John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an English writer, poet, and university professor. He was born in South Africa to English parents, and moved back to England with his mother and brother when he was three years old. Soon after, his father died of rheumatic fever, leaving the family without income. His mother moved in with her parents and later moved around to live with various relatives. Young Ronald spend his formative years exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog and the Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills, which would become inspiration for scenes in his future books, including his Aunt Jane’s farm of Bag End, the name of which he would one day use for the home of his protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. His mother Mabel taught her two children the basics of education and added in a healthy portion of the study of botany and Latin. Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism in 1900 and was quickly cut off by her Baptist family. Four years later, she would die of diabetes at the age of 34. Ronald Tolkien was a boy of twelve and given into the guardianship of his mother’s close friend, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory, who was charged to bring Ronald and his brother Hilary up as good Catholics.
When Tolkien was 16, he met Edith Mary Bratt, a woman three years his senior, who lived in the boarding house where Ronald and his brother Hilary lived. They started out as friends, meeting at teashops and getting into mischief together. Both of them orphans, they found much in common, and soon were very much in love. Father Morgan was not pleased by the young romance. He felt that Edith was a distraction to Ronald’s studies and did not care for the fact that Edith was Protestant. Father Morgan made Ronald swear that he would not meet with, talk to or even so much as send Edith a letter until he was 21 years of age. If he did not obey, Morgan threatened to cut off Tolkien’s university career. Tolkien obeyed his guardian and threw himself into his studies at the university, but he could not erase Edith from his heart.
On Tolkien’s 21st birthday, he wrote to Edith, declared his love for her, and asked her to marry him. Edith wrote back that she had agreed to marry someone else because after all this time, she thought that he had forgotten her. After a meeting at a railway station where the pair renewed their feelings for each other, Edith cried off her engagement and announced that she would marry Ronald Tolkien.
The United Kingdom joined World War I a year after Tolkien proposed to Edith. He did not immediately volunteer for service as the other young men of his age; instead he entered a program that allowed him to delay enlisting until he completed his degree and could enter the war as an officer. In 1915 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. After training as a signal officer, he was transferred to the 11th Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force, arriving in France in June of 1916. Tolkien served in several battles as a signal officer. During the Battle of Somme, he lost several of his childhood friends in a single day. However, in the end, it was not the Germans that took Tolkien out of the war, but lice. Tolkien came down with trench fever which is carried by the vermin and was invalided back to England in 1916. Tolkien married Edith in 1916, three years after he had proposed to her.
Tolkien spent the remainder of World War I recovering in hospitals or doing garrison duty. It was during this time that he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, which was an early version of what would become The Silmarillion. One day, while he and his wife went walking in the woods, Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock trees. This moment was the inspiration for the meeting of the characters of Beren and Luthien of The Silmarillion. Tolkien remarked upon the incident years later stating:
I never called Edith, Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of The Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance.
After the war, Tolkien’s first civilian job was with the Oxford English Dictionary where he worked on the history of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. By 1920, he had taken a post as Reader in Leeds and was the youngest professor at the university. In 1925 he returned to Oxford with a fellowship at Pembroke College. It was at Pembroke where Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. In 1945, Tolkien took a post at Merton College and he became a professor of English Language and Literature. He fit in well at Oxford and in the ivy tower world of teaching and research.
Tolkien’s family life was normal enough where he and his family made their home in North Oxford. Edith bore the last of their four children in 1929. Tolkien would write the four children annual illustrated letters as if from Father Christmas in addition to his usual bedtime stories. A selection of these were published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters. In adulthood, his son John would enter the priesthood, his sons Michael and Christopher would serve in the Royal Air Force and his daughter Priscilla would become a social worker.
It was during this time in Oxford when Tolkien became one of the founding members of a group of friends with similar interests in writing. They were known as The Inklings. Other members were Mr. Coghill, Mr. Dyson, Own Barfield, Charles Williams, and his closest friend, C.S. Lewis. Tolkien was responsible for returning C.S. Lewis to Christianity, although he was disappointed that he could not convince the man to convert to Catholicism. The Inklings met for conversation, drink, and to read and critique their works-in-progress, much as a modern writing group meets in present day. It was during this time period that Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings. The book would publish in 1954 under his author name of J.R.R. Tolkien.
