JRR Tolkien biography and books reviewed

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3 January 1892 at Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State in South Africa. His father, Arthur Tolkien, an Englishman, was employed as manager of the local branch of the Bank of Africa.

When he was three years old, Ronald (as he was known to his family) and his younger brother, Hilary, were brought back to England by their mother, Mabel Tolkien. Before they could return to South Africa, their father died there of rheumatic fever, so Mrs Tolkien and the boys remained in England. In 1900, Mabel Tolkien experienced a conversion to the Catholic faith; this event had a lasting effect on Ronald and Catholicism became a motivating force in his life and writings.

As a child, Ronald Tolkien spent considerable time inventing imaginary languages; a hobby which led eventually to the creation of an imaginary world where such tongues might be spoken.

He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and from 1911 to 1915 at Exeter College, Oxford where he read English Language and Literature acquiring and extensive knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. These subjects were to become important not only to his later academic writings and translations but also to the shaping of his own fictional mythologies.

In 1916 he married Edith Bratt and went to serve in the Great War as a Second Lieutenant with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. Towards the end of the year he was sent home from the Somme suffering from trench fever and during his convalescence, began writing his Book of Lost Tales, a collection of stories about his imaginary world that was eventually to be known as The Silmarillion.

After the war, he worked briefly on the Oxford English Dictionary. Then, having spent a year as Professor of English Language at Leeds University, he returned to Oxford in 1925 as Professor of Anglo-Saxon.

The Tolkiens had three sons and a daughter and it was to his children that Ronald first told the story of Mr Bilbo Baggins, an unadventurous hobbit who finds himself having the most surprising adventures. Because the story was such a favourite, he began to write it down around 1930. The publishing house of George Allen and Unwin heard about the story and encouraged Tolkien to complete the book. He did so and it was published in 1937 as The Hobbit or There and Back Again. It was a huge success and the publishers requested a sequel. Tolkien had already offered them The Silmarillion (though it was far from completed) but they were looking for another book 'about the hobbit'. Then, in December 1937, Tolkien wrote to them: 'I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits - "A long expected party". A merry Christmas.'

Thus began the long, erratic process of creating The Lord of the Rings. For the next twelve years, the work moved slowly towards completion: frequently put aside, once or twice nearly abandoned. But encouraged by his publishers, his family and his close friend CS Lewis, Tolkien worked away, writing, re-writing, extending and embellishing the story. As the work developed, it took surprising turns, threw up new and unprecedented conflicts and introduced the simple, vulnerable hobbits into a world of great heroes and mighty powers. It was the very world whose early history Tolkien had recorded in The Silmarillion.

Few writers have undertaken the task of creating a new world with such thoroughness: Middle-earth - the world of The Lord of the Rings - has a geography, language, literature, history, mythology, flora and fauna that it is unique and unparalleled.

The Lord of the Rings was completed in 1949, but publication was further delayed while Tolkien tried to find a publisher who would agree to publish both The Lord of the Rings AND The Silmarillion. When this proved impossible, Tolkien allowed Allen and Unwin to publish The Lord of the Rings on its own. The book was divided into three separately titled volumes (somewhat to Tolkien's annoyance, since the work was not intended as a trilogy). The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were published in 1954 and The Return of the King in 1955.

The book received mixed critical reception: CS Lewis described them as being 'like lightning from a clear sky', while Edmund Wilson called them 'long-winded balderdash', but they soon found an admiring readership. With the publication in America in 1965 of an unauthorised paperback edition, the Tolkien cult began in earnest, proclaiming its admiration by every means from theses to graffiti.

In 1972 Tolkien received the CBE and an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Oxford University. He died the following year on 2 September 1973, aged 81.

Perhaps the best insight into his personal philosophy is to be found in his short story Leaf by Niggle in which an artist spends his life engaged on a painting of a tree which he constantly reworks and retouches. When summoned to take a final journey, he leaves the picture incomplete and with the passing years, the work of a lifetime is neglected and destroyed - save for a small scrap of canvas bearing a single leaf. At the end of his journey, however, the artist comes to a land where his tree, now completed, forms part of a creation more perfect than the artist ever envisaged. The Silmarillion, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien, was finally and posthumously published in 1977.

