank in Free State. At three, he traveled to England with his mother, Mabel Suffield and brother for a long visit which ended up in a permanent stay.
His father died later in South Africa, and Mabel took the kids to their grandparents in Kings Heath, then later to Hall Green where Mabel raised them until her death in 1904. Father Francis Xavier Morgan was then entrusted to raise Tolkien and his brother the catholic way in Birmingham.
Tolkien met 19-year old Edith Mary Brat when he was 16, and after initial attempts by Francis Xavier to separate the young lovers, they were married for life in 1916 and had four children; the third born, Christopher John, became his literary executor and also worked on most of Tolkien’s unfinished works.
Edith passed on in 1971, and Tolkien in 1973: they were buried in the same grave in Oxford.
By age four, Tolkien could read and write, and his mother taught him Latin and botany at home, while he developed interest in languages and drawing landscapes. He co-invented the Animalic and Nevbosh languages with some cousins, and later constructed his own artificial language called Naffarin.
He studied at King Edward’s School and St. Philip’s School; the former granted him scholarship to return in 1903. A decade later he graduated in English Language and Literature from Exeter College at Oxford.
Tolkien in World Wars
When Britain joined in the World War I in 1914, Tolkien volunteered in the army after he had finished his degree, where he was enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers as a lieutenant.
Inspired by his experiences during the war, he wrote “The Lonely Isle” poem and “The Book of Lost Tales”. He took part in some of the major war events as the Battle of Somme and the Capture of Schwaben Redoubt, Regina Trench and Leipzig Salient.
In 1939, he trained in code-breaking and cryptographies at the Government Code and Cyber School to enable him serve in the World War II but he was denied enlistment later that year.
By the turn of 1920 Tolkien had private lectures for undergraduates, mostly in Lady Margaret Hall and St. Hugh’s Colleges.
After he was relieved of the World War I in 1920, he was employed as an etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, and in the same year, as an academic staff at the University of Leeds, he authored “A Middle English Vocabulary” and collaborated with E. V. Gordon on a translated edition of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.
He was welcomed to Oxford in 1925 as a professor of Anglo-Saxon and as associate professor at Pembroke College. From 1945, he worked at the Melton College as a professor of English Language and Literature, and also as external examiner for NUI Galway, formerly University College of Galway.
“The Jerusalem Bible” version also had Tolkien as translator and consultant mostly for the “Book of Jonah” during his retirement.
Tolkien wrote a collection of mythopoeic stories titled, “Quenta Simarillion”- translated as “The History of the Silmarils” which was edited and published by Christopher Tolkien in 1977 as “The Simarillion”.
After a translation of the epic poem, “Beowulf” in 1926, he followed up with a lecture on his own edition “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics” in the late 1930s which subsequently had important influence on his latter fictions.
Tolkien claimed that he wrote the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on a blank page he found when marking examination papers earlier in 1930, and with this he set to write the juvenile fantasy novel “The Hobbit” (1937) initially to entertain his children, and was published by George Allen & Unwin in 1936.
The success of “The Hobbit” prompted him to write another fantasy, but it turned out to be his most celebrated 3-volume fantasy novel, “The Lord of the Rings” (1954 – 1955). The complete volumes, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” were published in mid-1950 and became one of the bestselling fantasies in the next two decade.
Many of his writings were in unpublished fragments until, after his death, Christopher edited and compiled for publishing from the 1980s. Such compilations included “The Unfinished Tales”, “the History of Middle-Earth” and “The Fall of Gondolin”.
Tolkien created a setting for his writings which he called “Middle-Earth”, inspired by various ancient literatures, archaeology, mythology as well as his personal beliefs and experiences. Many of the locations in his writings bore real-life names such as Bag End, and the general settings like Shire and Mordor were inspired by real life locations and personal encounters.
Why is Tolkien considered the father of fantasy?
Legacy and Honors
“The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Ring” became a major influence on modern fantasy writers, and have been adapted into films and video games set in Middle-earth by such production firms as Amazon, Newline Cinema and Warner Bros.
Again, many of his fictitious creations have famous landmarks such as the Aragorn, Gandalf and Shadowfax mountains in Canada named after them, as well as scientific names typically the names of some species of “Elachista” moths.
In 1972, he was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. That same year, he also received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about him:
What did he write?
His most famous works include “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and “The Silmarillion.”
Why did he write “The Lord of the Rings”?
While there isn’t one singular reason, Tolkien’s love for language, mythology, and his experiences during World War I influenced his creation of Middle-earth and its stories.
Was “The Silmarillion” published during his lifetime?
No, it was edited and published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien in 1977.
What languages did Tolkien create?
Tolkien created multiple languages for his fictional world, including Quenya and Sindarin (Elvish languages), the Dwarvish language Khuzdul, and the Black Speech, among others.
Why did Tolkien create his own languages?
As a philologist, Tolkien had a deep love for languages. He often said that he created Middle-earth to give his languages a home.
What was Tolkien’s profession besides writing?
Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford and later held the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature.
Are there any biographies about Tolkien?
Yes, several. One notable biography is “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography” by Humphrey Carpenter.
Was Tolkien involved in the movie adaptations of his works?
Tolkien sold the film rights to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” in the 1960s, but he died before any major cinematic adaptation was made. While there were earlier adaptations, the well-known films directed by Peter Jackson came much later, long after Tolkien’s death.
Did Tolkien write other books besides his Middle-earth stories?
Yes. Besides his academic works, he also wrote tales like “Farmer Giles of Ham,” “Smith of Wootton Major,” “Roverandom,” and “The Father Christmas Letters,” among others.
What is Tolkien’s legacy?
Tolkien is often credited with popularizing the modern fantasy genre. His works have influenced countless authors, and his books remain beloved around the world. The Tolkien Society and other fan organizations also keep his legacy alive.
Who were Tolkien’s wife and children?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s family was a source of immense love and support for him throughout his life.
- Edith Mary Tolkien (née Bratt): Born on January 21, 1889, Edith was Tolkien’s great love. The two met when Tolkien was 16 and Edith was 19. Despite initial challenges, including opposition from Tolkien’s guardian due to religious differences (Edith was Protestant and Tolkien a devout Catholic), they married on March 22, 1916, after Edith converted to Catholicism. Their relationship inspired Tolkien’s tale of Beren and Lúthien, a central love story in his legendarium. Edith passed away on November 29, 1971.
Children: Tolkien and Edith had four children:
- John Francis Reuel Tolkien: Born on November 16, 1917, John chose a spiritual path and became a Roman Catholic priest. He passed away on January 22, 2003.
- Michael Hilary Reuel Tolkien: Born on October 22, 1920, Michael pursued an academic career, focusing on English and Old Icelandic. He passed away on February 27, 1984.
- Christopher John Reuel Tolkien: Born on November 21, 1924, Christopher played a crucial role in preserving and publishing his father’s posthumous works, notably “The Silmarillion.” He passed away on January 16, 2020 at the age of 95.
- Priscilla Anne Reuel Tolkien: Born on June 18, 1929, Priscilla was Tolkien’s only daughter and last living child. She became a social worker and has been involved in various Tolkien-related societies and activities. She died on 28 February 2022, unmarried, at the age of 92.
Where is Tolkien buried?
Tolkien and his wife Edith are buried together in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford. Their gravestone refers to them as Beren and Lúthien, characters from “The Silmarillion” whose love story was dear to Tolkien.
Did Tolkien and C.S. Lewis know each other?
Yes, they were close friends for many years and were both members of the informal literary group known as the Inklings.