In 1959, Ronald Tolkien retired from Oxford. During his time in retirement, the sales of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit steadily increased and gained him much public attention and literary fame. The fan attention grew intense and to escape it, Tolkien and his wife moved to Bournemouth, a seaside resort. There his status as a best-selling author gave him and Edith entry into polite society. Edith loved Bournemouth, but Ronald missed his old Inklings friends at Oxford. An old family friend wrote:
Those friends who knew Ronald and Edith Tolkien over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other’s health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other’s birthday presents’; and in the large matters, the way in which Ronald willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author. A principal source of happiness to them was their shared love of their family. This bound them together until the end of their lives, and it was perhaps the strongest force in the marriage. They delighted to discuss and mull over every detail of the lives of their children, and later their grandchildren.
Edith was the first to pass in 1971. She was 82 years of age. She would miss seeing Queen Elizabeth II appoint Ronald Tolkien a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and receive the insignia of the Order at Buckingham Palace later in 1972. That same year, Oxford University gave him an honorary Doctorate of Letters. Twenty one months after her death, Tolkien died at the age of 81. Tolkien had the name Luthien engraved under Edith’s name on their shared tombstone. He had the name Beren carved under his own name when he joined her.
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.
The Lord of the Rings begins in the land of the Hobbits, known as The Shire. A land of verdant innocence, peopled by those who do not look beyond their borders. A young hobbit by the name of Frodo Baggins inherits the One Ring from his uncle, Bilbo Baggins, when the elder hobbit disappears at his birthday party. Gandalf the Grey, a powerful human wizard, advises Frodo to remove the ring from the Shire. The young hobbit takes off with only his gardener, Samwise (Sam) Gamgee, but they are joined later by two of Frodo’s hobbit cousins Meridoc (Merry) Brandybuck and Peregrin (Pippin) Took.
The group travels on to the town of Bree where they meet a man named Strider. He becomes their guide and protector, and later is revealed to be Aragorn, heir to the thrown of the Kingdom of Gondor. Aragorn leads the group to the elven refuge of Rivendell where the hobbits learn the history of the ring, of Sauron and about how Sauron had corrupted Gandalf’s friend and fellow wizard, Saruman. The elven council declares that the ring that Frodo carries must be destroyed, but that can only be done where it was forged, in the fires of Mount Doom in the land of Mordor. Frodo offers to bear the ring to the mountain and to destroy it. A Fellowship of the Ring is then formed to protect him. It consists of Merry, Pippin, Sam, Gandalf the wizard, Aragorn, Gimli the dwarf, Legolas the elf, and the human Boromir, who is the son of the ruling steward of Gondor.
The Lord of the Rings was originally intended to be a two-volume set, the other volume to be The Silmarillion, but the author’s idea was dismissed by his publisher. Instead, he was asked for “more hobbit stories” due to the success of his first novel, The Hobbit. After 12 years of writing, Tolkien delivered The Lord of the Rings, a six part volume, which the publisher broke up into three parts. The first book is The Fellowship of the Ring, followed by The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It can also be found as a single book. The Lord of the Rings is in the top five highest selling books of all time and has been translated into many languages. The story has been turned into the now famous trilogy of feature films created by Peter Jackson. Eventually, The Silmarillion would be published after the author’s death along with other assorted writings, the guiding force behind this action being one of Tolkien’s sons. At last, the volumes that Tolkien had originally envisioned are available to the world.
Like many people, I embarked on the journey of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when I was fairly young and still in middle school. I remember being caught up in the adventure of the tale, but didn’t care for the poetry. I also did not understand many of the nuances that are part of this novel as I now do as an adult. It is subtle, but once you understand the depth of what the author has created, you simply feel amazed. There are shifts in the tone and style of the book that are deliberate echoes of the different mythic and language forms that the author used as a basis for the many cultures of Middle Earth and even for the pattern of naming his characters and locations. This is part of what makes the book special, the characters live in their own mythos, as intricate and complex as our own. There is also a shift in the voice of the novel, depending on the point of view. The chapters that focus on the hobbits have more dialogue and detail. The chapters showcasing the Rohirrim have a poetic rhythm echoing Middle English works. The elven chapters have a mystical quality that is hard to get a clear picture of, distant and beautiful as the elves that the author writes about. These shifts in style and tone are not the work of a novice writer, but are intentional characterizations of races and groups through language. Tolkien perhaps was not the greatest writer of dialogue, but he substitutes this lack for style and action.
Lord of the Rings is the founding corner stone of the high fantasy genre as we know it today. His ideas have been copied many times, but there is only one great original. Lord of the Rings will always have a place on my bookshelf and hopefully on yours as well. The novel has become the second best-selling novel ever written, with only A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens selling more. The Hobbit comes in as the fourth best-selling novel of all time. It is said that there are two different types of people in the world. One type has read The Lord of the Rings, the other is waiting to do so. Which are you?
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King