Tolkien's marriage and the tale of Beren and Luthien

Tolkien met Edith Bratt when he was sixteen years old and she was nineteen. After his mother had died when he was twelve, Tolkien was brought up by Father Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. Father Francis forbade Tolkien from any form of communication with Edith until he was twenty one years of age. He followed the Father's wishes to the letter.

The day before his 21st birthday, he sent a letter to Edith and asked her to marry him. Edith, believing that Tolkien had forgotten her announced that she had already become engaged. They met, renewed their love and were married on the 22nd March 1916.

One day, when out walking in woods, Edith danced for him in a clearing and this inspired the meeting of Beren of Luthien he came to write about. From that day on, Tolkien referred to Edith as his Luthien.

Edith Tolkien died at the age of eighty two on the 29th November 1971, Tolkien had the name Luthien engraved upon her grave stone. He followed her less than two years later and was buried in the same grave, adding Beren to the stone.

Tolkien died on the 2nd September 1973 at the age of 81. His son Christopher has for the last 30 years worked on editing and publishing his father's unfinished work.

The Tolkien Legendarium

Professor Tolkien placed much emphasis on the languages and mythology that existed in his novels. Once the idea that was the Hobbit had been realised, he set about writing the Legendarium that would explain Middle-earth and the events that occurred to form it. These tales or history were published in the Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin goes further into the times before The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion was not a success on it's initial release but in the decades that followed millions of reader have eagerly plunged themselves into the history of Middle-earth and have been rewarded with tales that shaped the land that the love so much.

The history that Tolkien created also had a bearing on his personal life and the tale of Beren and Luthien was also of Tolkien himself and his wife Edith.


A beautifully constructed timeline of J. R. R. Tolkien's life can be found on a web page entitled The Grey Havens - Tolkien: The Tolkien Timeline.

J. R. R. Tolkien awards

JRR Tolkien reviews

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by JRR Tolkien

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun contains 800 narrative verses adapted from Old Norse by Tolkien when he was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University during the 1920s. The text was hidden away for years but has been released by the writer's reclusive 84-year-old son Christopher, who has edited the book and written a foreword from his home in France.

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The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

International Fantasy Award Winner: 1957

The Lord of the Rings is unquestionably one of the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century. J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic, written using a beautifully descriptive narrative, tells an enchanting tale of friendship, love and heroism. Steeped in magic and otherworldliness, this sweeping fantasy is beautiful, perfect and also timeless. A must read for every  fantasy fan.

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The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

One of the best known and best loved fantasy books, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit introduced the reading world to the unforgettable hobbit Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the wizard, and Smaug the dragon. A book that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike it is a tale full of adventure, heroism, song and laughter. Many who read this magical tale will find their inner-hobbit.

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The Children Of Hurin by JRR Tolkien

There are tales of Middle-earth from times long before the Lord of the Rings, and the story told in this book is set in the great country that lay beyond the Grey Havens in the West: lands where Treebeard once walked, but which were drowned in the great cataclysm that ended the First Age of the World.

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The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien

If you've not read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings this may not be for you. But I honestly don't know, it's such a brilliant book, a book about creation really, that maybe it will work for you regardless. But if you have read Tolkien's masterpieces this is a must-read. If you are as captivated by them as most of the reading world is – the Silmarillion will give you the extra information you crave and answer the questions that the two prior books threw up – Who exactly are Gandalf and Sauron? How did the Orcs come into being? Why are the Elves leaving Middle-earth and where are they going?

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Roverandom by JRR Tolkien

Rover should never have bitten the wizard's trousers. His punishment was to be transformed into a toy, and now he is forced to track down the magician so he can be returned to normal. His adventures will take him to the moon and under the sea, introducing him to many fabulous - and dangerous - creatures.

"When J. R. R. Tolkien is mentioned, the average person will have immediate thoughts of dragons, hobbits, fiery mountains, or elves. Rightly so, for he is the author of great works on those topics. It is highly unlikely, however, that the person will have immediately recalled the adventures of a small, impetuous dog. This is a shame, because the author who brought us The Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings trilogy also wrote a charming juvenile novel about just such a thing: Roverandom."

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Tales from the Perilous Realm by JRR Tolkien

Enchanted by a sand-sorcerer, the toy dog Roverandom explores a world filled with strange and fabulous creatures; the fat and unheroic Farmer Giles of Ham is called upon to do battle with the dragon Chrysophylax; Hobbits, princesses, dwarves and trolls partake in the adventures of Tom Bombadil; Smith of Wootton Major journeys to the land of Faery via the magical ingredients of a giant cake; and Niggle the painter sets out to paint the perfect tree.

