The Fantastical Life Of J.R.R. Tolkien

Born in the late 19th century, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien) is regarded as one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time, most notably for authoring The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Although most are familiar with his name from his writings, Tolkien saw himself as an academic more than anything else, spending the majority of his life working as a professor at Oxford University studying and teaching medieval texts and mastering languages from across the world. See how Tolkien’s experiences as a scholar, soldier, and family man influenced his writing and led him to become one of the most respected and well-known writers in modern history.

He Was A Polyglot And Creator Of Many Languages

Sitting against a tree
Imgur/Ngugi
Imgur/Ngugi

J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed with languages throughout his life, with his interest beginning at a young age. As a young boy, his mother taught him Latin, French, and German, and while in school, taught himself Old and Middle English, Greek, Old Norse, Gothic, Modern, and medieval Welsh, Italian, Spanish, and Finnish.

He also had a grasp on Russian, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Serbian, among other languages. Throughout his life, he also constructed a variety of different languages and alphabets for his fictional world of Middle-earth.

He Fell In Love At A Young Age

Edith and Tolkien's gravestone
Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images
Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images

At the young age of 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, a girl three years older than him. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was mortified that Edith was a Protestant and forbade that he had contact with her until he was 21.

Tolkien agreed and waited four years until, on his 21st birthday, he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her current engagement, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. Under Tolkien’s instructions, their gravestones read “Beren” and “Luthien,” a pair of star-crossed lovers from his fictional world.

His Experience As A Soldier Influenced His Writing

Soldiers in the trenches
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Tolkien fought in World War I, where he served as a second lieutenant in the 11th Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. There, he was involved in horrific trench combat, including the infamous Battle of the Somme.

Tolkien claimed experiencing the horrors of war heavily influenced his writing, with his time spent in the trenches possibly representing Mordor and the hardships faced by Frodo and Sam being the daily struggles the soldiers faced. He would later note that all but one of his close friends died in the war, which also affected his stories.

Many of His Works Were Published Posthumously

Cover of The Simarillion
Pinterest/Audiobooks For Soul
Pinterest/Audiobooks For Soul

Although Tolkien released some of the most celebrated works in literature during his life, many more followed after his death. He left behind countless notes and manuscripts he never published that were compiled, revised, edited, and published mostly by his son Christopher.

Currently, his most famous work that was published posthumously was The Silmarillion, although other works include Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle Earth, The Legends of Sigurd and Gudrun, and The Children of Hurin.

He Had An Interesting Relationship With C.S. Lewis

Picture of C.S. Lewis
John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, also attended Oxford and is referred to as being one of Tolkien’s closest friends. However, their relationship was a little more complicated at first. Initially, the two were very close, with Tolkien’s wife even expressing jealousy over what the two shared.

Yet, their relationship changed after Tolkien interpreted some of Lewis’ work to be ant-Catholic and disapproved of some of his personal choices. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote to his daughter, “So far I have felt … like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

He Was Skeptical Of His Fans

Fans of Lord of the Rings
J. Vespa/WireImage
J. Vespa/WireImage

Tolkien considered himself to be a scholar first and a writer second, and was surprised when his passion projects of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings turned out to be as successful as they are.

He was rarely satisfied with his work as an author, continually throwing out pieces, revising, and judging his own work for not being up to his standards. He also thought that most Lord of the Rings fans were a bit off, and unable to fully appreciate what he was trying to get across with his work.

There Was Tragedy In His Childhood

Young Tolkien
Reddit/Movies Veteran
Reddit/Movies Veteran

Although Tolkien is regarded as one of Britain’s great authors, he was technically born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, which is now Free State Province in South Africa, on January 3, 1892. When he was three, he went to England with his mother for an extended visit, but his father died in South Africa from rheumatic fever before he could join them, resulting in the family staying in England.

Then, when Tolkien was 12, his mother passed away from acute diabetes. Before she died, she ensured that Tolkien and his brother would be raised by a priest and close friend, Father Francis Morgan.

The Hobbit Started Out As A Bedtime Story For His Children

The Hobbit poster
Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images
Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images

When putting his children to bed, Tolkien would tell them magical stories from which the character of Bilbo Baggins evolved from. He would hone the story each night, although his children were quick to correct him if he got the smallest detail wrong, which helped form the overall story in the long run.

After getting the basic premise down orally, Tolkien sat down to write the book which was published in 1937. The book was hailed by adults and children, becoming successful enough that the publishers asked Tolkien for a sequel.

His Religious Beliefs Can Be Found In His Work

Eye of Sauron
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Tolkien was devout Catholic throughout his life, so it’s surprising when Christians today condemn The Lord of the Rings for supposedly being un-Christian and promoting belief in pagan magic. In reality, Tolkien poured a lot of his Catholic ideals into his writings, even though there is no mention of Christianity in Middle-earth.

For example, Sauron and the orcs can be seen as representing the evil of Satan, whereas the other characters must look inside themselves to fight for the side of the good, even when it isn’t the easiest thing to do. The trilogy also ends with the message that good will prevail, a principle tenant of Christian belief.

Where He Lived Influenced Various Locations In Middle-Earth

The Shire set in new Zealand
Alex Livesey – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
Alex Livesey – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

It’s clear that Tolkien put a lot of his own experiences into his writing, and where he lived wasn’t exempt. After moving to England in 1895, the young Tolkien found himself living in the suburbs of Birmingham, one of the largest industrial centers in all of the United Kingdom. This could very well have been the inspiration for Isengard, the industrial hub ruled by the corrupt Saruman.

