J.R.R.Tolkien: Life, Books & Legacy

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a major scholar of the English language, specializing in Old and Middle English. Twice Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford, he also wrote a number of stories, including most famously

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an accomplished scholar of the English language, who focused his studies on Old and Middle English. He was twice a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford. J.R.R Tolkien created Middle-earth, an invented version of our world set in a pre-historic era, as the setting for The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955).

This world was inhabited by Men (and women), Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs (or Goblins), and Hobbits. Despite being regularly condemned by the English Lit. establishment, he was loved by millions of readers worldwide. J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, books, and legacy continue to be adored by many.


J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life

J.R.R. Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa. His father,  Arthur Reuel Tolkien, was a bank manager, and his mother, Mabel, née Suffield, was passionate about literature. When Tolkien was three years old, his father died of rheumatic fever, and his mother took him and his brother,  Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien, back to England.

Mabel Tolkien educated her two children at home. John Ronald, known within the family, showed excitement toward learning. She taught him many lessons on botany and languages which he enjoyed immensely. He liked to sketch landscapes or draw pictures of trees in his free time but always looked forward most to the language lessons his mother would give him; she even managed to teach him the basics of Latin very early on.

By age four, Tolkien could read and write fluently. His mother let him read many books, some of which he later found influence in. He found Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “amusing but disturbing.” He liked stories about “Red Indians” Native Americans and working of fantasy by George MacDonald. Additionally, the “Fairy Books” by Andrew Lang were particularly important to him.

Mabel Tolkien converted to Roman Catholicism in 1900, which caused her Baptist family to sever all ties with her financially. In 1904, when J. R. R. Tolkien was 12 years old, his mother passed away from acute diabetes at Fern Cottage in Rednal – a cottage she had been renting out.

At that point, he and his brother were sent to live with their Catholic priest Father Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. Tolkien lived in Edgbaston near Birmingham. He later attended King Edward’s School and then St Philip’s School. In 1903, he received a Foundation Scholarship which allowed him to return to King Edward’s.

J.R.R.Tolkien’s Youth

In 1911, Tolkien and three of his friends from King Edward’s School – Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Christopher Wiseman – started a semi-secret society which they named the T.C.B.S. The initials stood for Tea Club and Barrovian Society in reference to their mutual love of drinking tea at Barrow’s Stores near the school as well as secretly in the school library.

Even after leaving school, all four members kept in touch through frequent communication with one another until December 1914 when they held a council meeting at Wiseman’s London home. For Tolkien specifically, this series of events resulted in something much more impactful: a newfound dedication to writing poetry that he did not have before formulating the TBCS.

In 1911, Tolkien went on a summer holiday in Switzerland where influence from the landscape can be seen in his later works.

At the age of 16, J.R.R. Tolkien began attending Exeter College, Oxford. He studied Classics but found the subject uninteresting and switched to English Language and Literature, where he found his true passion.

Courtship and marriage

Tolkien And Edith
Tolkien and Edith

At the age of 16, Tolkien met Edith Mary Bratt, who was three years his senior, at a tea party. He fell in love with her but due to the difference in their ages as well as the wishes of Father Morgan, who thought Tolkien needed to focus on his studies, they agreed not to see each other for several years.

On his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote to Edith, who was living with family friend C. H. Jessop at Cheltenham. He declared his eternal love for her and asked her to marry him. Edith replied that she had already accepted the proposal of George Field, the brother of one of her closest school friends; however, she explained that everything had changed after receiving Tolkien’s letter.

The two got engaged in January 1913 and were married on March 22, 1916, at St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church in Warwick. J.R.R. Tolkien was 24 years old and Edith was 27. They had both graduated from Oxford by that point – J.R.R. with a first-class degree in 1915.

During their engagement, J.R.R Tolkien wrote poems for Edith which were later compiled into a book called The Book of Lost Tales: Part One, which was published posthumously in 1984.

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First World War

J.r.r. Tolkien In Wwi
J.R.R. Tolkien in WWI. Image source: The Tolkien Trust

In August 1914, Britain entered the First World War.  J.R.R Tolkien enlisted in the British Army and was assigned to the Lancashire Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant. He was stationed in Staffordshire while he waited to be deployed.

