John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was a bank manager. After his father’s death, four-year-old Ronald, his younger brother, and mother settled in Sarehole, a village in the West Midlands of England. Tolkien retained an idealized image of the Sarehole Mill, the old mill pool with its overhanging willow tree, a nearby tempting mushroom patch, and clusters of cottages-all of which later figured in his picture of Hobbiton. At this time young Ronald was already discovering two interests that were to shape his life: languages and stories about imaginative places. When his mother moved the family to Birmingham, the trains and factories created a much more forbidding atmosphere, one from which he later encouraged people to “escape” through imaginative literature.
During his years at King Edward’s school in Birmingham and later at Oxford, Tolkien concentrated on philology, moving from more traditional languages such as Latin, Greek, German, and French, to Old and Middle English, Gothic, Old Norse, Welsh, and Finnish. During his childhood Tolkien had started “making up” languages, and as an undergraduate at Oxford he continued this practice, evolving from Finnish and Welsh what eventually became the languages of his elves in Middle-earth. His work with the signal corps of the British army from 1916 to 1918 stretched his linguistic talents in a different direction.
After the war Tolkien worked briefly with the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, a pleasant occupation for one so interested in language, but he soon moved into the profession in which he was to spend the rest of his life: teaching. He was first invited to join the English department at Leeds University; five years later he became a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, a position he held for thirty-four years. At Oxford he did much to demonstrate the strong bonds between what had been two rival fields: language and literature. Among his scholarly productions medievalists have consistently praised his translations of the Middle English poetic romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the posthumously published translations of Pearl and Sir Orfeo. It is significant that the most prominent of his many studies in Anglo-Saxon literature should be his published lecture on “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936). As a child Tolkien had loved dragon stories, and the anonymous Anglo-Saxon Beowulf-poet created one of the greatest dragons of literature, a model for Tolkien’s treasure-loving dragons in The Hobbit and Farmer Giles of Ham, as well as his masterpiece of malice and terror, Glaurung of The Silmarillion.
Throughout his life, Tolkien was drawn to the challenge of creating an imagined world and mythology. In the 1920s, while he was busy with his teaching career, he was also playfully creating “fairy-stories” to entertain his children. It was for them that The Hobbit evolved, episode by episode. When they outgrew listening to stories, Tolkien’s motivation to create them stopped, and so did Bilbo’s quest. Not until 1937 did Tolkien complete the novel. The overwhelming popularity of The Hobbit led his publisher to request another book about hobbits. Tolkien began a sequel almost immediately, but The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, did not see print until 1954, seventeen years after he had written the first chapter.
The world of Middle-earth came to full form in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but its underlying mythology continued to grow throughout Tolkien’s life. After his retirement from Oxford in 1959 he concentrated on preparing for publication manuscripts that went back as far as his schoolboy song about Earendil (1914). Shortly before his death on September 2, 1973, he was still revising-and rerevising-the manuscripts which were finally edited and published by his son Christopher in The Silmarillion (1977). Tolkien’s own absorption in these myths is reflected by the inscriptions on his and his wife’s gravestones: “Beren” and “Luthien,” the names of the human-elven couple from whom the great lines of Middle-earth descend. The Tolkien cult of the 1950s and 1960s has never died out, but the works of this modern myth-maker have themselves begun to find places not only among lists of “popular” novels, but also among the great classics of literature.