J. R. R. Tolkien

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J. R. R. Tolkien in . He is wearing a WWI-era British Army uniform in this photograph.
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J. R. R. Tolkien in 1916. He is wearing a WWI-era British Army uniform in this photograph.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (January 3, 1892September 2, 1973) was the author of The Hobbit and its sequel The Lord of the Rings.

John Ronald Ruel Tolkien attended King Edward's School, Birmingham and Oxford University; he worked as reader in English language at Leeds from 1920 to 1925, as professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford from 1925 to 1945, and of English Language and Literature, also at Oxford, from 1945 to 1959. He was an eminently distinguished lexicographer and an expert in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. He was a strongly committed Roman Catholic, and admitted in letters that his faith had a profound effect on his writings. He belonged to a literary discussion group called the Inklings, through which he enjoyed a close friendship with C. S. Lewis.

In addition to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's published fiction includes a number of posthumous books about the history of the imaginary world of Middle-earth, where his stories take place. The enduring popularity and influence of these works have established Tolkien as the father of the modern high fantasy genre. Tolkien's other published fiction includes adaptations of stories originally told to his children and not directly related to Middle-earth.

Contents

Biography

Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (today a part of South Africa), to Arthur Tolkien, an English bank manager, and his wife Mabel Tolkien (maiden name Suffield). As far as is known, most of Tolkien's paternal ancestors were craftsmen. The Tolkien family had its roots in Saxony (Germany), but had been living in England since the 18th century. The surname Tolkien is anglicized from Tollkiehn (i.e. German tollkühn, "foolhardy"). The character of Professor Rashbold in The Notion Club Papers is a pun on the name. Tolkien only had one sibling, his brother Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien, who was born on February 17, 1894.

When he was three, Tolkien went to England with his mother and brother on what was intended to be a lengthy family visit. His father, however, died in South Africa of a severe brain haemorrhage before he could join them. This left the family without an income, so Tolkien's mother took him to live with her parents in Birmingham for a short time. Soon after, in 1896, they moved to Sarehole, then a Worcestershire village, later annexed to Birmingham. He enjoyed exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog and the Clent and Lickey Hills, which would later inspire scenes in his books, as would areas in Worcestershire particularly his aunt's farm of Bag End, whose name would be used in his fiction.

Mabel tutored her two sons, and Ronald, as he was known in the family, was a keen pupil. She taught him a great deal of botany, and she awoke in her son the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants. Young Tolkien liked to draw landscapes and trees. But his favourite lessons were those concerning languages, and his mother taught him the rudiments of Latin very early. He could read by the age of four, and could write fluently soon afterwards. He attended King Edward's School, Birmingham, St Phillip's School, and Exeter College, Oxford.

His mother converted to Roman Catholicism in 1900, despite vehement protests by her Baptist family. She died of diabetes in 1904, when Tolkien was 12, and he felt for the rest of his life that she had become a martyr for her faith; this had a profound effect on his own Catholic beliefs. Tolkien's devout faith was significant in the conversion of C. S. Lewis to Christianity, and his writings express Christian values and contain much Christian symbolism.

During his subsequent orphanhood he was brought up by Father Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory, in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham. He lived there in the shadow of Perrott's Folly and the Victorian tower of Edgbaston waterworks, which may have influenced the images of the dark towers within his works. Another strong influence was the romantic medievalist paintings of Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a large & world-renowned collection of works and had put it on free public display from around 1908.

He met and fell in love with Edith Bratt (later to serve as his model for Lúthien), and despite many obstacles he succeeded in marrying her, on March 22, 1916.

With his childhood love of landscape, he visited Cornwall in 1914 and he was said to be deeply impressed by the singular Cornish coastline and sea. After graduating from the University of Oxford with a first-class degree in English language in 1915, Tolkien joined the British Army effort in World War I and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th batallion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. His batallion was moved to France in 1916, where Tolkien served as a communications officer during the Battle of the Somme, until he came down with trench fever on 27 October, and was moved back to England on 8 November. Many of his fellow servicemen, as well as several of his closest friends, were killed in the war. During his recovery in a cottage in Great Haywood, Staffordshire he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, beginning with The Fall of Gondolin.

Tolkien's first civilian job after World War I was at the Oxford English Dictionary (among others, he initiated the entries wasp and walrus). In 1920 he took up a post as Reader in English language at the University of Leeds, but in 1925 he returned to Oxford as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College. In 1945 he moved to Merton College, Oxford, becoming the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, in which post he remained until his retirement in 1959.

