Now that your holidays are over, it’s time to leave your dreams of sugarplums and fantasies in the past and get back to… reality. And who better to discover reality with than J.R.R. Tolkien!? After all, you know as well as we do that he detested his cult fantasy following and wished only to bring awareness to the Catholic church… right? Oh, no? Well then, allow us to enlighten you!
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3rd (yes, yes – we are one day late with this… so sue us!) 1892 in South Africa. Born to English parents, Ronald (as he was known) was followed by a brother just a couple years later. When he was only three years old, his mother took the sons on what was intended to be a long vacation in England to meet their family. While away, Ronald’s father took ill and passed away from rheumatic fever, and the Tolkien family, left without income, did not return to South Africa. His mother Mabel taught Ronald and his brother Hilary from home. Ronald showed an adept interest in languages early on, and was reading and writing around the age of four. His mother became a devout catholic in his early life, and when she passed away when Ronald was twelve years of age, he and Hilary became wards of her trusted advisor, catholic priest Father Francis. Francis would have a profound influence on Tolkien throughout his life.
During his teenage years, Tolkien and two of his female cousins had a unique pastime… making up languages. Their languages, Animalic, Nevbosh and Naffarin varied in complexity and drew their roots from Latin, which his mother taught him as a young boy. Tolkien eventually began attending Oxford, at first studying Classics but soon realizing that his interests and talents lay in studying the English language and literature. He graduated in 1915 with first-class honors, a rarity for the year as it was looked down upon for Tolkien to have completed his studies before enlisting as a soldier in World War I.
In his early twenties, Tolkien married Edith Bratt – a “childhood” sweetheart (in quotes because they met when Tolkien was 16 years old and Bratt 19, but “teen” sweethearts just sounds ridiculous). Shortly thereafter Tolkien was deployed to France to fight in the war. However, Tolkien was to count himself lucky (if you can call it so) as he suffered from so many infections and illnesses throughout his service that he was considered unfit for service and was often between hospitals and off-the-field duties. Upon his final return to England, all but one of his friends had perished in the war.
After the war in 1920, Tolkien went to work (appropriately so) for the Oxford English Dictionary, then shortly thereafter became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds, taking up a post as Reader there. While working there, Tolkien produced his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval work that his involvement on would become the academic norm for decades to come.
At the onset of World War II, Tolkien was approached by the British government and asked if he would consider working as a cryptographer and codebreaker in the Foreign Office, in the event of an emergency. Tolkien replied that he would be honored to do so, though it would turn out that his services would not be necessary. In 1945 Tolkien began his term as the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, a post he would remain at until his retirement in 1959. After retirement, Tolkien and Edith set-up house in Bournemouth, England, not only because Edith was delighted to live there, but because in the 1960s the counter-culture movement saw a rapid increase in interest in Tolkien’s fantasy work and his popularity began to be distressing, with unwanted visits and phone calls, and the rise of a cult-following. Family being the main interest of the couple, they relocated. Truthfully, I feel as though I cannot do re-working Humphry Carpenter’s statement on the Tolkien’s relationship justice, so I copy it here:
“Those friends who knew Ronald and Edith Tolkien over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other’s health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other’s birthday presents; and in the large matters, the way in which Ronald willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author. A principal source of happiness to them was their shared love of their family. This bound them together until the end of their lives, and it was perhaps the strongest force in the marriage. They delighted to discuss and mull over every detail of the lives of their children, and later their grandchildren.” Now if that doesn’t make you want to cry, then I don’t know what to tell you.
Edith passed away two years before Tolkien. While he lived those years pleasantly enough in very nice rooms provided him at Oxford and honored by the Queen in that time, Tolkien’s grandson Simon would go and visit his grandfather and Tolkien would speak of how he missed his wife and Simon would remark that he seemed “sad”. Tolkien is buried with his wife in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford, wanting to be buried in countryside (not in London, etc.) as he disliked industrialization and favored a quieter, country life. These facts were not what you were expecting from the man famed for creating the destructive and warring, mystical and fantasy world of Middle-Earth, now were they? In any case, Happy Birthday to J.R.R. Tolkien! Your work is still remembered and revered today.
(But sorry, there is definitely still a cult following, there is really probably no way of getting around that by now.)