John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien in Bloemfontein
South Africa. (Carpenter 20-1) His brother Hilary was born two years later. (22) Mabel and the boys
went to England for a visit. While they were there Arthur died. By the time Mabel was told, her husband was buried
thousands of miles away. (24) She stayed in England.
At first Ronald, as he was known, was taught by his mother. They then lived in the country
outside of Birmingham. Tolkien loved the country and the four years he lived there influenced the rest of his life imensely.
Mabel Tolkien was preparing Ronald to enter King Edward's School where his father had gone.
She began to teach him Latin and French. As she taught him, she noticed that he had a natural aptitude for language
and words. (29) During this time he also discovered Andrew Lang's Red Fairy book. In it he read the story
of Sigurd and Fafnir. He later said, "I desired dragons with a profound desire." (30)
Tolkien entered King Edward's School in 1900. (32) He studied there from 1900 until
1909, except for a brief hiatus from 1902-3. During that time hes tudied at St. Philip's School. (34-5)
One of Ronald's masters at King Edward's School was George Brewerton. He began to introduce
Ronald to medieval English literature, including Chaucer. (35-6) He also began to study languages intensively
and discovered Anglo-Saxon. (41-3)
In 1909 Ronald took entrance exams for Oxford University. However, he did not pass and
had to take the exams again the next year. This time he won a scholarship to Exeter College. (56)
He loved Oxford instantly, especially after the squalor of Birmingham. (60) He read Classics
and was bored stiff. His former love of Greek and Latin had given way to an intense interest in the Germanic
languages. (62) But he still found time to be involved in everything. (62)
He met Joseph Wright, a philologist who had started as a millhand. Wright specialised
in English dialects but had studied an impressive array of languages: Sanskrit, Gothic, Old Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Russian,
Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and Old English. Wright advised him to pursue his interest in
Eventually Tolkien realized that he was not the right person to be reading Classics and switched
to English. While he was at Oxford he discovered a poem called the Crist of Cynewulf. This poem contained the
Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended.
This would eventually prove to be the beginning of Tolkien's mythology. (72) At the same
time he was developing a private language influenced by Finnish. This became Quenya. (66-7) It was also
at Oxford that he wrote his first Earendel poem. (79)
Ronald received First Class Honours in English in 1915. (85)
Mabel and Edith
In 1900 Mabel Tolkien and her sons moved from the countryside into a small house in Birmingham.
In Ronald's opinion, the only asset that this house had was that it faced the railway station. He was entranced by the
names on the railroad cars, especially the Welsh names. (33-4)
Meanwhile, Mabel had been considering a decision which would cause her much grief, and perhaps
contribute to her early death. She decided to become Catholic. (31) The Tolkien family, very anti-papist,
became outraged. They had been providing her with some financial support, but this was immediately withdrawn.
(31) Her religion, her sons, and her close friendship with her priest, Fr. Francis Morgan, became her only consolations.
Still, her life was very stressful, and she died of diabetes on November 14, 1904. (38) Ronald Tolkien always
attributed her death to the worry she felt during the four years after her conversion.
After her death he clung to the religion that had given her hope, and remained
very Catholic throughout his life. (39) His mother's death had also produced two antithetical people that
lived side-by-side in Tolkien. One was gregarious and enthusiastic; the other was given to frequent bouts of deep depression.
(39) This state would last for the rest of his life.
Mabel had appointed Fr. Francis Morgan the boys' guardian. (39) He immediately began
searching for somewhere for them to live. Their aunt owned a boarding house in Birmingham, near the Catholic church.
It seemed an ideal situation. However, their aunt was often unkind and cared very little about Ronald and Hilary.
Fr. Francis found another lady to take the boys in since he realized that their aunt was not
treating them very well. It was in this house that Ronald met Edith Bratt.
It is only speculation, but perhaps Edith reminded Ronald a little of his mother. She
and Mabel both had dark hair and they both played the piano. Edith was also three years older than Ronald. (46)
At any rate, they quickly became friends and then started to become a little more than friends. (47) But Fr. Francis
Morgan found out and forbad any meetings. Ronald was supposed to be preparing for Oxford, not mooning around a girl.
(49) They were caught meeting once again, although it was accidental, and Fr. Francis forbad Ronald to see Edith again
until he was twenty-one. (50)
After Tolkien turned twenty-one he and Edith reunited. After Edith became Catholic, somewhat
reluctantly, they were engaged. They were married on March 22, 1916. They had four children, John Francis Reuel,
Michael Hilary Reuel, Christopher Reuel, and Priscilla Mary Reuel.
For Tolkien, Edith was Lúthien. When he was in England on sick leave they walked through the woods and she sang and danced for him.
