The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


J. R. R. Tolkien
1892 - 1973


J. R. R. Tolkien gained a reputation during the 1960s and 1970s as a cult figure among youths disillusioned with war and the technological age; his continuing popularity evidences his ability to evoke the oppressive realities of modern life while drawing audiences into a fantasy world.


Tolkien was born on Jan. 3, 1892, the son of English-born parents in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State of South Africa, where his father worked as a bank manager. To escape the heat and dust of southern Africa and to better guard the delicate health of Ronald (as he was called), Tolkien's mother moved back to England with him and his younger brother when they were very young boys. Within a year of this move their father, Arthur Tolkien, died in Bloemfontein, and a few years later the boys' mother died as well. The boys lodged at several homes from 1905 until 1911, when Ronald entered Exeter College, Oxford. Tolkien received his B.A. from Oxford in 1915 and an M.A. in 1919. During the interim he married his longtime sweetheart, Edith Bratt, and served for a short time on the Western Front with the Lancashire Fusiliers. While in England recovering from "trench fever" in 1917, Tolkien began writing "The Book of Lost Tales, " which eventually became The Silmarillion (1977) and laid the groundwork for his stories about Middle-earth. After the Armistice he returned to Oxford, where he joined the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary and began work as a free-lance tutor. In 1920 he was appointed Reader in English Language at Leeds University, where he collaborated with E. V. Gordon on an acclaimed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was completed and published in 1925. (Some years later, Tolkien completed a second translation of this poem, which was published posthumously.) The following year, having returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien became friends with a fellow of Magdalen College, C. S. Lewis. They shared an intense enthusiasm for the myths, sagas, and languages of northern Europe; and to better enhance those interests, both attended meetings of "The Coalbiters, " an Oxford club, founded by Tolkien, at which Icelandic sagas were read aloud.

During the rest of his years at Oxford - twenty as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, fourteen as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature - Tolkien published several esteemed short studies and translations. Notable among these are his essays "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (1936), " Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve's Tale" (1934), and "On Fairy-Stories" (1947); his scholarly edition of Ancrene Wisse (1962); and his translations of three medieval poems: "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, " "Pearl, " and "Sir Orfeo" (1975). As a writer of imaginative literature, though, Tolkien is best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, tales which were formed during his years attending meetings of "The Inklings, " an informal gathering of like-minded friends and fellow dons, initiated after the demise of The Coalbiters. The Inklings, which was formed during the late 1930s and lasted until the late 1940s, was a weekly meeting held in Lewis's sitting-room at Magdalen, at which works-in-progress were read aloud and discussed and critiqued by the attendees, all interspersed with free-flowing conversation about literature and other topics. The nucleus of the group was Tolkien, Lewis, and Lewis's friend, novelist Charles Williams; other participants, who attended irregularly, included Lewis's brother Warren, Nevill Coghill, H. V. D. Dyson, Owen Barfield, and others. The common thread which bound them was that they were all adherents of Christianity and all had a love of story. Having heard Tolkien's first hobbit story read aloud at a meeting of the Inklings, Lewis urged Tolkien to publish The Hobbit, which appeared in 1937. A major portion of The Fellowship of the Ring was also read to The Inklings before the group disbanded in the late 1940's.

Tolkien retired from his professorship in 1959. While the unauthorized publication of an American edition of The Lord of the Rings in 1965 angered him, it also made him a widely admired cult figure in the United States, especially among high school and college students. Uncomfortable with this status, he and his wife lived quietly in Bournemouth for several years, until Edith's death in 1971. In the remaining two years of his life, Tolkien returned to Oxford, where he was made an honorary fellow of Merton College and awarded a doctorate of letters. He was at the height of his fame as a scholarly and imaginative writer when he died in 1973, though critical study of his fiction continues and has increased in the years since.

