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.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1845

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.

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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), is a charming, provocative, and essential essay for understanding the mythic foundations of Tolkien’s fantasy fiction and the spirit of much of his medieval scholarship.

Although considered a work of fiction for youngsters, The Hobbit is Tolkien’s most accessible narrative, perhaps because of the eccentric lovableness and inventive pluck of Bilbo Baggins and the wily cleverness of the dragon Smaug. Like the best of children’s stories and the myths of all people, The Hobbit contains clearly delineated heroes and villains, gives attention to minute and realistic details that anchor and make credible the marvelous and often terrifying adventures, and provides certainty about the final outcome. It also features compelling examples of bravery, loyalty, and generosity rewarded and treachery, vanity, and selfishness punished. Above all, it is a convincing story about learning unselfishness in a menacing and predatory world—the necessary foundation of maturity.

Tolkien’s greatest accomplishment, The Lord of the Rings, is sweeping work that was published in three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). Fifteen years in the making, the trilogy is structured as a “reverse quest,” to deliver and destroy rather than find and possess. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finds the evil Sauron’s “One Ring of Power.” In The Lord of the Rings, he passes the ring down to his descendent Frodo, who must return it to the volcano where it was forged in order to destroy it and end its power over Middle Earth. Tolkien presents his familiar theme of quiet, heroic duty, which is often tested by the vicious evil of Sauron’s minions (the Orcs) and the treacherous Gollum. The three books provide a panoramic narrative of vast and complex sweep. It is often most compelling in conveying the experience of fear or terror through expressionistic detail. Its epic heroism against difficult odds is sharpened by its emphasis on the essential powers of loyal love that eclipse weakness and failure, powerfully conveyed near the end of the narrative when Gollum seizes the ring from a weakened Frodo and his loyal friend Sam, only to fall to his and the ring’s destruction in the volcano.

After Tolkien’s death in 1973, his son Christopher edited The Silmarillion (1977), which had been started in a military hospital in 1917 and was essentially completed by 1923. It contains four shorter narratives and the “Quenta Silmarillion,” an orderly arrangement of the chronicles of the Three Ages of Middle Earth. It is dense and difficult, with a staggering number of characters. Considered by many to contain essential background to a fuller understanding of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it cannot be read as an independent narrative.

Interspersed with these major fictions, and partly in response to their successes, came the lesser short narratives “Farmer Giles of Ham” (1949), “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” (1962), “Leaf by Niggle” (1964), and “Smith of Wootton Manor” (1967). Their charm is accentuated by the writer’s accompanying illustrations, but they are lesser accomplishments that demonstrate that Tolkien’s narrative strengths are in sustained, multilayered, and lengthy stories with numerous competing characters.

The younger Tolkien also published his father’s early drafts of Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth (1980), The Book of Lost Tales, Part I (1983), The Book of Lost Tales, Part II (1984), and The Lays of Beleriand (1985), but these have not had the remarkable popularity of the earlier works that Tolkien completed during his life.

Summary

The success that J. R. R. Tolkien finally achieved as a fantasy writer in the late 1950’s meant that a lifetime of financial worries and measured scorn from many of his academic colleagues were alleviated. Tolkien became famous. Among medievalists, his editing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and his essays on Beowulf continue to be instructive and persuasive in the midst of radical changes in the fashions of literary and medieval studies. However, his celebrity derives from his fantasy fiction.

In his heroic mythopoetic fiction, Tolkien has recreated something of the spirit of the best of medieval literature: a captivating release of the imagination tethered by details of the simple familiarities of essential living and interspersed with suggestions that heroism can make fleeting but radiant differences in a hostile world. For readers of all ages and tastes, Tolkien has been of enormous influence in demonstrating one of the traditional goals of the arts: to delight and instruct. As a solid medievalist, he managed to convey the ethos and spirit of medieval culture, to honor it for its charms and powers, and to present, in compelling narratives, the permanent attractions of heroism, duty, and loyal love in the inevitable human confrontations with fear, temptation, loss, and mortality.

Bibliography

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien, A Biography. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. This is the authorized biography based on full access to Tolkien’s papers. Sound and thorough, it is perhaps too celebratory and fails to put Tolkien in the larger context of fantasy writers from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century. It has a very full appendix of Tolkien’s scholarly and fiction writings through 1976.

Crabbe, Katharyn W. J. R. R. Tolkien. Rev. ed. New York, N.Y.: Continuum, 1988. Crabbe’s book is the best single overview of Tolkien and his work. The writing is clear and succinct, and the observations are solid and thoughtful.

Hammond, Wayne G. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 1993. This valuable and well-organized bibliography includes helpful annotations.

Johnson, Judith A. J. R. R. Tolkien. Six Decades of Criticism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Johnson’s thorough and well-annotated bibliography treats all phases of Tolkien’s work. It is well indexed and especially good on the more obscure periodicals dealing with Tolkien’s work.

Mythlore. A Journal of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, and the Genres of Myth and Fantasy, 1969-current. This scholarly quarterly has absorbed earlier publications dealing with the “Oxford Fantasists,” such as The Tolkien Journal. It regularly publishes articles on Tolkien.

Nitzsche, Jane Chance. Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England. London: Macmillan, 1979. Nitzsche’s provocative study examines the writer’s dual roles in scholarship and fiction.

Purtill, Richard. J. R. R. Tolkien, Myth, Morality and Religion. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Purtill provides a solid exploration of the spiritual aspects of Tolkien and his work.

Rogers, Deborah Webster, and Ivor Rogers. J. R. R. Tolkien. Twayne’s English Authors Series 304. Boston: Twayne, 1980. This is a competent and enthusiastic, but perfunctory, overview of Tolkien’s life and work. It emphasizes, with limited criticism, a mythic approach to his writings.

Salu, Mary, and Robert T. Farrell, eds. J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. This book, the best of the collections of essays about Tolkien, emphasizes his work as a medievalist and its connection with his fiction.

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