J.R.R. Tolkien was a wizard—a word wizard. While he captured the imaginations of millions of readers worldwide many years ago, he continues to do so—even though he no longer remains on earth. About seventy-eight years ago, Tolkien molded his world of Middle-Earth in his book The Hobbit, and many of his later works, such as The Lord of the Rings, quickly became a sensation. Readers have been transfixed by Tolkien’s way of writing ever since. Surprisingly, he came from very humble beginnings, and his talented mind helped him ascend from the station of lowly son of a down-on-his-luck banker, to an Oxford student, and finally to a writing legend, who influenced practically the entire world.
J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, to parents Mabel and Arthur Tolkien. On January 31, 1892, he was christened John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. His family had a German-derived last name. During his early childhood, he lived in the arid English West Midlands, in a town called Bloemfontein. He had a wild and tragic childhood. Surprisingly, he was bitten by a tarantula while playing in the bushes and was dramatically saved by his nurse, who sucked out the poison before the young Tolkien could be harmed. There is a theory that Tolkien based the giant monster Shelob, which appeared in The Lord of the Rings, on this incident. Another time, he was almost killed by his neighbor’s pet monkey, who escaped and found its way into Tolkien’s bedroom. Sadly his father died of rheumatic fever, and his mother converted to Catholicism and moved to Britain. As if Arthur’s death was not sad enough, not many years later, his mother died of diabetes, leaving Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary as orphans. Tolkien was twelve, and Hilary was not much younger. They were taken care of by a family friend, Father Morgan, who was a priest, and then moved to their aunt’s house for a time. Surprisingly enough, his aunt’s apartment was where he met his future wife. Edith Bratt was nineteen years old, and Tolkien was sixteen when they met.
Eventually, Tolkien enrolled in Oxford. To many of his new friends’ surprise, he joined the rugby team, even though he was rather slim and lightweight. During his time at Oxford, Tolkien learned a plethora of languages—Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Finnish, Sanskrit, Gothic, Old Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Russian, and German. Often, he was inspired by the old Norse and Celtic poems and legends, which were some of the oldest poems in history. As a result of reading an interesting Celtic poem, he wrote “The Voyage of Earendel,” borrowing a somewhat mysterious character from the same poem. Marvelously, he delivered a 3-hour speech on the Modern English Language—part one of a series. His teacher had to stop him after the 3 hours had passed, because other students had to speak as well. All the students in his audience were astonished at his knowledge on the subject. After college, Tolkien married Edith Bratt when he was twenty-one. Soon thereafter, he was called off by the British army to serve in World War I. He was assigned the task of Infantry Subaltern, a soldier that used flags to communicate with other squadrons of soldiers. He particularly enjoyed this job, due to the fact that it was like learning another riveting language, and picked it up very quickly. He served from July to October of 1916 and left the army due to contracting trench fever.
After his military experience, he helped put together the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a deep pool of knowledge. During his time in bed recovering from trench fever, he wrote his first full length book, The Silmarillion. Unfortunately, it was not published until after his death. While grading papers one day—he was a teacher at Oxford for a short period of time—he noticed that one of the students had left his page blank. He just felt that he just had to write something on it, and he came up with this sentence: “In the ground there lived a hobbit.” This one sentence opened up a new section of Tolkien’s imagination, and out of this one thought, the profound book The Hobbit was born. The hobbits who are natural-born gardeners, lovers of nature, and merry folk, were based on Tolkien’s own personality. Vigorously, he hand-wrote the story of The Hobbit. After the dragon Smaug’s death however, he did not write the ending. Thankfully, as a result of his children’s increasing desire to know the end of the story, he composed the end of The Hobbit orally and converted his verbal conclusion to paper. It was published in 1937. The Hobbit became a worldwide sensation, and fans began to beg for more hobbit stories. To the fans’ joy, Tolkien laboriously hand-wrote The Lord of the Rings, which was so gigantic that the publishers had to break it down into three parts since they could not print such a big book all at once. The Lord of the Rings was published as a trilogy between the years 1954 and 1955. After the major success of The Lord of the Rings, he retired to calming country life and also retired from his second Oxford chair in 1959. He was even bestowed the honor of British Knighthood. Sir J.R.R. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, on a Sunday.
Clearly, J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius. Although he came from humble beginnings, Tolkien became one of history’s most influential writers. During his years at Oxford, he scrupulously gained an expansive knowledge of ancient languages and used this knowledge as a paintbrush—along with some inspiration from ancient literature—to delineate a vast world so unique that readers lost themselves in the culture and adventure of the story. His intellect and creativity sparked an immortal legacy, which will forever live in the hearts of his readers.
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Shippey, Tom. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.