J.R.R. Tolkien:
His Life, His Work, His Legacy

College Prep English (Mrs. Kopp)
©December 21, 2000 by Justin Staubli

The man was not very noticeable on the sidewalk. A fairly short man, no more than 5í5" with scraggly gray hair on his head. His clothes were not that fancy, though he had a colorful waist coat. Many people would brush past him, dismissing him as some old man smoking a pipe. However, this man did not need good looks nor fancy clothing. He had something no one else had, what millions loved and respected, that is, the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.

People praise him, worship him, respect and love him. His works have lived in our hearts or nearly half a century. His tales of mighty kings, glorious citadels, massive armies, and great battles have touched millions of people all over the world. This author I am describing to you is none other than the brilliant John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. From the rolling plains of South Africa to the muddy, bloody trenches of France in the First World War, this manís history is nearly as impressive as the history in his books. On the night of January 3, 1892 a child was born. The father-to-be called the doctor to tell him that his wife was going into labor. However, the doctor was so sure that this was a false alarm that he sent the nurse home and went to check on her by himself. This call was not a false alarm, though, the mother was really giving birth. After several hours of labor, Mabel Arthur gave birth to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Arthur Tolkien, gave his son his first name, John, after his grandfather. His mother gave him Ronald because she liked it. Finally, his father passed down his own middle name of Reuel to him. In his later years, J.R.R. Tolkien was called Ronald by many, though he did not care for it much since he believed that Ronald was not his proper name. Many of his close colleagues called him John Ronald, which made him sound like a high and mighty man. Near the end of his life, many intimate friends of his began calling him Tollers (Carpenter:13). The name that best suited him (according to many of his fans) was the simple name of J.R.R.T. , which Tolkien did not mind at all.

Tokienís life in South Africa was short, but not uneventful. He had more unusual events happen to him in four years than I have myself in 16! After being christened in Bloemfontein Cathedral things began to get strange for little John. First, Arthur Tolkienís trusty servant Isaak stole John and brought him to his kraal[village] to show everyone the village the newness of the white baby (Carpenter:13). Though a bit disturbed by his servantsí actions, Arthur forgave him. In gratitude, Isaak named his first son "Isaak Mister Tolkien Victor" after him. The events did not end there. John also had an unusual knack for attracting the local wildlife. Once, a pet monkey from the house next door snuck into the Tolkienís residence. Before being captured, it tore up three of Johnís bibs (outfits). There was also the ever present danger of snakes in their wood shed, so Johnís nanny made sure he did not stray near there. However, the most life changing event of his life in South Africa happened when he was just learning to walk. One day, John was in the garden behind his house. While walking around he noticed a black object, resembling a glove. Racing over to look at it, he tripped and fell right on it. This particular black glove was actually a tarantula. The large spider bit him and scurried off. Leaping to his feet, he ran across the garden, where he was caught by his nanny who sucked out the poison. This little event carried with him through the rest of his life. While not actually remembering the tarantula, he always had spiders in his stories that were very twisted and evil.

This event and the terrible weather were beginning to wear on poor Mabel. Her spirit was raised greatly when she found out she was pregnant. Nine months later she gave birth to Johnís brother, Hilary Arthur Reuel. Unfortunately, her spirits deteriorated again. After much thought, she decided to take the kids with her on a trip back to England to visit her parents. Arthur, so swamped with work, could not leave with them, but promised to leave as soon as possible and meet them in England. Arthur never did get the chance, though, for he suffered a severe hemorrhage on February 14, 1896. Arthur Tolkien died the next day.

Mabel Tolkien was overcome with grief. After the initial shock of her husbandís death, she started to wonder about the future of herself as well as her two children. She lived with her parents for a few years with her children. Most of her economic support came from Arthurís and her families. Unfortunately, this supply all but dried up when Mabel and the children converted to Catholicism, which angered many family members (Strider:2). During this time, John, now 8, was accepted to the King Edward VI School, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. However, three years later, John won a scholarship and was able to re-enroll.

