J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

J. R. R. Tolkien (the pen name of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien), was a unique, devout, and deeply learned man. And he also just happened to be the most influential fantasy author of the twentieth century. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy changed the genre forever, spawning dozens of imitators and establishing what would become the standard format for fantasy novels: current authors still create alternative cultures and realities, throw in detailed maps and invented languages, and continue story lines across multiple volumes. Tolkien’s influence, however, spread far beyond the literary. The bookish and conservative don also became an inspiration to the 1960s counter-culture who saw his “Middle-earth” as embodying their ecological and communitarian ideals. It seems, then, that Tolkien’s work remains the one thing that everyone can appreciate.

Facts and Trivia

  • Though his work is very British, Tolkien was actually born in South Africa. He moved to England with his mother and brother after his father died. Tolkien was four years old at the time.
  • Tolkien was a member of The Inklings, an informal but talented group of readers and writers that included C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, two other major twentieth-century fantasists.
  • An immensely gifted linguist, Tolkien spoke and/or wrote Greek, Gothic, Finnish, Old English, and other languages. He also contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary and taught Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University.
  • Tolkien fought in World War I, serving on the Western Front. Luckily for the literary world, he contracted a typhus-like infection called “trench fever” and had to recover in England for a few months. During that period, all but one of his closest friends on the Western Front died.
  • Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has been adapted into cartoons, comic books, audio versions, and, in recent years, a trilogy of live-action movies directed by Peter Jackson. Jackson’s film adaptations won a combined seventeen Academy Awards.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111201661-Tolkien.jpg J. R. R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Company) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Contributions: Tolkien communicated the sensibility of medieval epic and romance in his widely read mythopoetic fiction. With influential articles on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and the standard edition of the fourteenth century English Arthurian fantasy romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he was an important medievalist long before he became much more famous and beloved for his widely read fantasy novels The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

Early Life

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to Arthur and Mabel Suffield Tolkien. In 1895 they moved to Birmingham, England, to be near Mabel’s family, but Arthur, a bank manager, died within the year. In 1900 Mabel scandalized the family by joining the Roman Catholic Church. After her early death in 1904, Tolkien and his brother, Hilary, lived in the house of a Mrs. Faulkner with another orphan named Edith Bratt. Tolkien and Bratt fell in love and were married in 1916 after Tolkien had completed his bachelor of arts at Exeter College, Oxford. He then served as a signalling officer during World War I as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. In France he was felled by trench fever and was sent back to an English hospital, where he began his mythopoetic fiction. To the deaths of his parents and several other relatives while Tolkien was a young boy was added the loss of his fellow soldiers on and off the battlefields. The reality of mortality was established as one of the themes of both his scholarship and his fiction.

Following the war and the birth of his son, John, Tolkien worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and taught at Leeds University, where he and E. V. Gordon completed the definitive edition of the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1375). Ronald, Edith, and John Tolkien returned to Oxford in 1925 with two more sons, Michael and Christopher, where they lived until 1968. Fascinated and gifted with languages, Tolkien became the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and partly calmed the academic feuding in the English School between those more interested in early languages and those who studied the literature of later centuries. He continued his editing of medieval texts, including The Pearl (1375) and the Ancrene Wisse (1230; an advice book for nuns), and published influential essays on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (c. 1000). The essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936) has retained its power over the decades and stresses two key themes in Tolkien’s work as both a medievalist and a writer of mythic narrative: mortality and the artist’s role in honoring and transmitting a sense of the past (a partial response to that mortality). Such work led to Tolkien being named Merton Professor of English Language and Literature in 1945. At the same time, he was busy with other writings besides his scholarship.

The reclusive but “clubbable” Tolkien became friends with another influential writer and scholar of the Middle Ages, C. S. Lewis. Although more handsome, Tolkien was reclusive and not so athletic as Lewis, who was a vigorous walker and irrepressible talker. Both men, while generous of spirit, were argumentative and somewhat stubborn, especially during the weekly meetings of the Inklings, who gathered to discuss and critique their own writings. The group included Tolkien (Tollers), Lewis (Jack), Lewis’s brother Warren (Warnie), R. E. Havard, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, and Charles Williams. During these meetings, Tolkien first read, as he had to his wife and children, the early versions of his most beloved work, The Hobbit (1937).

Life’s Work

The Hobbit appeared after seventeen years of work, during which time its author was well known almost exclusively to academic medievalists for his scholarly editing and literary criticism, although many thought it too limited in scope and quantity. Two years later he published something of a bridge between his scholarship and his fantasy writing, “On Fairy Stories” (1939), which indicated the foundations (along with his fascination and expertise with the vocabulary and structure of languages as well as the northern European traditions of myth, epic, and saga) of the stories on which his fame among the general reading public continues to rest. This lecture, later published as a lengthy essay in Tree and Leaf (1964),...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

During the summer of 1938, in anticipation of the projected publication of a German translation of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien was asked by the German publisher to provide a declaration that he was of arisch (aryan) heritage. Tolkien was annoyed by the request. He wrote to Allen & Unwin, his English publisher—which was acting as intermediary—that he was “inclined to refuse,” and he noted that he “would regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.” In deference to Allen & Unwin, however, he enclosed drafts of two possible replies; the one sent by Allen & Unwin does not survive, but the unused draft was preserved in the firm’s files. In it, Tolkien wrote that “if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” He went on to remark that “if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.” Whether because of the tone of Tolkien’s response or the subsequent outbreak of World War II, the possibility of a German edition of The Hobbit did not surface again until 1946.