On June 1916, J.R.R. Tolkien and his battalion set sail for France from Folkestone. They arrived in Boulogne on the morning of June 17 and were put on a train that took them to a small village outside of Ypres called Ploegsteert Wood. It was here that J.R.R. Tolkien would spend most of his time during the war.

JRR Tolkien’s health began to deteriorate due to the constant shelling, gas attacks, and sickness that were rampant in the trenches. In October 1916, he was sent to a hospital in Birmingham to recuperate. It was during this time that JRR Tolkien contracted trench fever and was sent back home to England.

The war claimed many of Tolkien’s closest friends from school, including Rob Gilson and Geoffrey Smith of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Both were killed in battle: Gilson on the first day of the Somme while leading an assault, and Smith when a German shell hit the first-aid post. Out of almost 800 men in Tolkien’s battalion, only 11 returned to England after the war.

Tolkien, who was weak and frail at this time, spent the rest of the war switching between hospitals and garrison duties. He wasn’t considered healthy enough for general service. While he was recovering in a cottage in Little Haywood, Staffordshire, he started working on what he called The Book of Lost Tales. This project represented Tolkien’s attempt to create a mythology for England–which he never ended up finishing.

On 16 July 1919, Tolkien was taken off active service at Fovant on Salisbury Plain with a temporary disability pension.

J.R.R.Tolkien’s Academic and writing career

After the war, J.R.R. Tolkien resumed his academic career. He was elected a fellow of Exeter College in 1920 and became a professor of the English Language at the University of Leeds in 1924.

In 1925, J.R.R Tolkien returned to Oxford as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College. He held this position until 1945 when he retired due to health reasons.

It was during his time at Oxford that J.R.R Tolkien started working on what would become one of his most famous works, The Hobbit. The story was originally meant for children but ended up being enjoyed by people of all ages. JRR Tolkien completed the manuscript in 1937 and it was published the following year.

The success of The Hobbit led JRR Tolkien to start work on a sequel, which became The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He worked on the books for 12 years and they were finally published in 1954-1955. The Lord of the Rings was an instant success and JRR Tolkien became world-famous overnight.

He continued to write until his death in 1973, at the age of 81. His wife, Edith, had died less than six months earlier on 29 November 1972. They are buried side by side in the Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford.

Tolkien And His Wife Edith
RR Tolkien and his wife Edith, photographed by Pamela Chandler. ©Pamela Chandler via Reeman Dansie Credit: Pamela Chandler

Tolkien’s son, Christopher, edited and published a number of JRR Tolkien’s unfinished novels and stories after his death.

Other Writings

In addition to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien also wrote a number of other books, including:

The Silmarillion: This is a collection of JRR Tolkien’s mythopoeic works, which he started working on in 1919. It wasn’t published until 1977, four years after his death.

The Children of Hurin: This book was published in 2007 and is based on JRR Tolkien’s early stories about Turin Turambar.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun: This book was published in 2009 and contains two long poems that JRR Tolkien wrote in the 1920s.

J.R.R Tolkien also wrote a number of academic books, including:

  • The Fall of Gondolin (Published: 2018)
  • Beren and Làºthien (Published: 2017)
  • The Story of Kullervo (Published: 2015)
  • Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (Published: 2014)
  • The Fall of Arthur (Published: 2013)

J.R.R Tolkien was a prolific writer and his work has had a lasting impact on the fantasy genre.

J.R.R.Tolkien’s legacy

J.R.R Tolkien’s work has been hugely influential, particularly in the fantasy genre. His books have been translated into over 50 languages and have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide.

Tolkien’s stories are set in a richly-imagined world of elves, dwarves, hobbits, and humans, and his intricate descriptions of this world have inspired many subsequent authors, including J.K Rowling, George R.R Martin, and Terry Pratchett. Tolkien’s books are notable not only for their imaginative setting but also for their exploration of deep philosophical and moral themes.  He is considered one of the most important authors of the 20th century.


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