It may be significant that Tolkien disliked intensely the devouring of the English countryside by the suburbs, even though, given his profession, he generally found it convenient to live in them. But for most of his adult life he eschewed automobiles, preferring to ride a bicycle. Tolkien and Edith had four children: John Francis Reuel (November 17, 1917), Michael Hilary Reuel (October, 1920), Christopher Reuel (1924) and Priscilla Anne Reuel (1929). During the 1950s, Tolkien spent many of his long academic holidays at the home of his son John Francis in Stoke-on-Trent.

Engraved on the stone at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, where he and his wife are buried, are the names Beren and Lúthien, paying homage to one of the great love stories of his fictional Middle-earth.

Posthumously named after Tolkien are the Tolkien Road in Eastbourne, East Sussex, and the asteroid 2675 Tolkien. Tolkien Way in Stoke-On-Trent is named after J.R.R.'s son, Father John Francis Tolkien, who was the priest in charge at nearby Church of Our Lady of the Angels and St Peter in Chains.

Writing

Tolkien's earliest literary ambition was to be a poet, but his primary creative urge in his younger days was the invention of imaginary languages, including early versions of what would later evolve into the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin. Believing that a language implies a people to speak it, and that a people implies stories that reflect the style and views of their languages, he began writing (in English, but with many names and terms from his invented languages) the mythology and tales of a fictional people he associated with legendary fairies. He later came to call them Elves (with some regret, for he came to consider the name misleading). Beginning as The Book of Lost Tales, written while recuperating from illness during World War I, these tales - which included the love story of Beren and Lúthien - were later re-written as long narrative poems (The Lays of Beleriand) and eventually evolved into The Silmarillion, an epic history that Tolkien never finished. The story of this continuous re-drafting is told in the posthumous series The History of Middle-Earth.

Tolkien drew much of his influencies from northern Europe: mostly from Germanic mythology, which includes the Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythologies, examples being Beowulf and the Elder Edda, and from similar sources such as Celtic mythology and Finnish Kalevala.

In addition to this serious adult work, Tolkien enjoyed inventing fantasy stories to entertain his children. He wrote annual Christmas letters from Father Christmas for them, building up a series of short stories (later compiled and published as The Father Christmas Letters).

Tolkien never expected his fictional stories to become popular but he was persuaded by a former student to publish a book he had written for his own children called The Hobbit in 1937. However, the book attracted adult readers as well, and it became popular enough for the publisher, Allen & Unwin, to ask Tolkien to work on a sequel. This prompted him to begin what would become his most famous work: the epic three-volume novel The Lord of the Rings (19541955). (Note that while the Lord of the Rings is often described as a "trilogy" and sold as three separate books, it was written as a single story and it was Tolkien's editors, not Tolkien himself, who made the division into three parts.) Tolkien took almost ten years to write Lord of the Rings, during which time he received the constant support of the Inklings, in particular his closest friend C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set long after The Silmarillion but draw heavily on its mythology.

The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular with students in the 1960s, and has remained popular since, ranking as one the most popular works of fiction of the twentieth century, judged by both sales and reader surveys. It was voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a readers' poll conducted by the BBC, and the Waterstone's bookstore chain and in 1999 a poll of Amazon.com customers judged The Lord of the Rings to be the greatest book of the millennium. In 2002 Tolkien was voted 92nd of a "Greatest Britons" poll conducted by the BBC and in 2004 he was voted 35th in the [[Greatest South Africans. He is the only person to appear in both the British and South African Top 100. His popularity is not limited just to the English-speaking world: in 2004 a poll of more than one million Germans found The Lord of the Rings (Herr der Ringe) to be their favourite work of literature by a wide margin.

Tolkien at first thought that The Lord of the Rings would tell another children's tale like The Hobbit, but it quickly grew darker and more serious in the writing. Though a direct sequel to The Hobbit, it addressed an older audience, drawing on the immense back-story of Middle-earth that Tolkien had constructed and that eventually saw posthumous publication in The Silmarillion and other volumes. Tolkien's influence weighs heavily on the fantasy genre that grew up after the success of The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien was a professional philologist, and the languages and the mythologies he studied clearly left an imprint on his fiction. In particular, the dwarves' names in the Hobbit, are taken from the Völuspá of the Edda, while certain plot-elements (for example. the thief stealing a cup from a dragon's hoard) are taken from Beowulf. Tolkien was a recognized authority on Beowulf, and published several important works on the poem. A previously unpublished translation of Beowulf by Tolkien was found in 2004 and is being edited for publication by Michael Drout.