An entirely different issue was involved in the dispute over publication of the first American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings. That edition was issued by Ace Books in May, 1965, without Tolkien’s authorization, an act made possible by the failure of Tolkien’s authorized American publishers, Houghton Mifflin, to establish proper copyright protection for the trilogy. Houghton Mifflin then commissioned Ballantine Books to publish a slightly revised and newly copyrighted alternative paperback version, which contained Tolkien’s plea that readers “who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors . . . purchase it and no other.” The Tolkien Society of America and the Science Fiction Writers of America took up the author’s cause, and Ace Books bowed to demands that it print no more copies of The Lord of the Rings.

Further Reading

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. London: Allen and Unwin, 1977. Written with access to Tolkien’s unpublished...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892. The piano-manufacturing firm of his father’s family, originally descended from German aristocracy, had gone bankrupt, and the elder Tolkien had taken a South African bank position in the hope of improving his shaky finances. Tolkien’s mother, Mabel Suffield, joined her husband at Bloemfontein, but when the climate strained Ronald’s health, she took their two sons home to England in 1895. Less than a year later, Arthur Tolkien died in South Africa, leaving his widow and children nearly penniless.

In the summer of 1896, Mabel Tolkien rented a rural cottage at Sarehole Mill, close to Birmingham, and for the next four years she taught her boys French, Latin, drawing, and botany, to save school expenses. Much later, Tolkien called these “the longest-seeming and most formative part” of his life. Mabel Tolkien’s attraction to Roman Catholicism led to her conversion in 1900, and she moved to a Birmingham suburb from which Ronald attended one of England’s then leading grammar schools, King Edward’s, on a scholarship. Already, he was demonstrating the fascination with ancient languages that was to determine his career. He was involved in learning such northern European languages as Norse, Gothic, Finnish, and Welsh, as well as the Old and Middle English in which he achieved his academic reputation. He later claimed this philological bent dated from the time he was five or six years old.

In 1904, his mother died at the age of thirty-four, leaving her children in the care of Father Francis Morgan, her friend and pastor. Tolkien’s devotion to his mother was inextricably intertwined with his own Catholic faith, and both played vital roles in the development of his fiction. Thus at sixteen, Ronald Tolkien looked back on a series of grievous losses: his father, whom he considered as “belonging to an almost legendary past”; the Sarehole countryside he loved; his mother, whom he considered a martyr to her faith. Not surprisingly for a lonely boy, Tolkien fell in love early when he met Edith Bratt, another orphan, in his Birmingham boardinghouse. She was three years older than he, and she had just enough inheritance to support herself modestly while she dreamed of becoming a musician. Recognizing the boy’s scholarly talent and fearing for his future, Father Morgan finally stopped all communication between Ronald and Edith until Ronald was twenty-one. Tolkien himself...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (TAHL-keen) was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to Arthur and Mabel Suffield Tolkien. His brother, Hilary, was born in 1894. Arthur Tolkien had immigrated to South Africa from England to head a bank and remained behind in 1895 when his family returned to England because of Ronald’s health. Arthur’s sudden death left the family near poverty. At first, Mabel Tolkien lived outside Birmingham in the country, which delighted both boys, and she educated the children at home. In 1900, against family tradition, she converted to Catholicism with her children. Most of Tolkien’s school education was at his father’s old preparatory school in Birmingham, where he excelled in languages....

(The entire section is 936 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasies testifies to the frustrations felt by many of his readers. Modern technological life isolates humans from nature and from one another, and diminishes the “otherness,” the sense of the world as marvelous. Tolkien’s response was to present a world so compellingly envisioned that both perils and marvels, joys and sorrows seem understandable and real. In the stories, as in real life, ordinary characters must make significant moral choices. In the happy endings of his stories, Tolkien responds to another felt need, the sense that no ultimate purpose exists to make human suffering meaningful.

(The entire section is 103 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (TAHL-keen) was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, one of two sons of Arthur Reuel and Mabel Suffield Tolkien. When he was four years old, his father died, and his mother returned to England, to a town near Birmingham. The verdant English countryside to which he was moved made an immediate impression on the boy; it was to become the locale for his now-famous fantasy world. Tolkien’s first teacher was his mother, and from her he acquired a love of languages and fantasy. Following her death in 1904 he and his brother were raised by Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a Roman Catholic priest. Tolkien received his secondary education at King Edward VI School in Birmingham and then attended Exeter College, Oxford,...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was a bank manager. After his father's...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Epics for Students)
J. R. R. Tolkien Published by Gale Cengage

J. R. R. Tolkien was born January 3, 1892 in South Africa, where his father was a banker. His father died in 1896 while Tolkien, his mother,...

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J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Novels for Students)
J. R. R. Tolkien Published by Gale Cengage

Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892. His father, Arthur, was an Englishman who had left the Birmingham branch...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

J. R. R. Tolkien Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father had moved his family in order to take a...

(The entire section is 575 words.)