A devout Roman Catholic throughout his life, Tolkien began creating his own languages and mythologies at an early age and later wrote Christian-inspired stories and poems to provide them with a narrative framework. Based on bedtime stories Tolkien had created for his children, The Hobbit concerns the reluctant efforts of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to recover a treasure stolen by a dragon. During the course of his mission, the hobbit discovers a magical ring which, among other powers, can render its bearer invisible. The ability to disappear helps Bilbo fulfill his quest; however, the ring's less obvious faculties prompt the malevolent Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, to seek it. The hobbits' attempt to destroy the ring, thereby denying Sauron unlimited power, is the focal point of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which consists of the novels The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). In these books Tolkien rejects such traditional heroic attributes as strength and size, stressing instead the capacity of even the humblest creatures to prevail against evil.

The initial critical reception to The Lord of the Rings varied. While some reviewers expressed dissatisfaction with the story's great length and one-dimensional characters, the majority enjoyed Tolkien's enchanting descriptions and lively sense of adventure. Religious, Freudian, allegorical, and political interpretations of the trilogy soon appeared, but Tolkien generally rejected such explications. He maintained that The Lord of the Rings was conceived with "no allegorical intentions …, moral, religious, or political, " but he also denied that the trilogy is a work of escapism: "Middle-earth is not an imaginary world…. The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live." Tolkien contended that his story was "fundamentally linguistic in inspiration," a "religious and Catholic work" whose spiritual aspects were "absorbed into the story and symbolism." Tolkien concluded, "The stories were made … to provide a world for the languages rather than the reverse."

Throughout his career Tolkien composed histories, genealogies, maps, glossaries, poems, and songs to supplement his vision of Middle-earth. Among the many works published during his lifetime were a volume of poems, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (1962), and a fantasy novel, Smith of Wootton Major (1967). Though many of his stories about Middle-earth remained incomplete at the time of Tolkien's death, his son, Christopher, rescued the manuscripts from his father's collections, edited them, and published them. One of these works, The Silmarillion, takes place before the time of The Hobbit and, in a heroic manner which recalls the Christian myths of Creation and the Fall, tells the tale of the first age of Holy Ones and their offspring. Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth (1980) is a similar collection of incomplete stories and fragments written during World War I. The Book of Lost Tales, Part I (1984) and The Book of Lost Tales, Part II (1984) deal respectively with the beginnings of Middle-earth and the point at which humans enter the saga. In addition to these posthumous works, Christopher Tolkien also collected his father's correspondence to friends, family, and colleagues in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981).

It is as a writer of timeless fantasy that Tolkien is most highly regarded today. From 1914 until his death in 1973, he drew on his familiarity with Northern and other ancient literatures and his own invented languages to create not just his own story, but his own world: Middle-earth, complete with its own history, myths, legends, epics, and heroes. "His life's work, " Augustus M. Kolich has written, "… encompasses a reality that rivals Western man's own attempt at recording the composite, knowable history of his species. Not since Milton has any Englishman worked so successfully at creating a secondary world, derived from our own, yet complete in its own terms with encyclopedic mythology; an imagined world that includes a vast gallery of strange beings: hobbits, elves, dwarfs, orcs, and, finally, the men of Westernesse." His works - especially The Lord of the Rings - have pleased countless readers and fascinated critics who recognize their literary depth.


Tolkien, J. R. R. (John Ronald Reuel, 1892–1973), British author and scholar, best known for his works of fantasy, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Though his first three years were spent in South Africa, Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary grew up in an English country village and, after 1900, in Birmingham, where he attended King Edward's School. There he discovered a love of languages—Old English, Gothic, Welsh, Finnish—and began to invent his own. His widowed mother was disowned by her family after her conversion to Catholicism, and when she died in 1904 she named as her two sons' guardian a friendly priest who lodged them in a boarding house. At 16 Tolkien met and fell in love with Edith Bratt, whom he married eight years later. After obtaining a degree in English language and literature from Oxford, he served in World War I as a signals officer. While he was in the trenches of Flanders, he created a mythology and world based on Elvish languages that he had invented to help keep him sane. After the war, he went on to teach at the University of Leeds and then at Oxford, where he remained until his retirement, achieving an admirable reputation as a scholar in Anglo Saxon and medieval literature. Among his important works were a definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1925) and his essay ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ (1936). In private, he worked on The Silmarillion, a mythological epic of his imagined Middle Earth, and told stories to his four children. One of the tales became The Hobbit (1937). Urged by his publisher to produce a sequel, Tolkien began what soon developed into something darker and far more complex, The Lord of the Rings. The coming of World War II nearly halted his slow progress, and only the encouragement of his friend C. S. Lewis and his son Christopher enabled him to complete the three volume work, published in 1954–5. The 1965 paperback publication of ‘The Trilogy’ (as early enthusiasts named it) transformed it into a best seller, particularly on college campuses. Tolkien was still at work on The Silmarillion when he died; it was published and edited by Christopher Tolkien in 1977.

