John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (3 January 1892 – 2 September 1973) was a friend of C. S. Lewis and fellow member of the The Inklings. He is best known for writing The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
Tolkien's devout Catholic faith was a significant factor in the conversion of C. S. Lewis from atheism to Christianity, although Tolkien was dismayed that Lewis chose to join the Church of England.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3 January 1892 in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province, part of South Africa) to Arthur Reuel Tolkien (1857–1896), an English bank manager, and his wife Mabel, née Suffield (1870–1904). The couple had left England when Arthur was promoted to head the Bloemfontein office of the British bank for which he worked. Tolkien had one sibling, his younger brother, Hilary Arthur Reuel, who was born on 17th February 1894.
When he was three, Tolkien went to England with his mother and brother on what was intended to be a lengthy family visit. His father, however, died in South Africa of rheumatic fever before he could join them. This left the family without an income, so Tolkien's mother took him to live with her parents in Kings Heath, Birmingham. Soon after, in 1896, they moved to Sarehole (now in Hall Green), then a Worcestershire village, later annexed to Birmingham. He enjoyed exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog and the Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills, which would later inspire scenes in his books, along with Worcestershire towns and villages such as Bromsgrove, Alcester, and Alvechurch and places such as his aunt Jane's farm of Bag End, the name of which would be used in his fiction.
Tolkien attended King Edward's School, Birmingham, and later St. Philip's School, before winning a Foundation Scholarship and returning to King Edward's School. While a pupil at King Edward's School, he was one of a party of cadets from the school's Officers Training Corps who helped "line the route" for the coronation parade of King George V, being posted just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace.
At the age of 16, Tolkien met Edith Mary Bratt, who was three years older and later became his wife, when he and his brother Hilary moved into the boarding house in which she lived.
World War I
In 1914, the United Kingdom entered World War I. Tolkien's relatives were shocked when he elected not to immediately volunteer for the British Army. Instead, Tolkien entered a program wherein he delayed enlisting until completing his degree in July 1915. He was then commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, for eleven months. In a letter to Edith, Tolkien complained, "Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed." Tolkien was then transferred to the 11th (Service) Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force, arriving in France on 4 June 1916. His departure from England on a troop transport inspired him to write his poem, The Lonely Isle. He later wrote, "Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then ... it was like a death."
In 1916, Tolkien spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties, being deemed medically unfit for general service.
During his recovery in a cottage in Little Haywood, Staffordshire, he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, beginning with The Fall of Gondolin. Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, but he had recovered enough to do home service at various camps and was promoted to Lieutenant. It was at this time that Edith bore their first child, John Francis Reuel Tolkien.
Academic and writing career
Tolkien's first civilian job after World War I was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked mainly on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. In 1920, he took up a post as Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, and became the youngest professor there. While at Leeds, he produced A Middle English Vocabulary and a definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon, both becoming academic standard works for several decades. He also translated Sir Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. In 1925, he returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College.
During his time at Pembroke College Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings, whilst living at 20 Northmoor Road in North Oxford (where a blue plaque was placed in 2002). He also published a philological essay in 1932 on the name "Nodens", following Sir Mortimer Wheeler's unearthing of a Roman Asclepeion at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, in 1928.
The Tolkiens had four children: John Francis Reuel Tolkien (17 November 1917 – 22 January 2003), Michael Hilary Reuel Tolkien (22 October 1920 – 27 February 1984), Christopher John Reuel Tolkien (born 21 November 1924) and Priscilla Mary Anne Reuel Tolkien (born 18 June 1929). Tolkien was very devoted to his children and sent them illustrated letters from Father Christmas when they were young. Each year more characters were added, such as the North Polar Bear (Father Christmas's helper), the Snow Man (his gardener), Ilbereth the elf (his secretary), and various other, minor characters. The major characters would relate tales of Father Christmas's battles against goblins who rode on bats and the various pranks committed by the North Polar Bear.
Retirement and later years
During his life in retirement, from 1959 up to his death in 1973, Tolkien received steadily increasing public attention and literary fame. The sales of his books were so profitable that he regretted that he had not chosen early retirement. At first, he wrote enthusiastic answers to readers' enquiries, but he became increasingly unhappy about the sudden popularity of his books with the 1960s counter-culture movement. In a 1972 letter, he deplored having become a cult-figure, but admitted that "even the nose of a very modest idol [...] cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense!"
Fan attention became so intense that Tolkien had to take his phone number out of the public directory, and eventually he and Edith moved to Bournemouth, which was then a seaside resort patronized by the British upper class. Tolkien's status as a best-selling author gave them easy entry into polite society, but Tolkien deeply missed the company of his fellow Inklings. Edith, however, was overjoyed to step into the role of a society hostess, which had been the reason that Tolkien selected Bournemouth in the first place.
According to Humphrey Carpenter,
Those friends who knew Ronald and Edith Tolkien over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other's health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other's birthday presents'; and in the large matters, the way in which Ronald willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author. A principal source of happiness to them was their shared love of their family. This bound them together until the end of their lives, and it was perhaps the strongest force in the marriage. They delighted to discuss and mull over every detail of the lives of their children, and later their grandchildren.
Tolkien was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours of 1 January 1972 and received the insignia of the Order at Buckingham Palace on 28 March 1972. In the same year Oxford University conferred upon him an honorary Doctorate of Letters.
Tolkien died on 2nd September 1973, at the age of 81.