J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biographical Sketch
By David Doughan MBE
Who was Tolkien?
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was a major scholar of the English language, specialising in Old and Middle English. Twice Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford, he also wrote a number of stories, including most famously The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), which are set in a pre-historic era in an invented version of our world which he called by the Middle English name of Middle-earth. This was peopled by Men (and women), Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs (or Goblins) and of course Hobbits. He has regularly been condemned by the Eng. Lit. establishment, with honourable exceptions, but loved by literally millions of readers worldwide.
In the 1960s he was taken up by many members of the nascent “counter-culture” largely because of his concern with environmental issues. In 1997 he came top of three British polls, organised respectively by Channel 4 / Waterstone’s, the Folio Society, and SFX, the UK’s leading science fiction media magazine, amongst discerning readers asked to vote for the greatest book of the 20th century. Please note also that his name is spelt Tolkien (there is no “Tolkein”).
Childhood and Youth
The name “Tolkien” (pron.: Tol-keen; equal stress on both syllables) was believed by the family (including Tolkien himself) to be of German origin; Toll-kühn: foolishly brave, or stupidly clever—hence the pseudonym “Oxymore” which he occasionally used; however, this quite probably was a German rationalisation of an originally Baltic Tolkyn, or Tolkīn. In any case, his great-great grandfather John (Johann) Benjamin Tolkien came to Britain with his brother Daniel from Gdańsk in about 1772 and rapidly became thoroughly Anglicised. Certainly his father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, considered himself nothing if not English. Arthur was a bank clerk, and went to South Africa in the 1890s for better prospects of promotion. There he was joined by his bride, Mabel Suffield, whose family were not only English through and through, but West Midlands since time immemorial. So John Ronald (“Ronald” to family and early friends) was born in Bloemfontein, S.A., on 3 January 1892. His memories of Africa were slight but vivid, including a scary encounter with a large hairy spider, and influenced his later writing to some extent; slight, because on 15 February 1896 his father died, and he, his mother and his younger brother Hilary returned to England—or more particularly, the West Midlands.
The West Midlands in Tolkien’s childhood were a complex mixture of the grimly industrial Birmingham conurbation, and the quintessentially rural stereotype of England, Worcestershire and surrounding areas: Severn country, the land of the composers Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Gurney, and more distantly the poet A. E. Housman (it is also just across the border from Wales). Tolkien’s life was split between these two: the then very rural hamlet of Sarehole, with its mill, just south of Birmingham; and darkly urban Birmingham itself, where he was eventually sent to King Edward’s School. By then the family had moved to King’s Heath, where the house backed onto a railway line—young Ronald’s developing linguistic imagination was engaged by the sight of coal trucks going to and from South Wales bearing destinations like” Nantyglo”,” Penrhiwceiber” and “Senghenydd”.
Then they moved to the somewhat more pleasant Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston. However, in the meantime, something of profound significance had occurred, which estranged Mabel and her children from both sides of the family: in 1900, together with her sister May, she was received into the Roman Catholic Church. From then on, both Ronald and Hilary were brought up in the faith of Pio Nono, and remained devout Catholics throughout their lives. The parish priest who visited the family regularly was the half-Spanish half-Welsh Father Francis Morgan.
Tolkien family life was generally lived on the genteel side of poverty. However, the situation worsened in 1904, when Mabel Tolkien was diagnosed as having diabetes, usually fatal in those pre-insulin days. She died on 14 November of that year leaving the two orphaned boys effectively destitute. At this point Father Francis took over, and made sure of the boys’ material as well as spiritual welfare, although in the short term they were boarded with an unsympathetic aunt-by-marriage, Beatrice Suffield, and then with a Mrs Faulkner.
By this time Ronald was already showing remarkable linguistic gifts. He had mastered the Latin and Greek which was the staple fare of an arts education at that time, and was becoming more than competent in a number of other languages, both modern and ancient, notably Gothic, and later Finnish. He was already busy making up his own languages, purely for fun. He had also made a number of close friends at King Edward’s; in his later years at school they met regularly after hours as the “T. C. B. S.” (Tea Club, Barrovian Society, named after their meeting place at the Barrow Stores) and they continued to correspond closely and exchange and criticise each other’s literary work until 1916.
