Best remembered today for his beloved works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (‘Ronald’) was a WWI lieutenant, an Oxford professor, a close friend of fellow-author C. S. Lewis, and a teacher of the poet W. H. Auden.
Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on the 3rd of January 1892. His father, Arthur, was an English banker with German ancestry, although by the time Ronald was born the family had been living in England for well over a hundred years and were thoroughly assimilated. His mother, Mabel, was English. When Ronald was three, his mother took him and his younger brother, Hilary, back to England on what was meant to be an extended family visit. Tragically, Arthur Tolkien would die of rheumatic fever before he could join them, leaving his sons to be raised by his wife’s family.
It was Mabel who was responsible for her son’s early education, and Tolkien could read by the age of four and write not long afterwards. She also encouraged her son in art and botany, and taught him the rudiments of Latin – the first hint of what would be a life-long fascination with languages. Her conversion to Roman Catholicism when her elder son was eight led to all three of them being disowned by her devoutly-Baptist family. When Mabel died, probably as a result of Type 1 diabetes, just a few years later it was her close friend Father Francis Xavier Morgan who took on responsibility for raising her sons as good Catholics. He succeeded admirably, and Tolkien would remain a devout Catholic throughout his life.
Fr. Francis initially objected to Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt, three years his senior, even preventing all contact between the two for three years prior to Tolkien’s 21st birthday. Tolkien remained true, and proposed to Edith the day he turned 21. She accepted, even breaking another engagement and converting to Catholicism (over the objections of her own family), and the two would remain devoted to one another for fifty years.
Tolkien deferred his WWI service in order to complete his degree in English Language and Literature, but he was deployed as a Lieutenant in 1916. Plagued by ill-health, he spent long periods away from the front-line, which probably saved his life. Most of his friends were killed, and he developed a deep regard for the working-class men under his command, especially those from rural area. It was during and immediately following the War that Tolkien began writing poetry and stories, developing the Medieval-influenced High Fantasy style which would ultimately give rise to the various Middle Earth books for which he is most famous today.
As an Oxford professor, he was one of the founding members of the ‘Inklings’, an informal (and now very famous) literary club-cum-discussion group which met regularly for two decades between roughly 1930 and 1950. Another famous member was Tolkien’s good friend C. S. Lewis, also a professor of literature. Remembered today as a Christian apologist, Lewis was in fact for many years an atheist, and would recall a conversation with Tolkien as being instrumental in his conversion. Christianity, Lewis complained to his friend, was built on nothing but myths. Tolkien agreed that this may well be true, but noted that there was such a thing as “true myths”, stories which spoke so deeply to the fundamental nature of things that their literal truth or otherwise came to be beside the point.
Although the Foreign Office considered recruiting him as a code-breaker in WWII, they ultimately decided not to, and Tolkien spent the remainder of his career as an author and academic. He died in Bournemouth, England, on 2nd September 1973, and is buried beside his wife, Edith. Along with their names, their tombstone bears the nicknames ‘Lúthien’ (for Edith) and ‘Beren’ (for Tolkien), the names of two lovers from Tolkien’s own Silmarillion.
Starting-points with Tolkien: ‘The Hobbit’ was originally written for Tolkien’s own children, and is in my eyes the most accessible of the Middle Earth books. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’) is the much longer and darker sequel to The Hobbit. The books are in many ways superior to the movies, which cut a number of episodes and whole characters in order to bring the story down to a movie-manageable length). The movies are still pretty good though (ahem, Viggo Mortensen, ahem!).
Numerous works by Tolkien were published posthumously by his son, including ‘The Silmarillion’, ‘Unfinished Tales’ and ‘The History of Middle Earth’, and a translation of the 8th century English epic poem Beowulf.
Have you read any of Tolkien’s books? Seen the movies? What did you think?