Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

English writer, poet, and philologist.

January 3, 1892

Bloemfontein, South Africa

September 2, 1973

Bournemouth, England

Biography

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, one of two sons of Arthur Reuel and Mabel Suffield Tolkien. When he was four years old, his father died, and his mother returned to England, to a town near Birmingham. The verdant English countryside to which he was moved made an immediate impression on the boy; it was to become the locale for his now-famous fantasy world. Tolkien’s first teacher was his mother, and from her he acquired a love of languages and fantasy. Following her death in 1904 he and his brother were raised by Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a Roman Catholic priest. Tolkien received his secondary education at King Edward VI School in Birmingham and then attended Exeter College, Oxford, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1915. He then joined the Lancashire Fusiliers and served on the Western Front until the end of World War I. In 1916 he married Edith Mary Bratt; together they would have a daughter and three sons.

After the war, Tolkien returned to the University of Oxford and earned his master’s degree in 1919. His love of language led him to work for two years as an assistant on the Oxford English Dictionary. Between 1920 and 1925 he taught English at the University of Leeds. In 1925 he returned to Oxford as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, soon becoming the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. He was elected a fellow of Pembroke College in 1926 and was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 until his retirement in 1959. During these years he continued his work in Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature and lore, publishing monographs and articles on works such as Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Bust of writer J. R. R. Tolkien at the entrance to the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford, the work of the author's daughter, Faith Falcounbridge.

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By Julian Nitzsche (Own work (own photograph)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When he was forty-five years old, The Hobbit, a novel for children, was published. It became an immediate success. Ostensibly based upon stories which he had created for the amusement of his children, The Hobbit, a heroic tale of dragons, giants, and heroes, appealed to both children and adults. Far more profound was The Lord of the Rings, which occupied him for fifteen years. This three-part work, which described the fantastic secondary world of Middle-Earth, with its own languages, history, customs, people, and geography, became enormously popular. Tolkien fan clubs and fan magazines emerged and flourished. During these years Tolkien received numerous awards and honors, ranging from children’s book awards to honorary doctorates.

Although he officially retired from his professorship in 1959, Tolkien continued to write about Middle-Earth. At his death in 1973 he left behind many notes and partially completed manuscripts. Some of these were collated by his son, Christopher Tolkien, and published in 1977 as The Silmarillion, the story of the creation of Middle-Earth. The Book of Lost Tales, a collection of Tolkien’s stories, was edited and published by his son in 1983 and 1984. Other posthumous works have followed.

Tolkien made his fictional world come alive. Because his fantasy world was firmly rooted in the medieval tradition, Tolkien’s professional specialty, and because he was a perfectionist regarding detail, his descriptions of Middle-Earth are consistent and absorbing. Within this world, heroic adventures could and did take place. That too was part of the medieval epic literary tradition. Tolkien used many of the traditional characteristics of the epic in his works: heroes, quests, visits to the underworld, and noble deaths in battle. His variation on the theme was his unheroic hero. Middle-Earth had to be saved by ordinary and even humble heroes. Moreover, the effort had to be commensurate with the result; good could not triumph without hardship and suffering.

While Tolkien stated that his works were neither allegorical nor topical, his stories have strong relevance for the modern world. His experiences in the trenches of World War I, as well as the totalitarianism of the pre-and post-World War II era, affected him deeply and often surface in his work. Tolkien was concerned with the problem of power—whether it be political, spiritual, or personal. All of his characters are forced to choose whether to accept or to reject power. Tolkien was also concerned with the theme of good versus evil. Although he has been criticized as simplistic, his attitude was not only medieval but also modern. He created a world in which dignity is alive and good can triumph over evil.

