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.
THE TOLKIEN TIMELINE
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
The History of The Lord of the Rings: Part 4 written 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 To [...]
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