J. R. R. Tolkien: Biographical Facts
- Birth Name: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien)
- Date of Birth: 3 January 1892
- Place of Birth: Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (Modern-Day South Africa)
- Date of Death: 2 September 1973 (Eighty-One Years of Age)
- Place of Death: Bournemouth, England
- Cause of Death: Stomach Ulcer
- Place of Burial: Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, United Kingdom
- Nationality: British
- Religion: Roman Catholic
- Spouse: Edith Bratt (Married in 1916; Died in 1971)
- Children: John Francis (Son); Michael Hilary (Son); Christopher John (Son); Priscilla Anne (Daughter)
- Father: Arthur Tolkien
- Mother: Mabel Tolkien
- Sibling(s): Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien (Brother)
- Occupation(s): Author; Philologist; Poet; Academic; British Soldier
- Education: Exeter College, Oxford
- Military Service: British Army (Lancashire Fusiliers)
- Years of Military Service: 1915-1920; First World War (Also Participated in “Battle of the Somme”)
- Highest Rank Achieved: Lieutenant
- Awards/Honors: Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel; Hugo Award; Mythopoeic Fantasy Award; Prometheus Hall of Fame Award; Nebula Award; International Fantasy Award for Fiction
- Best Known For: Renowned fantasy writer, best known for his story The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Known as the “Father of Modern Fantasy Literature”
Quick Facts About Tolkien
- John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J.R.R.) was born on 3 January 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (South Africa) to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. Tolkien was one of two children born to the young couple. His younger brother, Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien was born on 17 February 1894. Originally from England, Tolkien’s father was promoted to manager over the Bloemfontein office of the British bank that he worked for in South Africa, forcing the family to take up residence far from home. At the age of three, however, Tolkien (along with his mother and brother) returned to England for an extended family visit. Sadly, his father died from rheumatic fever before he could rejoin his family, leaving the Tolkiens with no income. To support her family, young Mabel moved in with her parents in Birmingham and later moved to Worcestershire village outside of the city.
- Along with his brother, Tolkien was educated at home, learning a great deal about botany, languages (particularly Latin), and art at an early age. By the age of four, young Tolkien could already read and write. Despite his mother being raised in a Baptist family, Tolkien was also received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1900 (a feat that would have tremendous influence over the remainder of his life), leading to a break with his mother’s family who effectively stopped all forms of financial assistance to the poor family. By the age of twelve, tragedy struck the family once again with the unexpected death of his mother, who died suddenly from acute diabetes at the age of thirty-four. Tolkien was greatly troubled over the death of his mother, whom he loved and admired more than anyone in the world.
- Prior to his mother’s death, Mabel had arranged for her close friend, Friar Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory to become guardian over her two sons. Morgan saw to it that Tolkien received a good Catholic education, enrolling him in King Edward’s School at Birmingham, and later St. Philip’s School. In 1903, after winning a “Foundation Scholarship,” young Tolkien returned to King Edward’s School, where he simultaneously served as a cadet in the school’s “Officers Training Corps.” In this new position, Tolkien not only served in the 1910 coronation parade for King George V but also served outside the gates of Buckingham Palace for a time as well. It was also around this period that Tolkien met a woman by the name of Edith Mary Bratt, who was three years his senior. By 1909 the couple decided that they were in love with one another. However, Tolkien’s guardian, Father Morgan, forbade the pair from marrying (or even talking to Edith) until he was at least twenty-one years of age and finished his university studies. Reluctantly, Tolkien agreed to Father Morgan’s demands, and nearly three years later (at the age of twenty-one), Tolkien began to correspond with the young Edith once more, asking for her hand in marriage. The pair became engaged in January 1913 and married on 22 March 1916.
- In addition to serving as a cadet in the “Officers Training Corps,” Tolkien pursued his love for languages further during his teenage years, learning Esperanto before 1909, and even invented his very own language, which he called Naffarin. He later entered college at Exeter College, Oxford in 1911, where he initially studied classics, but later changed his course of study to English language and literature. He graduated a few years later (1915) with first-class honors (Wikipedia.org).
Quick Facts Continued
- With the First World War in full swing around this time, Tolkien was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers on 15 July 1915, after completing his course of study at Exeter College. After training with the Thirteenth Reserve Battalion for nearly a year, Tolkien was transferred to France. He later recalled the summoning to France as being “like a death,” as he felt that he would never see his young wife again (Wikipedia.org). On 5 June 1916, Tolkien made the overnight journey to Calais, where he joined the British Expeditionary Force base at Etaples. On 7 June, Tolkien learned of his assignment to the Eleventh Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, where he would serve as a signals officer. Tolkien and his unit were later sent to the Somme in July of 1916, where he participated in numerous assaults along the Leipzig Salient, the Schwaben Redoubt, and the Regina Trench. After losing numerous friends in the fierce fighting, Tolkien unexpectedly contracted “trench fever,” caused by lice in the unsanitary conditions of the trenches. He was removed and sent home to England on 8 November 1916. Shortly after his removal from combat, Tolkien’s unit (and battalion at large) was nearly wiped out during a massive assault. If not for Tolkien’s poor health at the time, it is likely that he would have suffered the same fate as his fellow soldiers. As fate would have it though, Tolkien spent the remainder of the war in the hospital (or various duty stations), where he was later deemed as “medically unfit” for general military service. The designation kept Tolkien in the military, albeit, away from the frontlines.