From this event came the inspiration for the tale that became so crucial to the Silmarillion, the tale of Beren,
the mortal man, and Lúthien, the Elf maid.
In 1905, while at King Edward's School, Ronald Tolkien met a young man named Christopher Wiseman.
They began a friendly rivalry which quickly turned into a strong friendship. (41) Then, in 1911, both Ronald and
Christopher became part of a group of boys who administered the school library. Another was R.Q. Gilson, the son of
the headmaster. (53) With the other "Librarians" they formed the Tea Club, which met at first in the library and then
in the Tea Room of Barrow's Department Store. After they began meeting at Barrow's they added the title "Barrovian Society"
to the name of the Club. (54)
The T.C.B.S. held a considerable array of knowledge. All of the members were intellectual
and they all shared their knowledge with each other. Ronald was, of course, interested in linguistics. He recited
from Beowulf, Pearl, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. R.Q. Gilson was an eighteenth-century
enthusiast. Christopher Wiseman was an excellent mathematician and composer. (54)
These three were the original nucleus around which the group formed. Others came and went,
but they were the most important members. Later, Geoff Bache Smith joined the group. (54) 'G.B.S.' introduced
them to poetry, which they then began to write.
After Tolkien went to Oxford he remained involved in the T.C.B.S., which kept going after his
departure. R.Q., Christopher, and G.B.S. had not yet graduated. In fact, Ronald went back to Birmingham at Christmas
and played the part of Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals, produced by that energetic organization. (65)
Later Christopher Wiseman and R.Q. Gilson went to Cambridge, while G.B. Smith joined Tolkien at Oxford. But their close
friendship would be broken by events beyond their foreseeing or control. (75)
"By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 11.
For some time after war was declared Tolkien dallied. He wanted to stay in Oxford and get his
degree. At first he felt somewhat guilty and depressed, but then he signed up for a program that enabled him to stay
at Oxford and train until he got his degree. (Carpenter 80) G.B. Smith had already signed up with the Lancashire
Fusiliers and Ronald decided to try to get into the same regiment. (80) At the beginning of the Christmas vacations
of 1914 the T.C.B.S. (the four main members) met in Birmingham. They hoped to do something to "make a difference" as
we would put it today. But at the same time they realized that the world was around them. (81)
After Tolkien received his degree he was sent to Warwick and Staffordshire to train. He found
that he did not enjoy his fellow officers or the lectures on the machine of war. He decided to specialise in signalling
since he had an aptitude for words and codes. (85)
On June 4, 1916 Tolkien set off for France. He was sent to Etaples, where he spent a long period
of time waiting. (88) It was during this time that he discovered his deep respect for the batmen, the servants
that were assigned to the officers. He later wrote, "My 'Sam Gamgee' is indeed a relexion of the English soldier, of
the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war..." (89)
Tolkien and his company were kept in reserve for about two weeks. Finally, on July 14 they went
into action for the first time. (91) A day later he learned that Rob Gilson had been killed. Ronald immediately
felt a sense of deprivation. He felt that the T.C.B.S. had ended. G.B. Smith encouraged him by writing, "The T.C.B.S.
is not finished and never will be." (92) They met on August 19. Soon afterwards Tolkien contracted trench fever
and was sent back to England. But in the third week of December he received a letter from Christopher Wiseman. G.B.
Smith had died of gangrene after a shell burst near him. (93)
In one of his last letters to Tolkien Smith had written:
My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight--I am off on duty in a few minutes--there will
still be left a member of hte great T.C.B.S. to boice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one
of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals,
but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off to-night.
And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried
to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot. (93-4)
Tolkien remained ill with one thing and another for the rest of the war. (106) He had served
ably and capably in France, but when he came down with trench-fever his body responded to his fears and kept him ill.
(106) During this time Edith bore their first child, John, who was born in 1917. (104)
Oxford, Leeds, and Oxford
After the war Tolkien, now a husband and father, had to look for work. He applied for
a position on the Oxford English Dictionary and was accepted. (107-8) He worked there for two years before accepting
a position at Leeds University. (109)
Just before the term at Leeds began Edith, still back in Oxford, gave birth to their second
child, Michael. (110)
The English Department was still young and Tolkien was given virtual control of the linguistics
syllabus. This suited him exactly and he happily threw himself into the work. (114) Tolkien worked at Leeds for
five years. In 1924 he became a professor at the age of thirty-two. (114) In that same year his son Christopher
was born. They named him after Christopher Wiseman, Tolkien's old T.C.B.S. friend.