As a child, Tolkien loved George MacDonald's ‘Curdie’ books and the fairy tale collections of Andrew Lang. Although Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit is not the usual fairy tale protagonist—not a handsome youngest son, but a plump, middle aged hobbit of Middle Earth—he finds himself on a classic quest journey with a group of dwarfs who hope to recover their ancestral treasure from the dragon of the Lonely Mountain. His first adventure, an encounter with three hungry trolls, is closely modelled on those Scandinavian folk tales in which a troll's attention is distracted till the rising sun turns him into stone. His second—in the underground realm of the goblins—recalls Curdie's exploits underground in The Princess and the Goblin (1871). The ring of Invisibility that Bilbo finds there seems at first no more than the usual handy magical device. As the story progresses, however, it becomes more original, more serious in tone, and more akin to saga and heroic legend than to folk tale. The expected fairy tale outcome, in which Bilbo would somehow slay the dragon and win the treasure, is deliberately subverted. A minor character kills the dragon; the unguarded treasure brings dwarfs, elves, and men to the brink of war; and Bilbo's greatest heroic feat is not one of violence but of renunciation, in which he risks his life to make peace. He wins no princess and only a modest share of treasure; his greatest reward is the new self he has realized and his rich store of memories.

The Lord of the Rings amplifies and darkens the pattern of The Hobbit. Again, a hobbit sets forth on a quest with his companions, surviving many perilous adventures to reach a lonely mountain. In this fairy tale novel for adults, however, an act of renunciation becomes the goal. Bilbo's ring has been revealed as a deadly Ring of Power, which its master Sauron is seeking. He intends to enslave all of Middle Earth with it, and Bilbo's nephew Frodo must reach the mountain where it was forged in order to destroy it forever. Tolkien's work is equally remarkable for the depth of its moral vision and the quality of its imaginary world, whose complexity, detail, and consistency create for the willing reader the illusion of a real yet enchanted universe.

Both the cultural and the literary influence of Lord of the Rings have been considerable. Adult fantasy, all but extinct before its startling success, is today a flourishing mainstay of the publishing industry. And although much post Tolkien fantasy has been weakly imitative, some of today's most original writers—including Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula K. Le Guin—have acknowledged Tolkien as a source of inspiration. In Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Attebery identifies The Lord of the Rings as our ‘mental template’ for fantasy, suggesting that works we now generally recognize as fantasy share its salient characteristics: violation of natural law, comic structure (that of the traditional fairy tale), and sense of wonder. In the late 1960s, the alternative reality of Middle Earth endeared Tolkien to the counter culture, while the ease with which that reality lends itself to role playing led to the creation of games like ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and its successors, as well as the pioneering text based computer game ‘Adventure’.

Tolkien is important not only as a practitioner but as a theorist of fantasy. Two of his short tales, ‘Leaf by Niggle’ (in Tree and Leaf, 1964) and Smith of Wootton Major (1967) deal symbolically with the nature of fantasy and the artist who creates it. His influential 1939 essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ expresses analytically what ‘Leaf by Niggle’ says in story. Tolkien argues that the fairy tale is not inherently ‘for children’ but for adults as well. He defends the making of imaginary worlds as divinely sanctioned ‘sub creation’, and suggests that the special significance of the fairy tale lies in its distinctive qualities of Fantasy, Escape, Recovery, and Consolation. For Tolkien, the ‘eucatastrophe’, in which the story turns suddenly from sorrow to joy, is the defining moment of the fairy tale.










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008