- Despite treatment for his health issues, Tolkien continued to experience poor health throughout 1917 and 1918. During his recovery, he began work on The Book of Lost Tales, in which he attempted “to create a mythology for England” (Wikipedia.org). However, Tolkien later abandoned the project after his wife, Edith, bore their first child, John (1917). It was also around this time that Tolkien was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 6 January 1918.
- Two years later, Tolkien left the army on 3 November 1920, and his unit was demobilized. He immediately began work with Oxford English Dictionary, helping in the etymology and history of words. He later became a reader at the University of Leeds for English Language, becoming the university’s youngest professor on campus. Here, Tolkien helped produced A Middle English Vocabulary, and translated works such as Sir Gawain, Sir Orfeo, and Pearl. By 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford, where he served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. He also maintained a fellowship at Pembroke College, where he wrote his famous works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (first two volumes).
- After nearly two decades of translating and writing, Tolkien’s skills with English earned him a spot as a codebreaker in Britain’s Cryptographic Department. After taking a brief course on deciphering, however, he was politely informed that his skills would not be needed after all. By 1945, Tolkien moved to Merton College, Oxford where he became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. Tolkien remained in this position for the remainder of his career, which ended in 1959 with his retirement. For the next three years, Tolkien dedicated his time to completing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, finishing in 1948.
- During retirement, Tolkien’s fame and fortune reached unprecedented levels for his books. Although he initially welcomed the fame and praise for his works, he soon became unhappy about his books and their popularity; particularly as it became clear that Tolkien was emerging as a cult figure in the 1960s with the counter-culture movements around the world (a position that he despised until the day he died in 1972). Tolkien’s fame was so intense that he was later forced to remove his phone number from all directories and move to a more secluded resort at Bournemouth. The move would be Tolkien and Edith’s final move, as his wife died shortly after on 29 November 1971. After more than fifty years of marriage, the death of Tolkien’s wife caused him great pain and anguish. Tolkien, himself, would die only twenty-one months after the death of his wife on 2 September 1973 (suffering from a bleeding ulcer). On his grave, Tolkien had the name “Luthien” engraved on his wife’s tombstone; a reference to his Lord of the Rings character, Luthien, who was the most beautiful daughter of Iluvatar.
More Fun Facts
- Tolkien was greatly influenced by his travelling, particularly in Switzerland. For his book, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien attempted to incorporate Switzerland’s landscape into his novels.
- Tolkien was greatly skilled with languages. By the end of his life, Tolkien was fluent in Danish, Dutch, German, French, Greek, Italian, Latin, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Welsh, Swedish, and Spanish. He also developed languages as a hobby and even used them to write several songs and poems.
- When Tolkien finally proposed to his future wife, Edith, she was already engaged to another man. After discussing the matter with Edith more deeply, however, Edith broke off her engagement to be with Tolkien. The pair remained together for the remainder of their lives.
- J.R.R. Tolkien was good friends with famous author C.S. Lewis, who is well-known for his series The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis, who was a devout atheist at the time, later converted to Christianity because of Tolkien.
- Tolkien was deeply affected by his experience in the First World War. He later told that all but one of his friends died during the conflict.
- Tolkien’s writings on German history and the German language were extremely popular with the Nazi regime before (and during) World War Two. Tolkien, however, despised Hitler and anything associated with the Nazi Party. For this reason, he almost forbade his publisher from translating The Hobbit into German.
Quote by Tolkien
“If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
Quotes by Tolkien
- “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
- “The wide world is all about you: you cannot fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”
- “If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.”
- “Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.”
- “The proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
- “Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write.”
- “They say it is the first step that costs the effort. I do not find it so. I am sure I could write unlimited ‘first chapters.’ I have indeed written many.”
J.R.R. Tolkien's Legacy
In closing, J.R.R. Tolkien remains one of the most fascinating individuals to have arisen from the 20th century. Despite numerous contributions to the fields of English, Literature, and languages, perhaps Tolkien’s most important gifts to the world are his fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which continue to remain popular today. Tolkien’s natural ability to write, along with his natural grace (and understanding) of words allowed for the production of books that continue to amaze and inspire readers from around the world. Although Tolkien is gone, his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of his readers, his former friends, and his family.
Suggestions For Further Reading
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
Wayne G. Hammond. "J.R.R. Tolkien." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1 January 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/J-R-R-Tolkien (accessed 6 May 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "J. R. R. Tolkien," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=J._R._R._Tolkien&oldid=895477734 (accessed May 5, 2019).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Larry Slawson
Kenna McHugh from Northern California on June 24, 2019:
Studying a writer's life helps me understand where he or she gets their fictionalized stories. We can only presume it is based on personal experience but with a fantasy story that is hard to tell. However, Tolkien created his own language and had a tight group of friends in school called the fellowship. They were artists and fed off each other's support and excitement for the arts.