In 1925 the Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford fell vacant. Tolkien was given the
job after a tie-breaking vote. (115) He and his family returned to Oxford though Edith disliked the somewhat snobbish
attitude of the people there.(156) His fourth child, Priscilla, was born in 1929. (119) He was Rawlinson
and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years and was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. (118)
He retired at age sixty-seven. (239)
And he wrote two best-selling stories, which have ensured him fame for years to come.
C.S. Lewis and the Inklings
Tolkien first met Clive Staples Lewis on May 11, 1926. (147) They were at first
wary of one another since Tolkien was a 'Lang.' person and Lewis was a 'Lit.' person and heaven forbid that the two should
ever meet. But they soon realized that they had more in common than they had suspected and became close friends. (147) Partly
because of Lewis' support, Tolkien was able to bring about some reforms in the syllabus of the English School. (149)
But their friendship soon took on a different form when they began to discuss religion.
Lewis had been an agnostic and had then begun to realize that he must decide once and for all whether he believed that God
existed. (149-50) He then met Tolkien, a practicing Roman Catholic, who nevertheless had a keen mind and heartily
enjoyed life. After three years Lewis decided that he did indeed believe in God. But he did not see the meaning
of Christ, the Crucifixion and Resurrection. (150)
On September 19, 1931 Tolkien, Lewis, and Hugo Dyson ate dinner together. At this dinner
Tolkien and Dyson finally explained the fundamental principles of Christianity in a way that Lewis could understand,using the
mythology that Lewis loved. They said that Christianity was indeed a myth--simply that, unlike the other myths, it had happened.
He became Christian. (150-1)
After Lewis' conversion their friendship began to expand to include several other men of like
talent and thought. They began to meet informally on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The group, like the T.C.B.S., was
flexible but contained some core members. (153) Lewis and Tolkien of course; but also Warren Lewis, R.E. Havard,
Owen Barfield, and Hugo Dyson. (153) Later Charles WIlliams joined the group as well. Tolkien did not entirely
enjoy Williams, partly because he disliked the style of his writing, but also because he was a bit jealous of Lewis and Williams'
The Inklings would meet and talk for awhile. Then one or two of the members would read
aloud something they had written. The others would then comment on it, whether they liked it or not. (153) It
was a way for middle-aged men of similar tastes, backgrounds, convictions, and talents to spend a few evenings together. They
enjoyed it. (153)
I do not propose to give an account of the publishing of The Hobbit or The
Lord of the Rings. It is too involved, long and complicated for the space which I have here. It is all in
Humphrey Carpenter's excellent biography. Nor do I intend to tell the details of the years of fame which followed their
publishing. Instead, I am going to try to give a sense of the end of Tolkien's life, beginning after his retirement
In 1959 Tolkien retired from Oxford after forty years in the academic world. (239)
He was getting older and not accomplishing as much as he wanted to. (242) He was also a little lonely. He
saw less and less of his friends, and after C.S. Lewis died in 1963 he was even more alone. (243)
He and Edith had stayed in Oxford for some years, but in 1968 they decided to move to Bournemouth. Edith's
health was increasingly bad and she had never liked Oxford. (247) This was perhaps one of Tolkien's
greatest sacrifices. Even though he had been somehat lonely in his last years in Oxford he still
thought of it as his home. Christopher, arguably his favorite child, was there and it was his university. He also
hated Bournemouth. (247) However, Edith was happy there, and for him that was worth the sacrifice that he had
made. (251) And then, on November 29, 1971 Edith, aged eighty-two, died. (253)
After the initial grief and shock of her death Tolkien decided to return to Oxford.
He was made an honorary resident Fellow of Merton College and was given a set of rooms in 21 Merton Street. (254)
He was fairly happy there, despite his missing Edith and the changing face of Oxford. His sacrifice was rewarded.
(254) He worked a little on the Silmarillion, still unfinished. But he did not finish it, and when he
died on September 2, 1973, the book that he had loved so much was unpublished. (257) Christopher edited and completed
it as he thought his father wanted. It was published in 1977. (265) Today Tolkein is buried next to Edith
in the Catholic cemetary on the outskirts of Oxford. Their graves give simply their full names, the years of their births
and deaths, and then, underneath, 'Beren' and 'Lúthien.' (259)
of Tolkien's work
Gawain and the Green Knight, edited with E.V. Gordon
1949--Farmer Giles of Ham
1954--The Fellowship of the Ring
1955--The Return of the King
1962--The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
1967--Smith of Wootton Major
1976--The Father Christmas Letters
1981--The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
1983--The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays
The Book of Lost Tales, Part I
1984--The Book of Lost Tales, Part II
1985--The Lays of Beleriand
Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.
J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1955.