John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892 in the Orange Free State of Africa. His father was a banker and his mother, a missionary. He was born frail and sickly, and a few years later, his brother was born with the same condition. Consequently, their mother took them to live in England, hoping that the climate would better suite them. They moved to Sarehole, a rural village outside of Birmingham where Tolkien would live until 1903. In 1896, Arthur, his father died of pneumonia that went untreated, before they could meet again.
Tolkien's mother taught him the academic basics (Latin, Greek, mathematics, and Romantic literature). However, Tolkien was more interested in inventing languages than learning them, and made several of his own at a very young age. However, he kept none of them and therefore, never found their way into The Lord of the Rings. Unlike one would suspect, Tolkien was a lazy student and later a lazy professor, but nonetheless he was quite productive. His mother also introduced him to fantasy, or Faerie-stories as the English called them, his favorite being Mallory's account of King Arthur's quest.
In 1903 at the age of twelve, Tolkien enrolled at King Edward VI School in Birmingham and later his brother joined him. Here he was introduced to new languages and literature which took time away from studying the Classics (Latin and Greek), which were necessary to get into Cambridge or Oxford. Most importantly, this is where he met his future wife, Edith Mary, who attended the girls' school. As the story goes, she would send to food to to the Tolkiens with the help of a housekeeper, who would sneak leftover food from the kitchens and carry it to her. Once she got the "contraband" she would send it to them via lift outside of her window, which was directly above theirs. Finally they were caught, and she was sent away with the provision that they would not write, talk, or visit one another again.
Upon barely grasping an exhibition (scholarship) to Exeter College (one of the Oxford University colleges), Tolkien began to study the English languages instead of the Classics. His choice was not a popular one at the time and consisted of four years rather than the standard three, but his love of language inspired him to stay the extra year. In 1915, he received a first class honors degree in English Language and Literature. His first preminition was to marry Edith Mary, since they were adults by then, but instead, joined the military to fight in World War I.
After enlisting, he was appointed temporary 2nd lieutenant of the 13th Reserve Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers on July 7, 1915. He was then sent to France and stationed along the Somme river. Before he left, he finally married Edith Mary on March 22, 1916. Despite the false hopes the British government instilled in the soldiers, they were not prepared for the Battle of the Somme. Although it was a complete disaster, Tolkien survived, but did become seriously ill with Trench Fever (similar to typhus fever). He stayed in a military hospital until 1917 and while there, began work on The Silmarillion. The same year his son, John, was born. On July 16, 1919 he was discharged from the military and moved to Oxford.
The 1920's held several important events in Tolkien's life, the first being the birth of his second son, Michael in 1920. He also began to receive position after position as a philologist (a person who studies languages), the first being the Reader of English language at the University of Leeds, and then the Professor of English Language in 1924. On October 1, 1925 he returned to Oxford as Professor of Anglo-Saxon, and in 1926 he become a fellow of Pembroke college. Tolkien's students adored him because he took the time to help them with papers and other studies, but most of all because he encouraged them in every conceiveable way. Ironically, most claim that he was an awful lecturer, though, because he spoke too fast, too low, and his words were extremely unclear. To top it off, he never bothered to ellaborate on his subject because he assumed the person he was speaking to knew what he was talking about - everything from Beowulf to Elvish. Later in the only documentary he ever appeared in, the producer shot hours worth of film and the finished show was only twenty minutes since most of his speech was
During his lifetime, Tolkien joined only two literary clubs: The Coalbiters and the Inklings. Both were composed of scholarly men who would meet in private rooms or in the back of a pub - the Inklings met usually at the "Eagle and Child" also known as "The Bird and Baby." These two clubs proved to be the source of encouragement and constructive criticism for the works of C.S. Lewis, author of The Screwtape Letters and Surprised by Joy; as well as J.R.R. Tolkien. Characteristically, Tolkien ignored criticism altogether and did not consider changing his texts at their suggestions. The Coalbiters heard excerpts from The Silmarillion and sections from the first draft of The Hobbit. The Inkilings, however, were a slighlty larger group that eventually consisted of some members of the Coalbiters, but was not formed from or by it. The inklings met in the same style, but proved to be more prolific with authors like Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Hugo Dyson. Some of the songs and inn scenes in The Lord of the Rings originated at club meetings, where the men would sit around a large table in a dark room with a fire, smoking pipes, and singing ludicrous songs - many made up by Tolkien were later given credit to Bilbo and Frodo.
