John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died on 2nd September 1973. He was an Anglo-Saxon scholar of international reputation and worked tirelessly to promote the beauty and sheer pleasure of the literature from the period. In addition, through his own fictional creations, he was able to imagine a world heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon ideas and language.
Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, now South Africa, of English parents and his mother came back to England in 1895 with Tolkien and his younger brother. His father died while still in Africa in 1896. Tolkien´s memories of Africa were slight, although he did recall a frightening hairy spider.
His mother became a Catholic, resulting in estrangement from both sides of the family, and so Tolkien was brought up in that faith. Tolkien went to school in Birmingham, and following the death of his mother in 1904 lived first with his aunt and later boarded with a landlady. He and his brother were cared for through the intervention of a priest who looked after their material and spiritual needs. Tolkien met his future wife, Edith, as a boarder when he was 16 and a romance started against the advice and wishes of his Catholic guardian.
In 1910 he won a scholarship to Oxford Exeter College and started his studies in the Classics, Old English, the Germanic languages. He was a natural linguist, mastering Latin, Greek, Finnish, Gothic, Welsh and other modern languages as well as creating his own language which he later used in his fictional works.
Shortly after his 21st birthday he and Edith became engaged.
By 1914 he was already producing work which can be recognised as relating to the later stories of Middle Earth, and he graduated with a first class degree in 1915. In 1916 he and Edith married before he entered the signal corps as a Battalion Signalling Officer and served in France on the Somme. He returned to England with trench fever after four months during which time he lost a number of close friends in the fighting. We was eventually admitted to Brooklands Officers’ Hospital in Hull.
In 1918 the family returned to Oxford and Tolkien worked as a freelance tutor in addition to working for the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1920 he began work as a Reader in English Language at Leeds University, West Yorkshire, where 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.
He was appointed as Professor of English Language in 1924. A year later he was successful in his application for the post of Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, where he met C S Lewis and established a firm friendship. His academic publications are not extensive, but what he did publish was often influential. By 1936 he had produced the first draft of The Hobbit and in the same year delivered his lecture, Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, to the British Academy in London. This work was incredibly influential in changing the appreciation of Old English poetry from historical to literary and pre-dated the excavation of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939. The treasures discovered there served to underpin the accuracy and reality of the riches described in the poetry of the period.
Nor was Tolkien only involved in Anglo-Saxon material. He also published a number of translations of Middle English works such as Ancrene Wisse, Sir Orfeo and Pearl. He also taught undergraduates and contributed to the administration of the university.
At home he wrote annual illustrated letters as if from Santa Claus for his children and told them bedtime stories many of which were later developed into published works.
He was one of the founder members of a group with similar interests, known as “The Inklings” which included CS Lewis among other notable names. The origins of the name were to do with writing, and sounded mildly Anglo-Saxon.
Both the essay and The Hobbit were published in 1937 and Tolkien was urged by his publisher, Unwin and Allen, to write a sequel to the latter.
During the Second World War Tolkien continued working at the university and also served as an air raid warden. In 1945 he became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature.
Despite completing his manuscript for The Lord of the Rings in 1949 it was not published until 1954 as the publisher felt it was too long and in 1952 made the decision to decline the work. A few months later Allen & Unwin agreed to publish it on a profit-sharing basis.
The following year Tolkien´s poem The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son was published, a work of historical fiction following the events of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon. In 1954 Tolkien was awarded a D.Litt from Dublin University and publication of The Lord of the Rings began, each volume being published separately. The BBC began to serialise it almost immediately and Tolkien became increasingly busy dealing with fans and struggled to complete his more academic work. Eventually he and Edith had to move house and change their phone number to avoid all the calls and visits.
He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1957 and retired from university life in 1959. However he continued to work on his literature.
Among other works he was responsible for the translation of the Book of Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible, which was published in 1966.
Edith died in 1971 and Tolkien received a CBE in 1972. He died of a stomach ulcer in 1973.
Image: The Tolkiens’ headstone, photo by Álida Carvalho, public domain
The couple were buried together under a headstone that reads:
“Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889–1971
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892–1973”