J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) 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.
Further Reading on J. R. R. Tolkien
Newsweek, September 17, 1973.
New York Times, September 3, 1973.
Publishers Weekly, September 17, 1973.
Time, September 17, 1973.
Washington Post, September 3, 1973.
Anderson, Douglas A., author of introduction and notes, The Annotated Hobbit, Houghton, 1988.
Authors in the News, Volume 1, Gale, 1976.
Carpenter, Humphrey, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, Allen & Unwin, 1977, published as Tolkien: A Biography, Houghton, 1978.
Carpenter, Humphrey, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, Allen & Unwin, 1978, Houghton, 1979.
Carter, Lin, Tolkien: A Look behind The Lord of the Rings, Houghton, 1969.
Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973; Volume 2, 1974; Volume 3, 1975; Volume 8, 1978; Volume 12, 1980; Volume 38, 1986.