Tolkien continued to work on the history of Middle-earth until his death. His son Christopher, with assistance from fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay, organised some of this material into one volume, published as The Silmarillion in 1977. Christopher Tolkien continued over subsequent years to publish background material on the creation of Middle-earth. Note that the posthumous works such as The History of Middle-earth and the Unfinished Tales contain unfinished, abandoned, alternative and outright contradictory versions of the stories simply because Tolkien kept working on his mythology for decades, constantly rewriting, re-editing and expanding the stories. Only The Silmarillion attempts to maintain true consistency with The Lord of the Rings, and this only thanks to heavy editing by Christopher Tolkien—and even he states that many inconsistencies remain in The Silmarillion. (Even The Hobbit never became fully synchronised with The Lord of the Rings, although one chapter was substantially revised in the second edition of 1951.)

The library of the Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin preserves many of Tolkien's original manuscripts, notes and letters; other original material survives at Oxford's Bodleian Library. Marquette has the manuscripts and proofs of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, manuscripts of many "lesser" books like the Farmer Giles of Ham, and Tolkien fan material, while the Bodleian holds the Silmarillion papers and Tolkien's academic work.

Languages

See also Languages of Middle-earth.

Philology, the study of languages, was Tolkien's first academic love, and his interest in linguistics inspired him to invent some fifteen artificial languages (most famously the two Elvish languages in The Lord of the Rings: Quenya and Sindarin). He later elaborated an entire cosmogony and history of Middle-earth as background.

In his personal correspondence he noted the sound of the Finnish language as the most pleasing to his ears, and it was a source of inspiration for Quenya, the most important of his invented languages.

The popularity of his books has had a small but lasting effect on the use of language in fantasy literature, especially the use of his non-standard forms "dwarves" and "elvish" (instead of "dwarfs" and "elfish").

Art based on Tolkien's works

See also Works inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien.

In a 1951 letter to Milton Waldman (Letters 131), Tolkien writes about his intentions to create a "body of more or less connected legend", of which

The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.

The hands and minds of many artists have indeed been inspired by Tolkien's legends. Personally known to him were Pauline Baynes (Tolkien's favourite illustrator of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Farmer Giles of Ham) and Donald Swann (who set the music to The Road Goes Ever On). Queen Margrethe II of Denmark created illustrations to the Lord of the Rings in the early 1970s. She sent them to Tolkien, who was struck by the similarity to the style of his own drawings.

But Tolkien was not fond of all artistic representation of his works that was produced in his lifetime, and sometimes harshly disapproving.

In 1946 (Letters, 107), he rejects suggestions for illustrations by Horus Engels for the German edition of the Hobbit as "too Disnified",

Bilbo with a dribbling nose, and Gandalf as a figure of vulgar fun rather than the Odinic wanderer that I think of.

He was sceptical of the emerging fandom in the United States, and in 1954 he returned proposals for the dust-jackets of the American edition of the Lord of the Rings (Letters, 144):

Thank you for sending me the projected 'blurbs', which I return. The Americans are not as a rule at all amenable to criticism or correction; but I think their effort is so poor that I feel constrained to make some effort to improve it.

And in 1958, in an irritated reaction to a proposed movie adaptation of the Lord of the Rings by Morton Grady Zimmerman (Letters, 207) he writes

I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.

He went on criticize the script scene by scene ("yet one more scene of screams and rather meaningless slashings"). But Tolkien was in principle open to the idea of a movie adaptation. He sold the film, stage and merchandise rights of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to United Artists in 1968, while, guided by scepticism towards future productions, he forbade that Disney should ever be involved (Letters, 13, 1937):

It might be advisable […] to let the Americans do what seems good to them – as long as it was possible […] to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).

United Artists never made a film, though at least John Boorman was planning a film in the early seventies. It would have been a live-action film, which apparently would have been much more to Tolkien's liking than an animated film. In 1976 the rights were sold to Tolkien Enterprises, a division of the Saul Zaentz Company, and the first movie adaptation (an animated film) of The Lord of the Rings appeared only after Tolkien's death (in 1978, directed by Ralph Bakshi). In 20012003 The Lord of the Rings was filmed as a trilogy of films by Peter Jackson.

Bibliography

See also Poems by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Fiction and poetry

Academic works

Posthumous publications

Audio recordings

  • 1967 Poems and Songs of Middle-Earth, Caedmon TC 1231
  • 1975 JRR Tolkien Reads and Sings his The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings, Caedmon TC 1477, TC 1478 (based on an August, 1952 recording by George Sayer)

In journal articles

Tolkien himself and his works have become subjects of academic research and many of his essays and text fragments, otherwise unpublished, have been studied in academic publications and forums.

Books about Tolkien and Tolkien's worlds

A small selection of the dozens of books about Tolkien and his worlds:

External links

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  • Tolkien Biography (http://www.tolkiensociety.org/tolkien/biography.html) (The Tolkien Society)

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