John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's early life was marked by loss. Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892, Tolkien lost his father at age four. Life in industrial Birmingham, England, contrasted dramatically with his exotic birthplace. When the family converted to Catholicism, a faith that Tolkien followed throughout his life, relationships with his extended family suffered. When he was twelve, his mother died of diabetes, at the time an untreatable illness. At sixteen, Tolkien met Edith Bratt, a fellow orphan who would later become his wife, but his guardian, Father Francis Morgan, ordered him not to see her until his twenty-first birthday.
Tolkien earned a scholarship to Oxford University and enrolled in 1911, where he studied English language and literature. When he turned 21 in 1913, Tolkien contacted Edith and renewed their romance. In 1915, he completed his studies with a First, the highest level of achievement, and on March 22, 1916, he and Edith were married. War had broken out on the continent while Tolkien was at Oxford, and after graduation, he took up his commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He survived the Battle of the Somme, one of the harshest battles of World War I, and returned to England suffering from trench fever. Millions of young men, including many of Tolkien's boyhood friends, did not come home.
A Scholar's Life
Tolkien's first job after the war was researching word origins for the Oxford English Dictionary. He soon found a position as Reader of English language at the University of Leeds in 1920, and in 1924, the university appointed him Professor. In 1925, he returned to Oxford University as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the remarkably young age of 33. Tolkien was an excellent teacher, and his dramatic lectures on Beowulf were legendary. His academic writing includes a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and his landmark essays "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Fairy-Stories." In 1945, he became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, and he continued in that position until his retirement.
Tolkien and his wife, Edith, had four children: sons John, Michael, and Christopher and daughter Priscilla, born between 1917 and 1929. The family lived quietly in Oxford while Tolkien pursued his academic studies and personal writing. John eventually entered the priesthood. Michael and Christopher both served in World War II, later becoming educators, and Priscilla was a social worker. Christopher, who followed in his father's footsteps as a university lecturer, also oversees Tolkien's literary estate and has edited many volumes of his father's notes.
Tolkien also enjoyed an active social life with his colleagues at the university. He became a founding member of the all-male club known as the Inklings, who met frequently to talk, drink beer at the local taverns, and discuss writing. Members included many authors, most famously C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia. For many years, they convened at least once a week to read both their favorite literature and their own works in progress. This group became the first critical audience for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Fantasy and Fame
From an early age, Tolkien pursued an active life of the imagination. In childhood, he and his brother Hilary would play at vanquishing evil dragons, and Tolkien added to his early mastery of Greek, Latin, Gothic, and Finnish, a talent for inventing languages of his own. As a young man, he tried his hand at poetry, going so far as to publish a few pieces, but by the time he returned from the War, he had begun an ambitious collection of loosely connected stories, poems, and songs that told the history and legends of the elves, eventually known as The Silmarillion. After his children were born, he began enthusiastically telling them stories, many of which he wrote down. For many years, he carefully composed and illustrated letters for his children from Father Christmas, detailing life and adventures in the frozen north.
Then, while he was grading exam papers during the summer holiday to supplement his professor's salary, Tolkien wrote on a fortuitously blank page what became one of the most well-known opening sentences in English literature: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." In trying to answer, for himself, the question of what exactly a hobbit might be, Tolkien composed the delightful story of Bilbo Baggins, a stay-at-home little hobbit who goes off on an adventure and comes back with both greater maturity and a magic ring. In 1937, the story was published by Allen and Unwin as The Hobbit.
Much to Tolkien's surprise, The Hobbit became a successful children's book, receiving favorable reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Naturally, the publisher requested a follow up. To their dismay, it took Tolkien seventeen years to produce the requested sequel (with another world war intervening), and the result was not another delightful children's story, but an epic saga of heroic struggle against evil that was over a thousand pages long. Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955. The books received mixed reviews, ranging from the glowing words of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden to a complete dismissal by Edmund Wilson.
The books sold well, but neither the publisher nor the professor was prepared for the cultural phenomenon that The Lord of the Rings became. When a pirated Ace paperback edition in 1965 propelled the novels to cult status, the 73-year-old Tolkien found himself in the remarkable position of being both a retired Oxford professor and a hero of the counterculture. Until his death on September 2, 1973, Tolkien remained both flattered and puzzled by the adulation of his fans.