Tolkien's illustration from The Hobbit

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (pronounced Tol-keen) was born in 1892 in what is now South Africa to Arthur Reuel Tolkien and his wife Mabel. Three years later, while visiting England with J. R. R. Tolkien and his infant brother Hilary, Mabel received word that her husband had died of rheumatic fever. Suddenly widowed with two young children and no financial means, Mabel's short visit to England instead became a permanent homecoming. She and her sons came to live with her parents in Birmingham.

Mabel decided to educate her children at home, sharing with them her love of botany, drawing and painting. His inherited affinity for these subjects is keenly felt in Tolkien's giftedness as an author and illustrator. Meticulously crafted descriptions of the landscapes in which his stories unfold reveal an eye that captures even the smallest detail, and the command of a vocabulary peculiar to those who know and love the countryside, words such as freshet, tarn, mead, swath, rill, and so many others like them. Tolkien's use of these rich, earthy words and the believability of the scenes he paints with them give his stories, other-worldly though they are, a profound sense of the familiar.

Reading from the age of four and writing soon after, and blessed with a mother who read aloud to her children, Tolkien was immersed in story from a young age. The fairy tales of Andrew Lang and the fantasy writing of George MacDonald were among his favourites. Mabel also read her sons the classics and introduced them to the study of linguistics, teaching them French, German, and Latin, thereby igniting Tolkien's lifelong love affair with languages.


Fáfnir the dragon from The Red Fairy Book

Philip and Carol Zaleski in their book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inkings rightly observe the lasting influence Mable's gift of story, and in that her gift of self, had on her young son:

…he encountered goblins and, although he did not realise it at the time, Christian mythopoesis; in Lang's retelling of bits of the Old Norse Volsunga saga he met Fáfnir the dragon, a creature that excited his imagination like no other, and the prototype of Smaug of The Hobbit: 'The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him ... I desired dragons with a profound desire.' It was his first baptism into the enchantments of Faerie, an otherworldly realm just touching the fringes of ordinary life and leading, in its farthest reaches, to the outskirts of the supernatural.

When Tolkien was eight, Mable was received into the Catholic church, a decision which caused her Baptist family to withdraw all financial support for her and her sons. In 1904 Mabel died from diabetes, but not before ensuring that her sons would be raised in the Catholic faith. She had arranged for Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan to become their guardian at her death. Tolkien's expressed his appreciation for his mother's last act of loving care when some years later he wrote "My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith."

Fr. Francis saw to it that Tolkien received an excellent education, King Edward's School, St. Philips School, then on to Exeter College, Oxford, from which he graduated with first-class honours in English language and literature in 1915.

When just sixteen Tolkien had met nineteen year old Edith Mary Bratt, herself also an orphan, and their romance blossomed quickly. Fr. Francis, concerned with his ward's romantic involvement with an older, Protestant woman and disappointed with Tolkien's poor academic performance that year, which he credited to the distraction Edith created, forbade their talking, meeting, or corresponding until Tolkien reached the age of twenty-one. Obeying his guardian, Tolkien parted with Edith. On the evening of his twenty-first birthday Tolkien broke his long silence, writing to Edith and declaring his love for her. Shortly after their reunion, under the shadow of WWI and Tolkien's impending military service, they became engaged and were married in 1916 following Edith's conversion to the Catholic faith. The story of their love enduring despite forced separations and many obstacles was later captured by Tolkien in his tales of Beren and Lúthien, and the two love stories became so entwined that Tolkien and Edith's grave markers bear both sets of names.


Edith and J. R. R. Tolkien

Less than three months after their marriage Tolkien's battalion was deployed to France. He later wrote, "Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then ... it was like a death." It is here in the foxholes, amid the most inhumane conditions and absurd realities of the Great War, that Tolkien takes up what he had begun as a schoolboy, the crafting of other worlds and languages, themselves profoundly ordered, sane, and full of Beauty, despite the encroachment of Evil. Tolkien was to reflect on this period saying, "One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression...by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.

Paradoxically, it was a near fatal bout of trench fever that likely saved his life. Tolkien had to be invalided back to England for medical care when his battalion was nearly wiped out. He was to spend the rest of the war in hospital and on light duty, unfit for combat service. These long periods of recovery afforded him the opportunity to take up his writing, beginning and then later abandoning an attempt to create a mythology for England, The Book of Lost Tales.

In 1920 Tolkien's military service ended and he took on his first civilian job, contributing to The Oxford English Dictionary, and also became professor of English language at the University of Leeds, where he produced A Middle English Vocabulary and his editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. 1920 was also the inaugural year of his writing and illustrating, under the persona of Father Christmas, an annual Christmas letter to the Tolkien children, John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla. This delightful tradition carried on through 1946, and these letters were posthumously collected and published as The Father Christmas Letters.