"Josh S Hill reviews Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham, three acclaimed modern classic fairie tales included in the collection entitled Tales from the Perilous Realm."

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The Art of the Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote HOBBIT he had become an accomplished amateur artist, and he was keen to contribute visually to the work. The finished book contained eight black and white drawings, five colour plates, two maps and his own jacket design. But behind these finished works there also lay a multitude of sketches and drawings, draft maps and runic designs, demonstrating Tolkien's careful planning and artistry. Indeed, every major artist who has illustrated the book subsequently has been influenced by Tolkien's own powerful visual conceptions.THE ART OF THE HOBBITcollects for the first time the complete surviving artwork that helped to underpin such a remarkable work of fiction. Written and edited by Tolkien experts Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, authors of the acclaimed biographyTOLKIEN: ARTIST AND ILLUSTRATORthis book uses brand new digital scans from the Bodleian Library in Oxford to show off Tolkien's paintings in more vivid detail than ever before, making this a worthy and lasting tribute to a largely overlooked side of Tolkien's genius.

"For anyone who has even an inkling of desire to expand their view of Tolkien’s work beyond the most popular fictional titles, The Art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull is an absolute must! It will take pride of place on your shelf in no time, of that I can guarantee."

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The Story of Kullervo by JRR Tolkien

The world first publication of a previously unknown work of fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the powerful story of a doomed young man who is sold into slavery and who swears revenge on the magician who killed his father.

"Taking into account my own Tolkien-bias, The Story of Kullervo was a wonderful read - not only informative by way of the essays on the various subjects, but informative to see some of the seeds of what would one day become Tolkien's Silmarillion."

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The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by JRR Tolkien

Set 'In Britain's land beyond the seas' during the Age of Chivalry, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun tells of a childless Breton Lord and Lady (the 'Aotrou' and 'Itroun' of the title) and the tragedy that befalls them when Aotrou seeks to remedy their situation with the aid of a magic potion obtained from a corrigan, or malevolent fairy. When the potion succeeds and Itroun bears twins, the corrigan returns seeking her fee, and Aotrou is forced to choose between betraying his marriage and losing his life.

"The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun is a wonderful addition to any Tolkien fan's collection, and in a way other editions haven't, expands our knowledge of Tolkien's ability and interests."

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Beren and Luthien by JRR Tolkien

Painstakingly restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts and presented for the first time as a continuous and standalone story, the epic tale of Beren and Lúthien will reunite fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with Elves and Men, Dwarves and Orcs and the rich landscape and creatures unique to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The tale of Beren and Lúthien was, or became, an essential element in the evolution of The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of the First Age of the World conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien. Returning from France and the battle of the Somme at the end of 1916, he wrote the tale in the following year. Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Lúthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was an immortal Elf. Her father, a great Elvish lord, in deep opposition to Beren, imposed on him an impossible task that he must perform before he might wed Lúthien. This is the kernel of the legend; and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Lúthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril. In this book Christopher Tolkien has attempted to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father's own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.

"I recommend this book to those that have read many of Tolkien’s works. If you enjoyed Tolkien’s poetry editions, such as Beowulf a Translation and a Commentary and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, along with the books set in middle-earth then this will undoubtedly be for you. However, readers who are expecting to just enjoy a prose story will, ultimately, be disappointed with the content here."

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The Fall of Arthur by JRR Tolkien

"For fans of Tolkien, for fans of literature, for fans of Arthurian Tradition, and for those just wanting to get an idea of alliterative verse and historical narratives, The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien is a tremendous book. The primary story presented in the alliterative poem is itself worth the price of entry – to enjoy the beautiful style of writing employed to tell what is a captivating story. Even if you don’t read the accompanying essays, The Fall of Arthur is absolutely worth your time and money."

The world first publication of a previously unknown work by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the extraordinary story of the final days of England’s legendary hero, King Arthur.

