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J.R.R. Tolkien: The Author of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”

Updated on September 3, 2017
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Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

J. R.R. Tolkien at Oxford
J. R.R. Tolkien at Oxford

John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien was born in 1892 in South Africa. His father was Arthur Reuel Tolkien and worked as a bank manager. J.R.R. had a younger brother named Hilary Arthur Tolkien. The family left for South Africa when the senior Tolkien was promoted to manage an English bank in South Africa. During this time, the future author was bitten by a large baboon spider. Many believe this experience influenced his writing. His father died of rheumatic fever in South Africa. This left the family with no income, and his mother took the family to live with her parents in Birmingham, England.

J.R.R. Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary.
J.R.R. Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary.

Childhood

The area where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up in England was composed of the stereotypical English countryside and industrial Birmingham. The family moved to a house near a railway line. This was when Tolkien started developing his imagination watching coal trucks and thinking about all their destinations. Tolkien, his mother, and brother, became devout followers of the Roman Catholic Church. At the age of 12, Tolkien's mother died. A local priest cared for Tolkien and his brother until they were sent to live with an aunt who was very indifferent to them.

Oxford

In 1911, Tolkien was able to join friends for a walking holiday in Switzerland. It is believed this experience influenced his descriptions of Rivendell and Misty Mountains in the “Lord of the Rings.” This is also the year he left for Oxford and began studying Old English and other Germanic Languages. In 1913, he earned a second class degree in Honour Moderations. It meant he was halfway finished with his Oxford classics course. He eventually changed his course to literature and English languages.

J.R.R. Tolkien in the Royal Army
J.R.R. Tolkien in the Royal Army

World War I

When the war started, Tolkien did not immediately sign up to fight. He continued studying at Oxford. In June of 1915, he obtained a first-class degree from Oxford. Tolkien spent much of his time working on cryptic poems and inventing languages. Tolkien eventually joined the Royal British Army and was made a second lieutenant. He waited around in Staffordshire, England until 1916. Tolkien was then sent to fight during the Somme offensive. After weeks of fighting in the trenches, he developed trench fever. He was then sent back to England. Tolkien spent the next several weeks recovering. During 1917 and 1918, Tolkien's illness often reoccurred after some time in remission. He was determined by his superiors to be unfit for active military service. Tolkien spent the rest of his time in the Army doing home service at a variety of different army camps.

Oxford

Tolkien's first job after serving in the military was at the Oxford English Dictionary. Here, he spent his time researching the history and etymology of words. He then obtained a position of professor at the University of Leeds. At this time, he was the youngest professor working at the University. In 1925, Tolkien took a position in Oxford as the Professor of Anglo-Saxon with a Pembroke College fellowship.

Members of the Inklings
Members of the Inklings

The Inkings

This was a loose group of people associated with Oxford. They would regularly meet for drinks, conversation as well as to read one another's work-in-progress. The name of the group was a made-up name with no association to writing. Some of the members were Charles Williams, Owen Barfield and one of Tolkien's best friends; C.S. Lewis. The friendship with Tolkien is credited with helping C.S. Lewis return to Christianity. Lewis had fallen away from the religion when he was a young adult.

Book cover for "The Hobbit"
Book cover for "The Hobbit"

The Hobbit

During the early 1930s, Tolkien had published several poems. He had also written a book about letters from Father Christmas for his children. It included goblins, gnomes as well as a polar bear hero. The work also contained elven languages. During one summer, Tolkien was marking school certificate papers and came upon a blank page. Inspiration overcame him, and he wrote, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien completed his manuscript for “The Hobbit” in 1932. He lent copies of it to many of his friends including C.S. Lewis. Tolkien lent a copy of the manuscript to a student named Elaine Griffiths. A friend of Griffiths' named Susan Dagnall worked for publisher George Allen & Unwin. Dagnall was impressed with the book and showed it to Stanley Unwin. After Unwin got good comments about the book from his 10-year-old son, he decided to publish it. “The Hobbit” was published and made available to the public in 1937.

Book cover for "Lord of the Rings"
Book cover for "Lord of the Rings"

Lord of the Rings

The trilogy known as “The Lord of the Rings” began as a sequel. The success of “The Hobbit” caused Allen & Unwin to request another book. Tolkien told the publishers he worked slowly. The writing of the trilogy started when Tolkien was 45-years-old. He would not finish it until 18 years later when he was 63-years-old. During the writing, he held a full-time academic position at Oxford. Tolkien also earned extra money as a university examiner. As he wrote chapters, he sent them to his son Christoper to review. Christopher was stationed in South Africa with the Royal Air force.

Publishing

The publishers decided to divide the book into three separate volumes. This was influenced by a shortage of paper following World War II. It would also keep the price more reasonable. “The Fellowship of the Ring” was published on July 29, 1954, in the United Kingdom. During October of 1954, Houghton Mifflin published it in the United States. The second book “The two Towers” was published in the United States on April 21, 1955. The third book, “The Return of the Kings,” was published in the United States on January 6, 1956. All the books were published with a profit-sharing arrangement in place. Tolkien would not receive any advanced funds or royalties until the books had broken even. When this benchmark was reached, he would then receive a share of the profits. It eventually became one of the best-selling trilogies ever to be published. More than 149 million copies have been sold.

Tolkien tombstone
Tolkien tombstone

Death

J.R.R. Tolkien retired from working as a professor in 1959. He then went on to publish a collection of poetry and essays. Tolkien's wife Edith passed away on November 29, 1971. He passed away on September 2, 1973; Tolkien was 81. Tolkien was survived by four children. The tombstone of Tolkien's wife reads “Luthein,” and his has “Beren." This was in reference to a love story between a man and an elf-maiden written by Tolkien. “The Tale of Beren and Luthien” was published posthumously as a stand-alone book in 2017.

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    • Readmikenow profile image
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      Readmikenow 12 days ago

      Tamara, thanks. Tolkien was a fascinating man as well as great writer.

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      Tamara Moore 12 days ago

      Wow, I did not know all of these interesting facts about Tolkien, and yet, I've read many of his books!

      I loved the Lord of The Rings movies.

      Thank you for this fascinating post!

    • Readmikenow profile image
      Author

      Readmikenow 2 weeks ago

      Larry, Thanks

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful overview.

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 2 weeks ago

      Very interesting and well written Hub. Thank you.