However, another complication had arisen. Amongst the lodgers at Mrs Faulkner’s boarding house was a young woman called Edith Bratt. When Ronald was 16, and she 19, they struck up a friendship, which gradually deepened. Eventually Father Francis took a hand, and forbade Ronald to see or even correspond with Edith for three years, until he was 21. Ronald stoically obeyed this injunction to the letter. In the summer of 1911, he was invited to join a party on a walking holiday in Switzerland, which may have inspired his descriptions of the Misty Mountains, and of Rivendell. In the autumn of that year he went up to Exeter College, Oxford where he stayed, immersing himself in the Classics, Old English, the Germanic languages (especially Gothic), Welsh and Finnish, until 1913, when he swiftly though not without difficulty picked up the threads of his relationship with Edith. He then obtained a disappointing second class degree in Honour Moderations, the “midway” stage of a 4-year Oxford “Greats” (i.e. Classics) course, although with an “alpha plus” in philology. As a result of this he changed his school from Classics to the more congenial English Language and Literature. One of the poems he discovered in the course of his Old English studies was the Crist of Cynewulf—he was amazed especially by the cryptic couplet:
Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended
Which translates as:
Hail Earendel brightest of angels,
over Middle Earth sent to men.
(“Middangeard” was an ancient expression for the everyday world between Heaven above and Hell below.)
This inspired some of his very early and incohate attempts at realising a world of ancient beauty in his versifying.
In the summer of 1913 he took a job as tutor and escort to two Mexican boys in Dinard, France, a job which ended in tragedy. Though no fault of Ronald’s, it did nothing to counter his apparent predisposition against France and things French.
Meanwhile the relationship with Edith was going more smoothly. She converted to Catholicism and moved to Warwick, which with its spectacular castle and beautiful surrounding countryside made a great impression on Ronald. However, as the pair were becoming ever closer, the nations were striving ever more furiously together, and war eventually broke out in August 1914.
War, Lost Tales and Academia
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Tolkien did not rush to join up immediately on the outbreak of war, but returned to Oxford, where he worked hard and finally achieved a first-class degree in June 1915. At this time he was also working on various poetic attempts, and on his invented languages, especially one that he came to call Qenya [sic], which was heavily influenced by Finnish—but he still felt the lack of a connecting thread to bring his vivid but disparate imaginings together. Tolkien finally enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers whilst working on ideas of Earendel [sic] the Mariner, who became a star, and his journeyings. For many months Tolkien was kept in boring suspense in England, mainly in Staffordshire. Finally it appeared that he must soon embark for France, and he and Edith married in Warwick on 22 March 1916.
Eventually he was indeed sent to active duty on the Western Front, just in time for the Somme offensive. After four months in and out of the trenches, he succumbed to “trench fever”, a form of typhus-like infection common in the insanitary conditions, and in early November was sent back to England, where he spent the next month in hospital in Birmingham. By Christmas he had recovered sufficiently to stay with Edith at Great Haywood in Staffordshire.
During these last few months, all but one of his close friends of the “T. C. B. S.” had been killed in action. Partly as an act of piety to their memory, but also stirred by reaction against his war experiences, he had already begun to put his stories into shape, “… in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire” [Letters 66]. This ordering of his imagination developed into the Book of Lost Tales (not published in his lifetime), in which most of the major stories of the Silmarillion appear in their first form: tales of the Elves and the “Gnomes”, (i. e. Deep Elves, the later Noldor), with their languages Qenya and Goldogrin. Here are found the first recorded versions of the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond, and the tales of Túrin and of Beren and Lúthien.
Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, although periods of remission enabled him to do home service at various camps sufficiently well to be promoted to lieutenant. It was when he was stationed in the Hull area that he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and there in a grove thick with hemlock Edith danced for him. This was the inspiration for the tale of Beren and Lúthien, a recurrent theme in his “Legendarium”. He came to think of Edith as “Lúthien” and himself as “Beren”. Their first son, John Francis Reuel (later Father John Tolkien) had already been born on 16 November 1917.
When the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, Tolkien had already been putting out feelers to obtain academic employment, and by the time he was demobilised he had been appointed Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (the “Oxford English Dictionary”), then in preparation. While doing the serious philological work involved in this, he also gave one of his Lost Tales its first public airing—he read The Fall of Gondolin to the Exeter College Essay Club, where it was well received by an audience which included Neville Coghill and Hugo Dyson, two future “Inklings”. However, Tolkien did not stay in this job for long. In the summer of 1920 he applied for the quite senior post of Reader (approximately, Associate Professor) in English Language at the University of Leeds, and to his surprise was appointed.
At Leeds as well as teaching he collaborated with E. V. Gordon on the famous edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and continued writing and refining The Book of Lost Tales and his invented “Elvish” languages. In addition, he and Gordon founded a “Viking Club” for undergraduates devoted mainly to reading Old Norse sagas and drinking beer. It was for this club that he and Gordon originally wrote their Songs for the Philologists, a mixture of traditional songs and original verses translated into Old English, Old Norse and Gothic to fit traditional English tunes. Leeds also saw the birth of two more sons: Michael Hilary Reuel in October 1920, and Christopher Reuel in 1924. Then in 1925 the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford fell vacant; Tolkien successfully applied for the post.