The Fall of Arthur, the only venture by J.R.R. Tolkien into the legends of Arthur King of Britain, may well be regarded as his finest and most skilful achievement in the use of the Old English alliterative metre, in which he brought to his transforming perceptions of the old narratives a pervasive sense of the grave and fateful nature of all that is told: of Arthur’s expedition overseas into distant heathen lands, of Guinevere’s flight from Camelot, of the great sea-battle on Arthur’s return to Britain, in the portrait of the traitor Mordred, in the tormented doubts of Lancelot in his French castle.

Unhappily, The Fall of Arthur was one of several long narrative poems that he abandoned in that period. In this case he evidently began it in the earlier nineteen-thirties, and it was sufficiently advanced for him to send it to a very perceptive friend who read it with great enthusiasm at the end of 1934 and urgently pressed him ‘You simply must finish it!’ But in vain: he abandoned it, at some date unknown, though there is some evidence that it may have been in 1937, the year of the publication of The Hobbit and the first stirrings of The Lord of the Rings. Years later, in a letter of 1955, he said that ‘he hoped to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur’; but that day never came.

Associated with the text of the poem, however, are many manuscript pages: a great quantity of drafting and experimentation in verse, in which the strange evolution of the poem’s structure is revealed, together with narrative synopses and very significant if tantalising notes. In these latter can be discerned clear if mysterious associations of the Arthurian conclusion with The Silmarillion, and the bitter ending of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, which was never written.

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The Fall of Gondolin by JRR Tolkien

In the Tale of The Fall of Gondolin are two of the greatest powers in the world. There is Morgoth of the uttermost evil, unseen in this story but ruling over a vast military power from his fortress of Angband. Deeply opposed to Morgoth is Ulmo, second in might only to Manwë, chief of the Valar.

Central to this enmity of the gods is the city of Gondolin, beautiful but undiscoverable. It was built and peopled by Noldorin Elves who, when they dwelt in Valinor, the land of the gods, rebelled against their rule and fled to Middle-earth. Turgon King of Gondolin is hated and feared above all his enemies by Morgoth, who seeks in vain to discover the marvellously hidden city, while the gods in Valinor in heated debate largely refuse to intervene in support of Ulmo's desires and designs.

Into this world comes Tuor, cousin of Túrin, the instrument of Ulmo's designs. Guided unseen by him Tuor sets out from the land of his birth on the fearful journey to Gondolin, and in one of the most arresting moments in the history of Middle-earth the sea-god himself appears to him, rising out of the ocean in the midst of a storm. In Gondolin he becomes great; he is wedded to Idril, Turgon's daughter, and their son is Eärendel, whose birth and profound importance in days to come is foreseen by Ulmo.

At last comes the terrible ending. Morgoth learns through an act of supreme treachery all that he needs to mount a devastating attack on the city, with Balrogs and dragons and numberless Orcs. After a minutely observed account of the fall of Gondolin, the tale ends with the escape of Tuor and Idril, with the child Eärendel, looking back from a cleft in the mountains as they flee southward, at the blazing wreckage of their city. They were journeying into a new story, the Tale of Eärendel, which Tolkien never wrote, but which is sketched out in this book from other sources.

Following his presentation of Beren and Lúthien Christopher Tolkien has used the same 'history in sequence' mode in the writing of this edition of The Fall of Gondolin. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, it was ‘the first real story of this imaginary world’ and, together with Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin, he regarded it as one of the three 'Great Tales' of the Elder Days.

"As a huge Tolkien enthusiast, I know I speak for many other readers, when I extend my undying thanks to Christopher Tolkien for allowing his father’s unfinished work to be published. Although this work is far from a shining jewel, I can imagine how fantastic this would have been as I read the segments (and various drafts) of the story: I can see what this would have been. And, as ever, the artwork of Alan Lee brings the words to life. However, this is the very last we will see of it. Christopher Tolkien explicitly states that this is the final piece (and that he will not change his mind this time.) The destruction of a fine city is an appropriate last glimpse of such a vast world, as the walls of Gondolin crumble and the tower collapses, it marks the very end." Sean Barrs, Fantasy Book Review

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Sauron Defeated by JRR Tolkien

In the first section of Sauron Defeated Christopher Tolkien completes his fascinating study of The Lord of the Rings. Beginning with Sam’s rescue of Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and giving a very different account of the Scouring of the Shire, this section ends with versions of the hitherto unpublished Epilogue, in which, years after the departure of Bilbo and Frodo from the Grey Havens, Sam attempts to answer his children’s questions.

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