Sadly, tragedy struck the Tolkien family. Mabel Arthur was diagnosed with diabetes in 1904 and died shortly there after. Fortunately for the kids, Mabel had entrusted their care with Father Francis Morgan. Father Francis encouraged the boys studies, both in school and religious. During the years of 1905 to 1908 John and Hilary were shipped around. First they lived with a rather nasty aunt of theirs. After that, Father Francis got them into a nice boarding home. It was at one of these boarding houses where John fell in love with a beautiful young girl named Edith Bratt, his future wife. However, Edith was three years older than him, making this relationship forbidden. When they were discovered, Edith was shipped away and John would not see her again until he left for war, three years later. During this time, John was accepted to Oxford.

His years at Oxford before the war were pleasurable and full of excitement for Tolkien. He had decided to study in the Classics, Old English, Gothic, Welsh and Finnish. While in Oxford, he continued his ties with the fellow members of the "T.C.B.S." (Tea Club Barrovian Society, named after the groupís meeting place at the Barrow Stores) (Doughan:2). This group was started back when he was still living with his aunt and attending King Edwardís School. This small group of young writers would help each other out on social and academic problems. However, their main purpose was to critically evaluate each othersí works.

Despite all of his hard work and determination, Tolkien was only able to achieve a disappointing second degree in Honour Moderations. However, he did discover a poem that formed the basis of his future work:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended.

Which means, "Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men" . This Old English poem was the Crist of Cynewulf.

His relationship with Edith Bratt was going very well. After three years of not seeing her, she converted to Catholicism and moved to Warwick. They spent many years together, getting to know each other all over again. During this lovely time of Tolkienís life, he decided to quit with the Classics at Exeter and go into to English Language and Literature. He continued his studies through the beginning of the First World War. His hard work and determination finally paid off when he was able to achieve a first-class degree in Honour Moderations.

While he did not rush off to war as other enlightened thinkers did, he still felt that the actions of Germany were evil. So, after obtaining his first-class degree, he enlisted with the Lancashire Fusiliers as a second lieutenant. Before he went to war, though, he went to do something he had wanted to do for many years. On March 22, 1916 in Warwick, he married Edith Bratt. He then kissed her good-bye and went to war. He spent many months in Staffordshire training and after that he was stationed there on active reserve. Finally, he was put into active duty on the western border of France (the Western Front) just in time for the Somme offensive. While it was considered a "victory" for the allies since they were able to recapture land that they had lost before it caused more death and suffering than anything. While John was not killed in the offensive, he suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder from the entire experience and spent a month in a hospital in Birmingham. or trench fever, he spent a month in a hospital in Birmingham. He was then well enough to go to Staffordshire where he lived with Edith. During his time in Staffordshire, all but one of his close friends of the "T.C.B.S." was killed in the war. Partly out of pity and partly out of sorting the strange mess of feelings and thoughts he had in his head, he began writing short stories. These short stories eventually became the Books of Lost Tales which, in turn, became The Silmarillion.

With his disease constantly recurring throughout 1917 and 18 he worked at local military camps and performed home service, which got him promoted to lieutenant. With the armistice signed in 1918, Tolkien was demobilized and sent home. He soon fathered his first son, John Francis Reuel Tolkien in 1918, much to his joy and delight. He then decided to move back to Oxford. While in Oxford, he began to make inquiries for a job at the college. It was not long before he found one. He was appointed Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (the Oxford English Dictionary)(Doughan:2). The constant serious atmosphere of writing the dictionary and the rather dry nature of the other writers, Tolkien was constantly finding himself going back over his short stories and editing them. He also began to write more. The short stories now began to have a central plot. They began to tell of a world with elves and gnomes. About the rise and fall of the gods and their children and a brooding evil. He often read these stories before the Exeter College Essay Club, where they were well received.

John could not stand working on the dictionary anymore and quit. So he was in the job market again in the heart of summer in 1920. He soon found out that the position of Reader (similar to an Associate Professor) (Doughan:2) in English Language at the University of Leeds. So he applied for it, though he did not expect to get it because that position usually went to a senior figure. Much to the delight of Tolkien and his wife he got the job. So they packed up their belongings and moved to Leeds. While at Leeds, he worked with E. V. Gordon on the infamous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also wrote and refined The Book of Lost Tales. By this time, Tolkien had begun to write a history of life on Middle Earth comprised of his short stories. He also created "elvish tongue"(elvish language), which he used repeatedly in most of his works. He and Gordon founded a "Viking Club". This was a club of undergraduates that was devoted to reading the Old Norse sagas and drinking beer. During his time at Leeds, he was blessed with two more children: Michael Hilary Reuel and Christopher Reuel. While he loved his work in Leeds, he felt that he belonged in Oxford. In 1925 his chance came when the Rawlison and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford became vacant. Tolkien jumped at the opportunity to teach at Oxford. He successfully applied for the job and moved back to the one place he called home.