Tolkien’s significance lies in his ability to write literature which appeals to all ages. At the simplest level, his stories appeal to children. At a higher level, the heroic tales are delightful fiction. At a still higher level, the work enters the realm of ethical philosophy. Tolkien’s fantasy world provides a place where moral values exist and quests can still be achieved.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Hobbit, 1937 The Lord of the Rings, 1955 (includes The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954 The Two Towers, 1954 The Return of the King, 1955) The Silmarillion, 1977 The Book of Lost Tales I, 1983 The Book of Lost Tales II, 1984 The Lays of Beleriand, 1985 The Shaping of Middle-Earth, 1986 The Lost Road, and Other Writings, 1987 The Return of the Shadow: The History of "The Lord of the Rings," Part One, 1988 The Treason of Isengard: The History of "The Lord of the Rings," Part Two, 1989 The War of the Ring: The History of "The Lord of the Rings," Part Three, 1990 Sauron Defeated, the End of the Third Age: The History of "The Lord of the Rings," Part Four, 1992 Morgoth’s Ring, 1993 The War of the Jewels, 1994 The Peoples of Middle-Earth, 1996 (previous 12 novels collectively known as The History of Middle-Earth) The Children of Húrin, 2007 The Story of Kullervo, 2015 Beren and Lúthien, 2017 Short Fiction: Tree and Leaf, 1964, revised 1988 Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth, 1980 (Christopher Tolkien, editor) The Book of Lost Tales, 1983-1984 Drama: The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, pb. 1953 Poetry: Songs for the Philologists, 1936 (with E.V. Gordon et al.) The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, 1945 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book, 1962 The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle, 1967 The Lays of Beleriand, 1985 Bilbo's Last Song, 1990 The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, 2009 The Fall of Arthur, 2013 Nonfiction: A Middle English Vocabulary, 1922 The Letters from J. R. R. Tolkien, 1981 (Humphrey Carpenter, editor) The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, 1983 Beowulf and the Critics, 2002 A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, 2016 Edited Texts: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1925 (with E.V. Gordon) Ancrene Wisse: The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle, 1962 Translations: Jerusalem Bible, 1966 "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," "Pearl," and "Sir Orfeo," 1975 The Old English Exodus, 1981 Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, 1982 Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 2014 Miscellaneous: The Tolkien Reader, 1966 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Farmer Giles of Ham, 1949 Smith of Wootton Major, 1967 The Father Christmas Letters, 1976 Mr. Bliss, 1982 Roverandom, 1998 Bibliography Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. London: Allen and Unwin, 1977. Written with access to Tolkien’s unpublished letters and diaries, this mostly chronological narrative traces the development of the world of Middle-Earth from Tolkien’s philological work. An extensive section of black-and-white photographs, a detailed bibliography, a family genealogy, and an index add to the value of this standard biography. Clark, George, and Daniel Timmons, eds. J. R. R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle Earth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. A collection of fourteen essays devoted to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth works, including an examination of Tolkien’s images of evil. Crabbe, Katharyn W. J. R. R. Tolkien. Rev. ed. New York: Continuum, 1988. A study of Tolkien’s writings unified by a vision of "the quest." After a brief biographical chapter, Crabbe considers Tolkien’s use of languages to delineate character in his major works. Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth, and Modernity. London: HarperCollins, 1997. Curry examines the relevance of Tolkien’s mythological creation, especially in terms of its depiction of struggle of community, nature, and spirit against state. There are chapters on politics, ecology, and spirituality. Foster, Robert. The Complete Guide to Middle-earth: From "The Hobbit" to "The Silmarillion." Rev. ed. New York: Ballantine, 1978. An alphabetical annotated compendium of each of the proper names in Tolkien’s major works, including persons, places, and things, with page references to standard editions of each work. The guide provides translations of Middle-earth tongues, chronologies as appropriate, and summaries of complex events. Haber, Karen, ed. Meditations on Middle Earth. St. Martin’s Press, 2001. A collection of essays by a number of fantasy writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, who discuss Tolkien’s influence. Also offers an overview of the novelist’s work by Tolkien scholar Douglas Anderson. Hammond, Wayne, and Christina Scull. J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. London: HarperCollins, 1995. A full commentary on Tolkien’s illustrations for his major, minor, and unfinished stories. It brings out Tolkien’s own skills as an artist and the quality of his visual imagination. Hammond, Wayne G. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 1993. This valuable and well-organized bibliography includes helpful annotations. Johnson, Judith A. J. R. R. Tolkien. Six Decades of Criticism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Johnson’s thorough and well-annotated bibliography treats all phases of Tolkien’s work. It is well indexed and especially good on the more obscure periodicals dealing with Tolkien’s work. Reynolds, Patricia, and Glen GoodKnight, eds. Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, 1992. Altadena, Calif.: Mythopoeic Press, 1995. As the title suggests, this is a collection of papers given at the Tolkien conference held at Keble College, Oxford, in 1992 and represents a significant collection of views on Tolkien. Rogers, Deborah Webster, and Ivor Rogers. J. R. R. Tolkien. Twayne’s English Authors Series 304. Boston: Twayne, 1980. An overview of Tolkien’s life and work. Shippey, T. A. J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. A critical review of Tolkien’s work that takes to task critics inclined to relegate the founder of modern fantasy to the ranks of his inferior literary descendants.

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