Professor Tolkien, The Inklings and Hobbits
In a sense, in returning to Oxford as a Professor, Tolkien had come home. Although he had few illusions about the academic life as a haven of unworldly scholarship (see for example Letters 250), he was nevertheless by temperament a don’s don, and fitted extremely well into the largely male world of teaching, research, the comradely exchange of ideas and occasional publication. In fact, his academic publication record is very sparse, something that would have been frowned upon in these days of quantitative personnel evaluation.
However, his rare scholarly publications were often extremely influential, most notably his lecture “Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics”. His seemingly almost throwaway comments have sometimes helped to transform the understanding of a particular field—for example, in his essay on “English and Welsh”, with its explanation of the origins of the term “Welsh” and its references to phonaesthetics (both these pieces are collected in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, currently in print). His academic life was otherwise largely unremarkable. In 1945 he changed his chair to the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature, which he retained until his retirement in 1959. Apart from all the above, he taught undergraduates, and played an important but unexceptional part in academic politics and administration.
His family life was equally straightforward. Edith bore their last child and only daughter, Priscilla, in 1929. Tolkien got into the habit of writing the children annual illustrated letters as if from Santa Claus, and a selection of these was published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters. He also told them numerous bedtime stories, of which more anon. In adulthood John entered the priesthood, Michael and Christopher both saw war service in the Royal Air Force. Afterwards Michael became a schoolmaster and Christopher a university lecturer, and Priscilla became a social worker. They lived quietly in North Oxford, and later Ronald and Edith lived in the suburb of Headington.
However, Tolkien’s social life was far from unremarkable. He soon became one of the founder members of a loose grouping of Oxford friends (by no means all at the University) with similar interests, known as “The Inklings”. The origins of the name were purely facetious—it had to do with writing, and sounded mildly Anglo-Saxon; there was no evidence that members of the group claimed to have an “inkling” of the Divine Nature, as is sometimes suggested. Other prominent members included the above—mentioned Messrs Coghill and Dyson, as well as Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and above all C. S. Lewis, who became one of Tolkien’s closest friends, and for whose return to Christianity Tolkien was at least partly responsible. The Inklings regularly met for conversation, drink, and frequent reading from their work-in-progress.
Meanwhile Tolkien continued developing his mythology and languages. As mentioned above, he told his children stories, some of which he developed into those published posthumously as Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, etc. However, according to his own account, one day when he was engaged in the soul-destroying task of marking examination papers, he discovered that one candidate had left one page of an answer-book blank. On this page, moved by who knows what anarchic daemon, he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit“.
In typical Tolkien fashion, he then decided he needed to find out what a Hobbit was, what sort of a hole it lived in, why it lived in a hole, etc. From this investigation grew a tale that he told to his younger children, and even passed round. In 1936 an incomplete typescript of it came into the hands of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishing firm of George Allen and Unwin (merged in 1990 with HarperCollins).
She asked Tolkien to finish it, and presented the complete story to Stanley Unwin, the then Chairman of the firm. He tried it out on his 10-year old son Rayner, who wrote an approving report, and it was published as The Hobbit in 1937. It immediately scored a success, and has not been out of children’s recommended reading lists ever since. It was so successful that Stanley Unwin asked if he had any more similar material available for publication.
By this time Tolkien had begun to make his Legendarium into what he believed to be a more presentable state, and as he later noted, hints of it had already made their way into The Hobbit. He was now calling the full account Quenta Silmarillion, or Silmarillion for short. He presented some of his “completed” tales to Unwin, who sent them to his reader. The reader’s reaction was mixed: dislike of the poetry and praise for the prose (the material was the story of Beren and Lúthien) but the overall decision at the time was that these were not commercially publishable. Unwin tactfully relayed this message to Tolkien, but asked him again if he was willing to write a sequel to The Hobbit. Tolkien was disappointed at the apparent failure of The Silmarillion, but agreed to take up the challenge of “The New Hobbit”.
This soon developed into something much more than a children’s story; for the highly complex 16-year history of what became The Lord of the Rings consult the works listed below. Suffice it to say that the now adult Rayner Unwin was deeply involved in the later stages of this opus, dealing magnificently with a dilatory and temperamental author who, at one stage, was offering the whole work to a commercial rival (which rapidly backed off when the scale and nature of the package became apparent). It is thanks to Rayner Unwin’s advocacy that we owe the fact that this book was published at all – Andave laituvalmes! His father’s firm decided to incur the probable loss of £1,000 for the succès d’estime, and publish it under the title of The Lord of the Rings in three parts during 1954 and 1955, with USA rights going to Houghton Mifflin. It soon became apparent that both author and publishers had greatly underestimated the work’s public appeal.
