The English writer J.R.R. Tolkien is best remembered today as the author of the fantasy works The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. He was also a university professor, philologist, and poet. Tolkien was a friend of another well-known, English fantasy writer, C.S. Lewis. A year before his death, he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the regent, Queen Victoria II.
J.R.R. Tolkien was born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, which is today in South Africa. His parents were Arnold Reuel Tolkien, an Englishman who was a bank manager, and Mabel Suffield. Tolkien only had one younger brother as a sibling, Hilary Arthur Reuel who was born on February 17, 1894. When he was only three years old, his father died while he, his brother, and his mother were in England on a long, family visit. Since this development left the Tolkien family with no income, his mother took him to live with her mother and father in Birmingham.
Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, took quite an initiative in the young J.R.R.’s development, teaching him and his brother. Tolkien was quite the engaged pupil, and his mother awakened him to botany and taught him Latin early on. Mabel died when Tolkien was only 12 years old, a victim of diabetes mellitus type 1. Before she died, Mabel delegated the guardianship of her sons to the Birmingham Oratory.
When Tolkien was a teenager attending King Edward’s School, he formed a semi-secret society. He and three friends called it the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. In the fall of 1911, Tolkien started his studies at Exeter College, first exploring Classics. In 1913, he switched his course selection to English Language and Literature, and he graduated with honors from the college in 1915.
When he was only 16, Tolkien met his future wife, Edith Mary Bratt. His guardian, a Catholic priest, viewed the girl as a distraction to his studies and so threatened to cut off his support for his university career if he didn’t desist. Tolkien reluctantly obeyed, not communicating with Edith until his 21st birthday. When he resumed communication with her on the night of his 21st birthday, he discovered she was already in an agreement to marry someone else. After a face-to-face meeting, though, Edith rejected her current suitor, and she and Tolkien eventually wed on March 22, 1916 at a Catholic church.
As World War I broke out, Tolkien became a Second Lieutenant in the Lancanshire Fusiliers. For much of his World War I military career, Tolkien was branded medically unfit for service since he spent a lot of time in hospitals or garrison duty. After the war, Tolkien took a job with the Oxford English Dictionary, and in 1925, he entered into a fellowship at Pembroke College when he went back to St. John’s College, Oxford as a professor. At Pembroke, he penned first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings and also The Hobbit.
During the opening of World War II, Tolkien took a course at the headquarters of the Government Code and Cipher School to hone his skills as a codebreaker. Ultimately, he was not called up for service by the government, so he didn’t need to serve in World War II. After World War II, Tolkien became Merton College’s Professor of English Language and Literature until his retirement in 1959. In 1948, he finally finished The Lord of the Rings.
He and Edith had four children, an achievement he could look back on in fondness in his retired life from 1959 to 1973. During this period, Tolkien received his greatest fame during his lifetime as his works grew in popularity. It became such that in his later retirement, he and his wife had to move to the upper-class, seaside resort town of Bournemouth to escape increasingly invasive fans. Edith died two years ahead of Tolkien on November 29, 1971, while he died on September 2, 1973.
Religion and Politics
J.R.R. Tolkien was known as a committed Catholic for his entire life. He was so committed that even after the Second Vatican Council imposed its reforms that saw the Mass said in English rather than Latin, Tolkien would still respond in Latin while the congregation would respond in English. Tolkien was a friend of the prominent Christian writer, C.S. Lewis. Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity was seen as being materially helped by Tolkien.
Politically, Tolkien was a dependable and fierce anti-communist, which was something of a departure from many of the people he knew in so-called intellectual and writer’s circles in the West. At the time, many so-called intellectuals and writers were not ashamed to publicly admire the mass-murderer and communist, Joseph Stalin. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien was also a fierce opponent and critic of Nazism, another totalitarian system like communism, which sees similarities in total government control over the citizenry, mass-murder to achieve political goals, a hostility to capitalism, and a fierce persecution of organized religion. When his book, The Hobbit, was being prepared for release in Nazi Germany, Tolkien was asked if he was of Aryan origin. In reply, the author said that he was proud to have a lot of friends who were Jewish, and he also went further by denouncing the race-doctrine of the Nazis as anti-Semitic and also unscientific and pernicious. Despite the fact that he opposed Nazism, Tolkien soundly condemned the Allied tactic of total war that was used against civilians in Nazi Germany and Japan.
Influences were a big part of the masterworks of J.R.R Tolkien. Tolkien himself had admitted openly that many of his pieces of literature were influenced by other works. A few examples of some of the obvious influences in Tolkien’s works include Roman Catholicism, philology, mythology (particularly Norse and Anglo-Saxon), and fairy tales. His influences for his novels were not limited to merely literary sources. The military service that he did in World War I and the military service that his son did in World War II were both influences on his writings, too.
As far as individual writers go, William Morris, the arts and crafts polymath, was one of the largest influences on Tolkien. The work of Edward Wyke-Smith, Marvelous Land of the Snergs, actually influenced the race of Tolkien’s character, Bilbo, in The Hobbit. The novel of author H. Rider Haggard called She was singled out by Tolkien as yet another influence.