Tolkien returned to Oxford University in 1925 as professor of Anglo-Saxon with a fellowship at Pembroke College. The Hobbit, and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, were written while at Pembroke. His translation of Beowulf was completed as well, though it was to remain unpublished for some seventy more years. Tolkien moved to Merton College as professor of English language and literature in 1945. There he completed writing The Lord of the Rings with volume three, The Return of the King. He was to keep this post at Merton College until his retirement in 1959.

During these decades at Oxford University, Tolkien spent much of his time with a close circle of loosely associated writers, professors, and thinkers collectively referred to as the "Inklings." This set included such persons as C. S. Lewis and his brother Warren Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and Tolkien's son Christopher Tolkien. Warren Lewis was to reflect later, "Properly speaking, the Inklings was neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections." The name had been taken from Edward Lean's society of 'Inklings' at University College, Oxford, in which both students and dons, among them Lewis and Tolkien, met to read aloud and discuss each other's unfinished compositions. When Lean left Oxford during 1933, Tolkien and Lewis adopted the name and restarted the group at Magdalen College. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, and Williams's All Hallows' Eve were all read aloud to fellow Inklings. As to the relationship between the two societies of "Inklings" Tolkien said "although our habit was to read aloud compositions of various kinds (and lengths!), this association and its habit would in fact have come into being at that time, whether the original short-lived club had ever existed or not." Meetings most often took place Thursday evenings in Lewis's rooms at the college, and sometimes over Tuesday lunch at local pub, The Eagle and Child.


From the cover of Beren and Luthien

Tolkien retired from the college in 1959. Due to the increasing popularity of his books, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he found himself thrown into the often unenviable position of a literary celebrity, with frenzied fans often intruding on his and his family's privacy. He and Edith eventually relocated to the seaside resort town of Bournemouth. She died in 1971 at the age of 82. Tolkien followed her just shy of two years later in 1973 at age 81.

Their grandson, Simon Tolkien, writes, "My grandmother died two years before my grandfather, and he came back to live in Oxford. Merton College gave him rooms just off the High Street. I went there frequently and he'd take me to lunch in the Eastgate Hotel. Those lunches were rather wonderful for a 12-year-old boy spending time with his grandfather, but sometimes he seemed sad. There was one visit when he told me how much he missed my grandmother. It must have been very strange for him being alone after they had been married for more than 50 years."

At his death Tolkien left behind enough unpublished material from his 'legendarium' to keep his collaborator and editor, son Christopher, the last of the Inklings, busy for a lifetime. Christopher stepped down from his position as a medievalist Fellow at New College, Oxford in 1975 to begin his herculean labor of compiling, arranging, and editing much of his father's literary legacy. It is thanks to his meticulous scholarship and editorial genius that books such as The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, The Fall Gondolin, Beren and Lúthien and the twelve volume History of Middle Earth were published. In total, twenty five additional books of J. R. R. Tolkien's corpus were posthumously brought to press before Christopher's retirement.

It is nearly impossible to overstate the impact J.R.R. Tolkien's life and work has had on the literary genre of fantasy. As with any great artist, Tolkien was able to succeed in his own right because he had first mastered the canon of the form. Just as a excellent contemporary dancer relies on their foundational training in classical ballet, or a Jazz improvisationalist on their hours of faithfully running through scales, Tolkien's brilliant advancement of fantasy was predicated on his nearly immeasurably broad and deep knowledge and comprehension of the function, form, and symbology of language and myth. He understood that for something to be fiction, even fantasy, does not mean that it is untrue, rather, the very best of fiction is such precisely because it is True.

This is brilliantly conveyed in Tolkien's Mythopoeia, his poetic refutation of C.S. Lewis's early assertion, prior to his own conversion of heart on the subject, that "myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'." Instead, Tolkien argues, Myths are a powerful act of co-creation, a narrative assertion of universal, foundational, irrefutable, spiritual Truths.

The transformational impact that Tolkien, and the other Inklings, had on Lewis’s understanding of myth is summed up in Lewis’s later essay on The Lord of the Rings where Lewis writes, "The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’” Elsewhere Lewis wrote, “a child does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods,” but “the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted." Echoing Lewis in his own essay On Fairy Stories Tolkien writes: The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.

To Tolkien, for all the many glimpses of Truth he afforded us, we are forever indebted.

Johanna Bittle

Johanna Bittle writes from a lifelong love of captivating story. Homeschooled through high school, she graduated from Hillsdale College having studied History and Classics. She shares her pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful with her half-dozen precocious children, whom she schools at home.