The Lord of the Rings rapidly came to public notice. It had mixed reviews, ranging from the ecstatic (W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis) to the damning (E. Wilson, E. Muir, P. Toynbee) and just about everything in between. The BBC put on a drastically condensed radio adaptation in 12 episodes on the Third Programme. In 1956 radio was still a dominant medium in Britain, and the Third Programme was the “intellectual” channel. So far from losing money, sales so exceeded the break-even point as to make Tolkien regret that he had not taken early retirement. However, this was still based only upon hardback sales.
The really amazing moment was when The Lord of the Rings went into a pirated paperback version in 1965. Firstly, this put the book into the impulse-buying category; and secondly, the publicity generated by the copyright dispute alerted millions of American readers to the existence of something outside their previous experience, but which appeared to speak to their condition. By 1968 The Lord of the Rings had almost become the Bible of the “Alternative Society”.
This development produced mixed feelings in the author. On the one hand, he was extremely flattered, and to his amazement, became rather rich. On the other, he could only deplore those whose idea of a great trip was to ingest The Lord of the Rings and LSD simultaneously. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick had similar experiences with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fans were causing increasing problems; both those who came to gawp at his house and those, especially from California who telephoned at 7 p.m. (their time—3 a.m. his), to demand to know whether Frodo had succeeded or failed in the Quest, what was the preterite of Quenyan lanta-, or whether or not Balrogs had wings. So he changed addresses, his telephone number went ex-directory, and eventually he and Edith moved to Bournemouth, a pleasant but uninspiring South Coast resort (Hardy’s “Sandbourne”), noted for the number of its elderly well-to-do residents.
Meanwhile the cult, not just of Tolkien, but of the fantasy literature that he had revived, if not actually inspired (to his dismay), was really taking off—but that is another story, to be told in another place.
Despite all the fuss over The Lord of the Rings, between 1925 and his death Tolkien did write and publish a number of other articles, including a range of scholarly essays, many reprinted in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (see above); one Middle-earth related work, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil; editions and translations of Middle English works such as the Ancrene Wisse, Sir Gawain, Sir Orfeo and The Pearl, and some stories independent of the Legendarium, such as the Imram, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun—and, especially, Farmer Giles of Ham, Leaf by Niggle, and Smith of Wootton Major.
The flow of publications was only temporarily slowed by Tolkien’s death. The long-awaited Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, appeared in 1977. In 1980 Christopher also published a selection of his father’s incomplete writings from his later years under the title of Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. In the introduction to this work Christopher Tolkien referred in passing to The Book of Lost Tales, “itself a very substantial work, of the utmost interest to one concerned with the origins of Middle-earth, but requiring to be presented in a lengthy and complex study, if at all” (Unfinished Tales, p. 6, paragraph 1).
The sales of The Silmarillion had rather taken George Allen & Unwin by surprise, and those of Unfinished Tales even more so. Obviously, there was a market even for this relatively abstruse material and they decided to risk embarking on this “lengthy and complex study”. Even more lengthy and complex than expected, the resulting 12 volumes of the History of Middle-earth, under Christopher’s editorship, proved to be a successful enterprise. (Tolkien’s publishers had changed hands, and names, several times between the start of the enterprise in 1983 and the appearance of the paperback edition of Volume 12, The Peoples of Middle-earth, in 1997.)
After his retirement in 1959 Edith and Ronald moved to Bournemouth. On 29 November 1971 Edith died, and Ronald soon returned to Oxford, to rooms provided by Merton College. Ronald died on 2 September 1973. He and Edith are buried together in a single grave in the Catholic section of Wolvercote cemetery in the northern suburbs of Oxford. (The grave is well signposted from the entrance.) The legend on the headstone reads:
Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889–1971
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892–1973
J.R.R. Tolkien Timeline. The Tolkien Society. Online, 2014.
Tolkien: A Biography. Humphrey Carpenter. Allen and Unwin, London, 1977.
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien. George Allen and Unwin, London, 1981.
The Tolkien Family Album. John Tolkien and Priscilla Tolkien. HarperCollins, London, 1992.
Tolkien and the Great War. John Garth. HarperCollins, London, 2002.
Tolkien at Exeter College. John Garth. Exeter College, Oxford, 2014
The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. 2nd edn. HarperCollins, London, 2017. 3 vols.