“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” was an essay originally based on a 1936 lecture of Tolkien. This essay took the treatment by literary critics of the epic poem Beowulf in a new direction. To this very day, Tolkien’s essay is very authoritative for all those people studying Old English literature. Interestingly, Beowulf is a strong influence on Tolkien’s own works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien cites all the parts of the poem that he found as the most inspiring parts of that Old English work of literature. The part of Beowulf that Tolkien found the most inspiring was one which underscored the prominence of monsters in works of literature, particularly the role of the dragon.
The Silmarillion is a work that was published in 1977, after Tolkien’s death. His son, Christopher Tolkien, both published and edited this Tolkien writing, and it is a collection of the author’s mythopoeic works. The Silmarillion is best thought of as an authoritative though incomplete narrative which explains the universe of Middle-earth. Middle-earth is the universe within which the events of both The Lords of the Rings and The Hobbit take place. The origin of this Tolkien work comes from the period of time after the success of The Hobbit. Tolkien’s publisher wanted to capitalize on said success, so they demanded a sequel—which Tolkien sent them in the form of an early version of The Silmarillion. The publisher rejected it, but only out of a misunderstanding, which led to it only being published after the author’s death.
The Hobbit is a children’s book and also a fantasy book that Tolkien authored in 1937. Upon publication of the book, it was met with critical acclaim, so much so that it was actually nominated for the Carnegie Medal and even awarded a prize for best juvenile fiction from the New York Herald Tribune. Today, The Hobbit is still highly popular and is considered a classic in the realm of children’s literature. Tolkien’s novel follows the goal of protagonist Bilbo Baggins to claim a part of a treasure that is protected by the dragon called Smaug. Some of the themes that are recurrent throughout this Tolkien novel are themes of heroism along with themes of personal growth. The book was also widely financially successful.
The Lord of the Rings was borne out of a request for a sequel for The Hobbit. It is actually comprised of three, distinct volumes, and the large share of the work behind this novel was done during the World War II years. Initially, The Lord of the Rings was intended by Tolkien to be only one volume of a two-volume work that was also supposed to include The Silmarillion. The publisher had other ideas, as when Tolkien first submitted The Lord of the Rings to them, they decided it would be published in three volumes. This decision came about out of economic reasons, and The Lord of the Rings was eventually published over the course of 1954-1955 in two-book volumes.
The legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien is quite obvious. If you look in film, for instance, the most popular and most recent adaptation of his works is the trilogy of films based on the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. Spanning the years 2001 to 2003, the successful trilogy was directed by Peter Jackson. Even though the film rights to The Lords of the Rings was sold by Tolkien to United Artists all the way back in 1968, the move to make it into a film languished until the rights were sold to Tolkien Enterprises in 1976.
In literature, Tolkien’s works have been influential to famous authors of the present era. For instance, the author Pat Murphy wrote a book called There and Back Again, which purposefully has parallels to the plot of The Hobbit, the only difference being that the setting is in outer space. The young author Christopher Paolini has authored a trilogy of books called The Inheritance Cycle. Due to its extreme similarity to characters, settings and languages from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, he has even been accused of all-out plagiarism by his critics.
Even music has been a witness to Tolkien’s legacy. Bands who perform progressive rock music—Bo Hansson, Mostly Autumn, and Rush—have written songs that are founded on Tolkien’s stories. Metal music has also been influenced by Tolkien. Bands like Megadeth and Blind Guardian have composed a lot of songs that can be traced back to Tolkien and his universe of Middle-Earth.
About the Songs and Poems in The Lord of the Rings: Web page that serves as a commentary on both the poems and songs contained in the book, The Lord of the Rings.
Interview Commentary: Contains audio of an English professor who talks about the mythology and literature in The Lord of the Rings.
The Books vs. The Movies: Web page that analyzes both the book, The Lord of the Rings, as well as its adapted movie version. It goes on to compare the two analytically.
Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings: Analysis by an engineer regarding why The Lord of the Rings is not as controversial as the Harry Potter series.
Learning about Tolkien: Web page from Rutgers University that features an essay by an eighth-grader about Tolkien and his works.
Dragons in the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien: Contains analysis on all the references to dragons in Tolkien’s works.
The Tolkien Society: Gives a detailed biography of the author along with suggestions for further reading.
JRR Tolkien: Talks about the author and the role of Middle-earth in his novels. Includes many links other Tolkien resources.
J.R.R. Tolkien News: From the New York Times comes this resource that consists of archival articles about the author.
J.R.R. Tolkien Quotes: Contains a list of some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous quotations.
JRR Tolkien: Web page that collects two newspaper articles about J.R.R Tolkien. The articles discuss his Christianity, his letters and his death.
Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works: Extensive resource page about the author and all of his works.
A Biography of JRR Tolkien: A straightforward biography of the author that includes his orphaning, his war service, and his literary works.
Britannica Online Encyclopedia: Decent biography of the author, which also appears on a web page with many links to Tolkien-related items.
UGO Entertainment: Provides a brief but informative biography on Tolkien, detailing in short order the major events of his life.
The Hobbit Book: Talks about the plot and themes of the book. Short, but a good primer on the book.
Croft-Beyond the Hobbit: An essay that explores all the other children’s literature that Tolkien was involved in besides The Hobbit.
The Hobbit: An overview: Site dedicated to providing an overview of the Tolkien children’s book, The Hobbit.