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J. R. R. Tolkien

A man who looked more like your paternal grandfather than one of the most beloved storytellers in history, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892.  Not content with life as he found it, he created a fantasy world all his own.  He named it Middle Earth and inhabited it with creatures he called hobbits, such as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, as well as with dragons, goblins, trolls, orcs, and elves. 

Educated at Oxford during World War I, Tolkien spent his free time inventing languages and writing poetry.  When he was called for active duty, he served in the Western Front at the Battle of Somme.  He fought bravely in French warfare until being hospitalized with trench fever, a typhus-like infection common in the unsanitary conditions of the day, and in early November he returned to England, where he spent the next month in a hospital in Birmingham.  By Christmas he had recovered sufficiently to stay with his wife, Edith, at Great Haywood in Staffordshire. 

During his first few months back from the war, Tolkien learned that all but one member of his unit had been killed in battle.  Out of memory to them, as well as out of his own experiences and his reaction against war, he began to put the stories that had been rattling around his head for so long to paper.  He visited his characters "... in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire [ Letters 66]." 

One afternoon, while he and Edith were walking in the woods at nearby Roos, Edith began to dance for him in a thick grove of hemlock.  The dance inspired Tolkien to create the tale of Beren and Lúthien, a recurrent theme in his Legendarium.  He came to think of Edith as Lúthien and himself as Beren.

The ordering of his imagination eventually developed into the Book of Lost Tales (not published in his lifetime), in which most of the major stories of the Silmarillion appear in their first form: tales of the Elves and the "Gnomes," (i. e. Deep Elves, the later Noldor), with their languages Qenya and Goldogrin.  Here he recorded the first versions of the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond, and the tales of Túrin and of Beren and Lúthien.

In 1925, when a position for a professor at Oxford opened, Tolkien applied for and received it.  Already an acknowledge master of Middle and Old English, he found that he fit well into the mostly male world of teaching, researching, and the exchange of philosophical ideas.  He found, too, that teaching allowed him more free time to continue tinkering in his mind with the formulations of his fantasy Middle World.

At home, life couldn't have been better.  Edith bore the last of their children, their only daughter, Priscilla, in 1929, and Tolkien soon grew into the habit of writing them annual illustrated letters as if from Santa Claus.  A number of these letters were published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters.

Socially, the Tolkiens were well regarded.  Tolkien soon became one of the founder members of a loosely organized group of Oxford friends who shared similar interests.  They called themselves "The Inklings."  The origin of the name was purely whimsical.  It had to do with writing and sounded somewhat Anglo-Saxon.  It had nothing to do with the claim that members of the group had an "inkling" into Divine Nature, as some suggest. 

Prominent members of the group included Coghill and Dyson, as well as Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis, who became one of Tolkien's closest friends and for whose return to Christianity Tolkien was at least partly responsible.  The Inklings met regularly for conversation, drink, and frequent readings from their works-in-progress.

All the while, Tolkien continued developing his mythology and languages until one day in 1930, according to the author, himself, he was marking exam papers when he discovered that one of his students had left a page blank.  On this page, moved no doubt by anachronic demons and goblins, Tolkien wrote, "In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit...."  The novel, The Hobbit, followed in 1937.  After that, the sequel trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was born.

"If you care for journeys there and back, out of the comfortable Western world, over the edge of the Wild, and home again, and can take an interest in a humble hero (blessed with a little wisdom and a little courage and considerable good luck), here is a record of such a journey and such a traveler." - introduction from The Hobbit

The Lord of the Rings was widely accepted by the public, although reviews, not unexpectedly, were mixed.  They ranged from laudatory (W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis) to damning (E. Wilson, E. Muir, P. Toynbee).  The BBC put on a drastically condensed radio adaptation in 12 episodes on the Third Programme, the network's "intellectual" channel, in 1956.  Hardback sales were so strong that Tolkien actually toyed with the idea of retiring from academia to write full time.

But the book received its greatest push for two reasons when The Lord of the Rings went into a pirated paperback version in 1965.  First, the paperback version propelled the book out of libraries and schools and put it into the back pockets of impulse-buying readers.  Second, the publicity generated by the copyright dispute alerted millions of American readers to the existence of something outside their previous realm of experience.  By 1968, The Lord of the Rings had become the Bible of the an Alternative Society.

Tolkien went on to write other things--from articles and short stories to essays, much of them published posthumously, although none matched the notoriety of his major works. 

After his retirement in 1969, Tolkien and his wife moved to Bournemouth where, on November 22, 1971, she died.  Tolkien returned to Oxford to rooms provided by Merton College.  He died there on September 2, 1973.  Some say it was from a broken heart.  J. R. R. Tolkien and his wife, Edith, share a single grave in the Catholic section of Wolvercote cemetery in the northern suburbs of Oxford. 

The Hobbit lives on.

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