J. R. R. Tolkien: Biography, Books & Poems

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

He's taken us on amazing journeys across Middle-earth and introduced us to hobbits and all other manner of fantastic creature. However, many of us might not even know his full name! Take a moment to meet the man of magic himself in this lesson on the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Alternative Academic: A Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien

Bust of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) at Exeter College
Bust of Tolkien

Most of us would dread the thought of an entire life spent at school, but that is exactly the sort of life this renowned English scholar and storyteller led. His father - a bank clerk named Arthur Reuel Tolkien - had relocated from England to South Africa with his wife, Mabel Tolkien, and on January 3, 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born there in Bloemfontein. In 1896, while Mabel and her children were on vacation in England, Arthur suddenly died, leading Mabel to permanently relocate there with young Ronald (as Tolkien was often called) and his brother, Hilary.

As a boy, Tolkien spent much of his life in and around Birmingham, getting his early education there at King Edward's School. He already displayed an exceptional talent for Latin and Ancient Greek (Classics) at school, and his fascination for languages was further fueled by the trains that would rumble past his house with Welsh destinations painted on their sides. Unfortunately, Ronald's growing world of imagination was darkened when Mabel converted to Catholicism in 1900, causing her Baptist family to shun and remove financial support from the Tolkiens. More tragedy would befall the household with her death in 1904.

Until adulthood, Ronald passed between several caretakers, including a Catholic priest, Father Francis Morgan, who had a strong spiritual influence on Ronald. When the teenage Tolkien began developing a relationship with a young woman named Edith Bratt, Father Morgan directed Ronald to stick to his studies. He dutifully consented and entered Exeter College at Oxford in 1911. Here Tolkien wholly devoted himself to the study of Classics, Old English, Finnish, Welsh, and Germanic languages; however, he was met with some academic disappointment in 1913 and switched to English Language and Literature. Ronald also reconnected with and proposed to Edith that year in spite of the fact that Edith had become engaged to another man.

World War I was in full swing by the time Tolkien completed his English degree in 1915. He also enlisted in the military that year, and he married Edith on March 22, 1916, shortly before being sent to the Western front. He participated in the famous Battle of the Somme, but soon returned to England due to illness contracted in the less than sanitary trenches. During his military service and his recurring bouts with 'trench fever' between 1917 and 1918, Tolkien had been continuously toying with his linguistic and mythic endeavors and developed much of the groundwork for Quenya, the language of the Elves in his world.

Shortly after the war, Ronald took a job as assistant lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary; then, in 1920, began a series of teaching appointments in English language and literature. Throughout his career he frequently shared the stories he told his four young children with colleagues, and one in particular caught the attention of C.S. Lewis, who urged Tolkien to submit it for publication. As a result, The Hobbit was published in 1937, and Tolkien was immediately met with public success and academic criticism.

Many in the academic community of the time viewed Tolkien's imaginatively fantastic works with contempt, seeing his 'alternative' fiction as perversions of literary form. Nevertheless, Tolkien and his work have become so popular that they now have a global cult following. Even after his death in Oxford on September 2, 1973, many of his previously unpublished works have been put in print, mostly due to the efforts of his son, Christopher. From Tolkien's body of poems, essays, short stories, and novels, we can trace the revival of the fantasy genre in the present day, so let's look at some of his books and poems that have helped bring back the magic in literature.

Books and Poems by Tolkien

Mythopoeia

During his academic tenure at Oxford, Tolkien was involved with a group of writers and literary enthusiasts known as the 'Inklings.' While engaged with its members - most notably his long-time friend C.S. Lewis - in a discussion on mythology, he was inspired to write a staunch poetic defense of myths. In this poem, published in 1931, Tolkien defends the process of mythopoeia (Greek 'myth-making') against those like Lewis who saw myths as fanciful lies. Tolkien argues that myths and the process of their creation reveal deep fundamental truths concerning humanity, so their proliferation is important to our personal and interpersonal understanding.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

What started out as stories told to his children became the groundwork for an unforgettable career when Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937. This book following the adventures of the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, was an instant classic despite all the nay-saying scholars. Given its success, Unwin soon asked for a sequel to The Hobbit, and over the following 17 years, Tolkien worked diligently to produce one. Finally, between 1954 and 1955, he published the three volumes comprising The Lord of the Rings, and so was born one of the most recognized literary franchises in history.

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