Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (1892–1973) Oxford professor and author of the epic story The Lord of the Rings, considered by some to be the greatest literary achievement of the 20th century. J. R. R. Tolkien also wrote The Hobbit, Or There and Back Again and several other books about the lives and histories of all the people and magical creatures who live in Middle-Earth. Arthur Reuel Tolkien and his wife Mabel Suffield, Tolkien’s parents, emigrated to the Orange Free State, now part of South Africa, from England in the 1890s to help establish a branch of an English bank in Bloemfontein. J. R. R., called Ronald, was their first child, born January 3, 1892, followed by his brother Hilary Arthur Reuel, born February 17, 1894. In 1895, at the age of three, Mabel— exhausted from the South African climate—left with the two boys and returned to England to see her family. Arthur promised to join them in a few months, but before he could leave he died of rheumatic fever, leaving his young family in financial straits. Mabel and her sons briefly lived with her parents in Birmingham, in Warwickshire, and then took lodgings in the nearby town of Sarehole. Young Ronald loved Sarehole and the Warwickshire countryside, which he recalled in the descriptions of the Shire. Tolkien’s mother tutored her sons at home the first few years, introducing Ronald to the wonders of plants and gardening. But his favorite lessons were in languages, in which he excelled. Ronald could read by age four, learned to write fluently not long afterward, and already knew some Latin by the time he entered St. Edward’s School, Birmingham, in 1900. That same year, his mother and her sister May converted to Catholicism, an event that estranged Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel 313 the family from their Protestant relatives on both sides. Ronald remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. In November 1904, when Ronald was only 12 and Hilary 10, their mother died from diabetes, leaving the boys orphaned and destitute. Father Francis Xavier Morgan, parish priest of the Birmingham Oratory in the suburb of Edgbaston, became the boys’ guardian and cared for them throughout the rest of their school years. Ronald studied the classics, Anglo-Saxon, and Middle English. Tolkien received a scholarship to Exeter College at Oxford University in 1911. Unable to house the boys at the Oratory, Father Francis arranged for them to live in a boardinghouse run by a Mrs. Faulkner. When Tolkien was 16, he noticed a young woman named Edith Bratt, 19, who also boarded at Mrs. Faulkner’s, and they struck up a friendship. Believing that Tolkien was too young and fearing that he would not continue his education, Father Francis forbade Tolkien from seeing or corresponding with Miss Bratt until he was 21. Stoically, Tolkien concentrated on his studies, immersing himself in Old and Middle English, Gothic German, Old Norse, Welsh, and Finnish as well as the classics, changing his degree program to philology. He even invented his own language, which he called Quenya, based on Finnish and Welsh. Quenya eventually emerged as High Elvish. Tolkien turned 21 in 1913 and immediately tried to contact Edith Bratt. By this time she had accepted another proposal of marriage but broke it off. In 1914, Edith converted to Catholicism and moved to the castle town of Warwick. Tolkien finished Oxford with a first-class degree in June 1915. World War I had begun the previous August, and after graduation he enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusilliers. When it appeared that he would be leaving for France, Tolkien and Edith married on March 22, 1916. Tolkien saw active duty as a communication officer at the Battle of the Somme, but within four months (by the end of October 1916) he had contracted “trench fever” from the unsanitary conditions of the trenches and was sent back to England in November to recuperate. He did not return to the Front, which saved his life. Many of his comrades and friends from school did not survive the war. While he recovered, Tolkien began to write the stories that would someday form the basis of The Silmarillion (the lore of the Elves) and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien described his tales as a mythology for England: legends that he believed lost due to barbarian invasion and conquest by the Normans in 1066. He undertook such an endeavor as a tribute to his fallen friends. When Armistice was signed in November 1918, Tolkien already had feelers out to obtain academic employment. The Tolkiens’ first child, John Francis Reuel, was one year old, born in November 1917. (John Francis later became Father John Tolkien.) His first job was as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary, then in preparation, but by 1920, he was the Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds. Their second son, Michael Hilary Reuel, was born in Oct. 1920. While at Leeds, Tolkien collaborated with E. V. Gordon on a well-received edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Third son Christopher Reuel was born in 1924. In 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, where his lectures on the En-glish epic poem Beowulf and the origins of the Welsh language cemented his reputation. Tolkien also helped found a group of Oxford friends who met to listen and comment on each other’s work; besides Tolkien, the most prominent member of “The Inklings” was C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s closest friend. Tolkien’s deep Catholic faith inspired Lewis to return to Christianity. The Tolkiens’ last child, Priscilla Anne Reuel, arrived in 1929. Tolkien continued writing his mythological stories. One day, while grading a student’s exam, he found a blank sheet in the test booklet, and without thinking wrote, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” That