JRR Tolkien: Biography of a Legend
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The oldest son of Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield, he was known as Ronald, and loved trees and nature. When he was four, his mother, younger brother Hilary, and he went on a trip to visit relatives in England, leaving his father in Africa. Arthur promised to join them soon, after an emergency at the bank he worked at was dealt with. But on February 15, 1896, Mabel received notification the Arthur had suffered a haemorrhage and died.
The family then moved from place to place around the West Midlands region of England, because Mabel was trying to support her family, and problems seemed to arouse wherever they tried to settle down. Mabel, along with her sons and her sister May, converted to Catholicism in England, for Mabel felt more in tune with the Catholic religion than any other. From then on, Ronald and Hilary were raised Pio Nono and remained devout Catholics for the rest of their lives. Sadly, Mabel’s conversion estranged her from the rest of her family, even causing one uncle to cut off monetary support, but this did in no way sway her decision.
Tolkien was sent to King Edward’s School, where he mainly studied languages. He loved the older languages, like Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and Medieval and Modern Welsh. During his last years at the school, he started creating his own languages, based on Finnish and Welsh. He had also made a number of close friends at King Edward’s; in his later years at school they met regularly after school hours as the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barrovian Society) and they continued to correspond closely and criticise each other’s writing until 1916 for during the war, all but one of his close friends of the T.C.B.S. was killed in action.
Sadly, Mabel Suffield never lived to see her sons leave school. She was diagnosed with diabetes and died in a diabetic coma on October 15, 1904. Hilary and he had to live with a family friend, Father Francis Morgan, for a time.
During the time he was in Father Francis’ care, Ronald met and fell in love with Edith Bratt, a girl three years his senior. But when Father Francis found out about his relationship, he forbade the boy to contact Edith until he was 21.
At 21, Tolkien had entered Exeter College, part of Oxford University, on his second try and was completing his studies in linguistics. He eagerly wrote to Edith, expressing his love and how he wished to marry her. But he had to fight to win her back, for when they had not spoken for three years, she had thought he didn’t love her, and had started a relationship with another man. But finally, Ronald and Edith were married on March 22, 1916. He was then enlisted in the army and had to serve in World War 1, much to the grief of Edith. During his time in the field, Tolkien contracted trench fever and had to be sent home, never to fight again, although he did later train recruits. It was in the hospital, while he was recovering, that he started writing what would become an entire mythology. This organising of his mind developed into the Book of Lost Tales (sadly not published in his lifetime), in which most of the major stories of the Silmarillion appeared for the first time.
Tolkien became a Reader of English Language at the University of Leeds in 1920. At Leeds, along with teaching, he collaborated with E.V. Gordon on the famous edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In addition, he and Gordon founded a “Viking Club” for undergraduates devoted mainly to reading Old Norse sagas and drinking beer. It was for this club that he and Gordon originally wrote their Songs for the Philologists, a mixture of traditional songs and original verses translated into Old English, Old Norse and Gothic to fit traditional English tunes. Leeds also saw the birth of two more sons: Michael Hilary Reuel in October 1920 and Christopher Reuel in 1924. The couple’s first son, John Francis Reuel (later Father John Tolkien) had already been born on November 16, 1917. Then in 1925, the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford fell vacant and Tolkien successfully applied for the post.
Edith bore their last child and only daughter, Priscilla, in 1929. In having to tell bedtime stories to all four of his children, Tolkien became incredibly good at writing children’s stories, and harnessed that ability in writing his famous story, ‘The Hobbit’.
Forming a literary club called The Inklings with his friend C.S. Lewis, he started focusing on writing his masterpieces. ‘The Hobbit’ was published in 1973 and was an instant success, though some of his fellows at Oxford denounced it and his following fantasy works. He followed up with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in 1954-55. These works grew to cult book status, and were met with huge praise, even becoming Oscar winning movies.
John Ronald retired from Oxford in 1969 and he and Edith settled in Bournemouth. Edith died on November 21, 1971. After her death, Ronald moved out of their house into rooms provided by Merton College, another part of Oxford University.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, and he and Edith were buried together in a joint grave. His final book, ‘The Silmarillion’, was published four years after his death. The inscriptions on Edith’s and John’s tombstone’s read:
Edith Mary Tolkien John Ronald Reuel Tolkien