However, the Tolkien family eventually relocated to the country village of Sarehole, just four miles from the city. He most likely looked back on this part of his life when developing Hobbiton, the peaceful and quiet home of the Hobbits.

Some People Interpreted His Work The Wrong Way

Picture of young Vikernes
Johnny Syversen/AFP via Getty Images
Johnny Syversen/AFP via Getty Images

Kristian Vikernes was a founder of the Norwegian black metal band Burzum in the 1990s, meaning “darkness” in Black Speech, the language of Mordor. He commented that “I felt a natural attraction to Sauron… I could easily identify with the fury of the “dark forces”, and enjoyed their existence.”

Taking the stage name of Count Grishnackh, an orc of Middle-earth, Vikernes went on to burn down several churches, commit murder, and preach hate against non-whites, as he saw the conflicts in Middle-earth being no more than a race war. Luckily, Tolkien wasn’t alive to hear about this.

His Worked Was Loved By The His Enemies

Picture of Tolkien
Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tolkien’s academic work regarding Old Norse and Germanic history, language and culture became extremely popular among the Nazis, who were obsessed with re-establishing ancient German society. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien was repulsed by this.

At one point, he even considered banning having his novels translated into German after a German publisher asked him to certify that he was “Aryan.” Instead, he wrote a very emotional letter in which he stated, “I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler…”

His Work Led To A Resurgence In The Fantasy Genre

Tolkien reading a book
Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although fantasy was not a new genre in literature by any means before Tolkien, the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings resulted in the resurgence of the genre. From then on, Tolkien has been referred to as the “Father of modern fantasy literature,” and more specifically, of high fantasy.

In 2008, The Times ranked him as No.6 on the list of “The 50 Greatest British Authors Since 1945, and in 2009, Forbes named him the fifth top-earning dead celebrity.

He Remained A Professor For Most Of His Life

Tolkien in an office
Haywood Magee/Getty Images
Haywood Magee/Getty Images

Despite the fact that Tolkien had grown to be one of the most successful fantasy writers of the time, he loved his day job all too well. He continued as a professor at Oxford University until he finally retired in 1959 at the age of 67.

He was beloved as a lecturer, with biographer Humphrey Carpenter describing his lectures on Beowulf as being nothing short of legendary. He was also known for his bizarre antics in the classroom, with one of his former students claiming that “He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall.”

He Was A Skilled Artist

Original drawing by Tolkien
Pinterest
Pinterest

A gifted linguist, author, and scholar, one of Tolkien’s overlooked talents is that of an artist, with few knowing that he initially illustrated his books himself. Apparently, some of Tolkien’s art predates his writing, first beginning to paint scenes of Middle-Earth while attending Exeter College.

Tolkien even illustrated his original manuscript of The Hobbit, and when it was accepted for publication, he convinced his publisher to include 12 pictures and maps. On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings wasn’t originally illustrated because it would have been too expensive, although his illustrations appeared on the dust jackets of the three volumes.

Oxford Is A Mecca For Tolkien Fans

Sign for Bodleian Library
David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images
David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Because Oxford hasn’t changed much in its hundreds of years of existence, it’s not surprising that many places that Tolkien frequented and visited are still standing. This has resulted in Oxford becoming a Mecca for Tolkien fans keen to see for themselves the places that the author taught, lived, socialized, and worked.

Two of his homes are still available to be be seen from the street, and you can visit the Bodleian Library, where he performed much of his research when formulating Middle-earth. Furthermore, The Eagle and Child pub is still open to grab a drink, as well as the Rabbit Room, where he spent countless hours conversing with other writers.

Secret Communication With His Wife

Soldiers passing a shell crater
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Being the master linguist and language creator that Tolkien was, during his time as a soldier in World War I, he developed a secret code. He did this so that he could have communication with his wife and tell her information that soldiers were prohibited from telling the outside world.

Although Edith was still worried at all times, she could have some reassurance knowing where her husband was while other soldier’s wives were completely in the dark.

There Was A Dispute Over Ink Coloring

The One Ring
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

The publication of The Lord of the Rings was put on hold by Tolkien due to a dispute over ink colors. At the time, Tolkien had expressed interest in leaving his publisher, Allen & Unwin, because they argued against using red ink when Tolkien wanted, and another publisher offered to oblige his request.

He planned that whenever the writing on the ring would appear, it would be printed in red. However, when the deal fell through with the other publisher, Tolkien stuck with Allen & Unwin.

He Worked For The Oxford English Dictionary

Open dictionary
Bruce Milton Miller/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
Bruce Milton Miller/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

After being honorably discharged from the military after falling sick with trench fever in 1920, Tolkien took a job working for the Oxford English Dictionary. There, he worked on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin that began with the letter “W.”

He then went on to become the youngest professor at the University the same year. In 1925, he returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies, with a fellowship at Pembroke College. He would remain at Oxford for the remainder of his career.

The Lord Of The Rings Wasn’t Supposed To Be Trilogy

All three books
Pinterest/Palabea
Pinterest/Palabea

In total, The Lord of the Rings took Tolkien ten years to create and write between 1954 and 1955, and he had initially planned for the entire story to be released under one book.

However, his publishers didn’t agree with his plan, claiming it would be too costly to make into one book and would overall be a bad business decision on their part. Begrudgingly, Tolkien agreed to split his story into three The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, which made his publishers happy.