led to research about what a Hobbit might be, why they lived in holes, their habits, and so forth and grew into The Hobbit, Or There and Back Again, told to his four children. Tolkien submitted it to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, who passed the manuscript to his then 10-year-old son, Raynor, for his perspective. Raynor loved it, and The Hobbit was published in 1937. Allen and Unwin (now part of HarperCollins) asked for more Hobbit stories. Tolkien tried to submit his manuscript for The Silmarillion, but those tales concerned Elves and Men, not Hobbits. So in the late 1930s, Tolkien began to write The Lord of the Rings, but with the advent of World War II, paper rationing and Tolkien’s own curious nature—leading him to research everything he could about any subject—the work was not published until 1954–55 in the United Kingdom and later in the United States. His son Christopher, who has been the editor of his father’s papers, published a four-volume work entitled The History of The Lord of the Rings which explains his father’s work and the various revisions of nearly every part of the books. Especially during the War, Tolkien wrote and rewrote on the same piece of paper. Christopher Tolkien told that his father was thrilled to find exams written on one side of the paper so that he could use the other side. In 1945, Tolkien moved to Merton College at Oxford as the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. He continued teaching and writing, each year promising his publisher that he was nearly finished with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien never envisioned LOTR as a trilogy but instead as one large volume comprised of six books: “The Return of the Shadow,” “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Treason of Isengard,” “The Journey to Mordor,” “The War of the Ring,” and “The Return of the King.” But with paper still short and Stanley Unwin unsure of sales (Raynor, now an adult working at Allen and Unwin, was confident of success), the decision was made to release LOTR as a trilogy: The Fellowship of the 314 Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Tolkien did not like the third title because he felt it gave away the plot. In 1965, U.S. publisher Ace Books released an unauthorized version of the trilogy, capitalizing on a loophole that allowed them to forego paying royalties because the originals said, “Printed in Great Britain.” Fans of the books, which had by then become cult classics, complained so loudly that Ace removed its edition and paid a small royalty to Tolkien. To regain copyright control, Tolkien began to reedit and revise the first editions; these resulted in a paperback edition from Ballantine Books in 1966. Typographical errors and mistakes in the minutiae of detail continued to plague Tolkien; every time a new edition was released something would be changed as something else was fixed. Later authorized editions include a slipcased edition in 1969, a Folio Society edition in 1977, and a one-volume “collectors’ edition” from Houghton Mifflin in 1986. Christopher Tolkien continues to submit corrections even now. The Lord of the Rings has been translated into many languages. More than one million Germans in 2004 voted the trilogy their favorite work of fiction, and polls in Great Britain and South Africa find Tolkien one of the top-100 people in both nations (he is the only person to be on both lists). Tolkien’s saga expanded the demand for fantasy fiction and influenced the popularity of role-playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons.” The success of Peter Jackson’s film versions of the trilogy brings a whole new generation of travelers to Middle-Earth. Tolkien the philologist, the lover of language and words, also changed Modern English. Prior to the publication of The Lord of the Rings, the plurals of “elf” and “dwarf” were “elfs” and “dwarfs,” as in “Snow White and the Seven . . .” But due to Tolkien’s insistence that the plurals he wanted were “elves” and “dwarves,” they have become common usage; he also changed “elfin” to “elven” and “elfish” to “elvish.” After Tolkien retired in 1969, he and Edith moved to Bournemouth. Edith died on November 22, 1971, and Tolkien returned to Oxford where he took rooms in Merton College. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, after a brief bout of pneumonia. Tolkien had often described the love he and Edith shared as being like that of Beren and Lúthien, the human/elven lovers in The Silmarillion and the models for the love of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. To honor that love, Ronald and Edith were buried in a single grave in the Catholic section of Wolvercote cemetery outside Oxford under the following epitaph: Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889–1971 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892–1973. Other Works by J. R. R. Tolkien: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil The Road Goes Ever On Farmer Giles of Ham The Father Christmas Letters Sir Gawain, Pearl and Sir Orfeo Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth
Doughan, David. “Who Was Tolkien?” The Tolkien Society. Available online. URL: www.tolkiensociety.org/tolkien/ biography.html. Downloaded October 17, 2004. “An Illustrated Biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, Together with an Interpretation of Some Ideas in His Stories.” Available online. URL: https://home.freeuk.net/webbuk2/tolkienbiography.htm. Downloaded January 21, 2005. “J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography.” Available online. URL: www. indepthinfo.com/tolkien/biography.shtml. Downloaded January 21, 2005. Reynolds, Pat. “The Lord of the Rings: The Tale of a Text.” The Tolkien Society. Available online. URL: www.tolkien society.org/tolkien/tale.html. Downloaded October. 17, 2004.