While he was relieved and thrilled that he now worked in Oxford, his scholarly publications were few and unremarkable. He was more interested in the origin of "Welsh" than writing stories or such at this time (he even put aside The Book of Lost Tales for awhile). In 1926 Tolkien became a Fellow at Pembroke College, where he taught. His academic career leveled off there. He remained in this job until 1954 when he took up the chair to the Merton Professorship of English and Language, where he stayed in until his retirement in 1959. However, his social life was far from level. He was a founding member of a group of Oxford men called "The Inklings". Although this group could never replace the "T.C.B.S." in his heart, Tolkien found much comfort in the group . Some of the more prominent members were Neville Coghill, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and above all C.S. Lewis, who would become Tolkienís closest and most trusted friend. The group would meet often for conversation, drink, and the works that the members were working on.

Tolkien continued his story telling and writings throughout the late 20s and early 30s when a monumental thing happened to him. He was busy one day correcting exam papers when he came across a page that had been completely left blank. For some reason, he still did not know what possessed him to do it, he wrote on it, "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit". Now, he had to figure out what the heck a Hobbit was. His findings led him to write little stories about a little guy, no more than a foot and a half tall, who lived in a hole and was always merry. One of these stories found themselves in the hands of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishing firm of George Allen and Unwin.

Liking what she saw, she asked Tolkien if he could tell her more about these "Hobbits". So after Tolkien told her everything he knew about them and showing her more of his writings about them, she wanted Tolkien to write a complete story about it. Once Tolkien had tied all of the short stories together and completed them, Susan presented it before the Chairman of the firm, Stanley Unwin. After reading it, he gave it to his 10 year old son, Raynor, to read it. The child loved it and in 1937, Stanley published The Hobbit. The book was an instant success and both kids and adults loved it. In fact, the book has not left the recommended reading for children since then (Doughan: 3).

The book was so successful that Stanley asked Tolkien if he had any other works along the same lines. Tolkien could not help but smile at the thought. So he presented his large collection of short stories, which he now called Quenta Silmarillion, or Silmarillion. Stanley looked over it and then gave it to his reader for his insight. The readerís reaction was mixed: he strongly liked and praised the writings, though he did not like the poetry or songs all that much. So after much thought and deliberation, they decided that it was not publishable. Tolkien was devastated that his work of over 20 years had been rejected, but he agreed to still write a sequel to The Hobbit.

Tolkien put his Silmarillion away then for a long time and got to work on the sequel. What happened next is history. For 16 years Tolkien poured over information and stories. He spent hundreds of hours crunched over his typewriter punching away. Raynor Unwin, now an adult, helped Tolkien out much in his later work on this project. What he finished was a work that has touched millions. He called it The Lord of the Rings. It was six books put into three volumes and every volume started with the same poem:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie,

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Not to go into too much detail, I will now explain the plot of the series. In The Hobbit, Bilbo found a magic ring that could turn him invisible. The Lord of the Rings is based upon that ring that is believed to be the one ring that could destroy all good and let evil reign throughout the land for all time. So Frodo (Bilboís nephew) must take it to the Cracks of Doom to destroy the ring, which will destroy the very embodiment of evil, Sauron. A group of good are chosen to walk with Frodo to the Cracks of Doom. Led by the wizard Gandalf, they are constantly being chased by the nine Nazgul (the above mentioned Mortal Men) who have been corrupted by their rings and now serve Sauron. They also find themselves fighting the forces of Saruman, the most powerful wizard in the land who used to be good, but has been twisted and now lusts for the ring. So, against all odds, a hobbit must single-handedly take on the Dark Lord. A tale of love, war, and sacrifice. It was then and still is considered a classic. Unfortunately, Tolkien did not feel that this sequel would live up to the publicís expectations. The publishing company also believed that it would not be successful, but still felt that they had to give the readers what they had been waiting for 16 years. So, in 1954 and 1955, the publishing company released the series, accepting what they knew would be a failure. However, it seemed that both the author and the publishers had greatly underestimated the seriesí appeal (Doughan:4).