The Hobbit was begun in 1928 while Tolkien was examining papers written by students seeking acceptance into the University. According to Tolkien, "One of the candidates mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it - which is probably the best thing that can happen to an examiner - and I wrote on it 'In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit' names always generate a story in my mind and eventually I thought I should find out what hobbits were like" and so The Hobbit was born. It was completed sometime in the early thirties, but was not published until 1938. Also, the Silmarillion was completed in its first draft and first submitted for publishing in 1937, but was rejected because of its scholarly nature and its concern with a non-existant language and mythology. However, later on, the Lord of the Rings proved the existence of his mythology and once the book was completed by Christopher Tolkien, after his father's death, it was finally put into print in 1977.
In 1936, Tolkien received a Leverhume Fellowship, a grant that entitled him to choose a topic to research for two years. Not surprisingly, he chose Beowulf. Later that year he delivered a famous paper entitled "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" in which he criticized critics who let their guesses and opinions of the meaning of the story cover up the true purpose of it. He claimed that they bury their nose so deep in the underlying meaning that they miss it completely; forget that, after all it is a story. This paper can be found in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (Notre Dame Press, 1963) and won him fame as a philologist. In 1938, he delivered another famous paper, this one to Charles Williams in 1938, entitled "On Faerie-Stories." This particular paper is significant because it reveals Tolkien's philosophy of how mythologies are written, incorporating good, evil, cosmology,geography, and language into a form that we find believable. We no longer consider Greek mythology credible because we know through science what the Greeks and Romans thought they knew through gods. For example, we know that lightning comes from energy created by the clashing of hot and cold air masses, whereas the Greeks knew it came from Zeus. Yet, we all find Middle Earth credible if we can stay submerged in The Lord of the Rings for days, months, weeks, and/or years. Tolkien also stresses that faerie-stories provide us with an escape from the world of machines, cogs, and wheels, so that we may venture into a purer land where good and evil take definite shape; where the good, through many trials and losses, finally overcomes the evil - and not succumbs to it.
In 1942, Tolkien became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and resigned his former positions. Two of his larger works were published in addition to many poems in the 1940's: "Farmer Giles of Ham" which was based on two millers whom he rembered from his years in Sarehole, and "On Faerie-stories" which can be found in Essays Delivered to Charles Williams.
C.S. Lewis said, before he died, that he had seen the first manuscripts of the Lord of the Rings at Tolkien's house in 1937. Over the next fourteen years Tolkien would read excerpts of it to the Inklings, who proved more as an encouragement than critique. His duties as a professor were his main priorities, and then came his duties as an author, and so the book was long in the writing. It was finally completed in 1949. Tolkien finally submitted The Lord of the Rings for publishing in 1950, but was rejected by George Allen and Unwin, his English publisher. However their decision was reversed, and was finally printed in 1954. Originally, his three books were designed as one, but to cut down on printing costs and a projected loss of revenue, the publisher divided it up into three: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. This would have worked well, except after the issuing of the first book they were not prepared for the unexpected demand for the next two. To satisfy customer demands, The Two Towers and The Return of the King were printed twice as fast as originally planned. The books
picked up even more popularity in the 1960's and continue to sell at a remarkable rate.
In 1954, Tolkien received an honorary Doctor of Letters by University College in Doublin and the University of Liege in Belgium, as well as being elected vice-president of the Philological Society of Great Britain and awarded an honorary membership in the Icelandic Scoiety. In 1957, he was given honorary degrees from the Harvard and Marquette Universities. Also in that year, he won the award for best fantasy novel of 1956 at the World Science Fiction Convention, and in 1958 he won an honorary fellowship from Merton College.
Old age finally began to overtake him by the late 1960's. His wife had been chronically ill for several years and was barely able to receive guests or even her own children and grand children. One major element that accompanied fame was the attention it brought. At first it was flattering, but eventually became annoying. By the time The Lord of the Rings reached its peak popularity, Tolkien resented the late-night phone calls, swarms of univited visitors, tons of mail, and the loss of privacy that began to plague him and his family. In 1968, he and his wife moved to Bournemouth, using an alias to protect their privacy. Edith Mary died on November 2, 1971 leaving Tolkien alone since his children were spread all over England. To combat lonliness, he moved to a flat owned by Oxford University. He lived there happily until he died on September 2, 1973 at 81. However, just before he died, he was awarded membership in the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth, one of England's most prestigious awards.
© Grotta-Kurska, Daniel. J.R.R.Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth; Warner Bros. Inc., New York: 1976
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