The sales of The Lord of the Rings skyrocketed and became a best seller almost overnight. Reviews ranged from the ecstatic (W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis) to the damning (E. Wilson, E. Muir, P. Toynbee) and just almost everything in between (Doughan:4). The BBC put a condensed version of the series on its radio station in 12 segments in 1956. The money was just pouring in and now Tolkien had wished he had taken early retirement. The real money, though, did not flow in until 1965. By this time, Tolkien had retired his professorship at Oxford and was quietly living in Oxford. The Lord of the Rings had been out for many years now, and Tolkien had become quiet wealthy and now wrote little short stories, poems, and more histories and translations of Middle Earth. Then Tolkien heard the news. His series had gone into pirated paperback in the United States! At first he was angry, then he became flattered that anyone would go to the extreme trouble of pirating his book. Now this really got people into the books.

This new paperback version could now be found all over, not just in book stores. Soon, millions of copies had been sold. This new series had become the bible of the "Alternative Society". This started a fantasy revolution. First, Dungeons and Dragons, a role playing game, was created and soon became all the rage in the late sixties and early seventies. It still is very much a part of our society today. Plus, Star Wars was just around the corner and it is popular belief and even confirmed by George Lucas that The Lord of the Rings had inspired his movies to a small degree. The public gobbled it up and demanded more. Tolkien did not like being in the public eye, and it was often said that "it was easier for a reporter to get an interview with the British prime minister than with Tolkien" (qtd. In Strider:2). However, Tolkien started something that could not be stopped. He would get thousands of fan letters every week and phone calls at any time of the day asking if Balrogs had wings, what was the complete alphabet of the elvish language, or what was the preterite of Quenyan lanta- (Doughan: 4). Tolkien could not get out of the public life and they were always demanding more so he moved to Bournemouth and began work on The Silmarillion, which took the rest of his life.

While in Bournemouth, he continued writing The Silmarillion. Most of his time, though, was devoted to his wife, who was now very ill. Despite medical care and the tireless devotion of her husband, Edith Mary Tolkien passed away on November 22, 1971. Devastated by her lost, he put aside The Silmarillion and moved back to Oxford with rooms provided by Merton College. Then, in early 1973, Tolkien received an award from Queen Elizabeth, the Order of the British Empire, which was one rank below knighthood. If Tolkien had lived longer, he very well could have been knighted. Sadly, on September 2, 1973, the Lord of Fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died at the age of eighty-one. He was buried in a single grave with his wife in the Catholic section of Wolvercote cemetery in northern Oxford.

Despite Tolkienís death, his fame did nothing but grow. Christopher Tolkien, his son, took it upon himself to finish writing and editing The Silmarillion and many other works of his fathers and published them. Much to the surprise of the publishing company, but not to Christopher, the dozen volumes about the history of Middle Earth (including The Silmarillion) became best sellers and sold millions. Sixty-five years in the making, Christopher finished what his father did not, The Silmarillion.

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast Ofer middangeard monnum sended, Tolkien. May you live forever in the lands you created. I dedicate this paper in your memory.

Back to top
Back to Ring Game home page


Strider. "The Tolkien Trail: Bibliography." Internet Explorer. http://www.tolkientrail.com/tolkienbio.html October 18, 2000.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1977.

"The Tolkien Timeline." Internet Explorer. http://gollum.usask.ca/tolkien/era4.html. October 30, 2000.

"The Author: J.R.R. Tolkien." Internet Explorer. http://members.tripod.com/~diablo222/lotr/author.html. October 19, 2000.

"J.R.R. Tolkien." Internet Explorer. http://www.galnet.com/servlet/LitRC/hit...el%29+Tolkien&PX=0000099219&DT=Biography. October 18, 2000.

Doughan, David. "Who Was Tolkien?" Internet Explorer. wysiwyg://main.right.15/http://www...society.org/tolkien/biography.html. October 19, 2000.

Barker, Jack. "A Brief Summary of J.R.R. Tolkienís The Lord of the Rings for the Fantasy-Impaired." Internet Explorer. http://www.ringgame.net/summary.html. November 11, 2000.

"Warrior & Dragon" illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien, ©The J.R.R. Tolkien Estate, Ltd.