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Author Spotlight: JRR Tolkien

This is a 1967 photo of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Tolkien is the author of "The Lord of the Rings" and an Oxford University Professor.  (AP Photo)

A scholar of the English language and hands-down the greatest fantasy writer of all time, JRR Tolkien brought to us the world of hobbits, elves, dwarves, trolls, and orcs. With worlds, he was able to fashion whole words spanning several volumes.

Tolkien’s Childhood

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892. After his father died in 1896, he, his mother, and youngest brother returned to England. He grew up in Birmingham, but his linguistic interest was fueled by the coal truck going to and from South Wales. In 1900, their family became Roman Catholic and remained so throughout their lives. His mother died in 1904, and the Tolkien boys were taken care of by Father Francis Morgan. They were boarded for a short time with an unsympathetic aunt-by-marriage, Beatrice Suffield, and then a Mrs. Faulkner.

The War and the Academe

At this point, Ronald had already mastered Greek and Latin and was becoming more competent in a number of other languages. He also started making up his own languages. In 1911, he entered Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied the classics, Old English, Germanic languages, Welsh, and Finnish. In 1913, he obtained a second-class degree in Honour Moderations with an alpha plus in philology. This caused him to change from classics to English language and literature.

Even though war broke out in 1914, Tolkien stayed at Oxford and achieved a first-class degree in June 1915. At this point, he was working on attempts at poetry and his invented languages. In 1916, he finally enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He also married Edith Bratt in March of that year.

When the war ended in 1918, he was appointed assistant lexicographer on the New English Dictionary. He didn’t stay for long as he was appointed reader (or associate professor) in English language at the University of Leeds. Here he continued writing and refining The Book of Lost Tales and his invented Elvish language. In 1925, he successfully applied for the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

The Inklings and the Hobbits

Tolkien was one of the people who founded the Inklings, a loose grouping of Oxford friends with similar interests. The name was chosen mainly because it sounded like it had to do with writing, and it sounded mildly Anglo-Saxon. Members included Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and CS Lewis. The group met regularly for conversation, drinks, and readings of works-in-progress.

The word hobbit was something Tolkien found in a student’s answer book: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He decided to investigate what a hobbit was, where the hole is, what sort of hole it is, and so on and so forth. Soon, the investigation became a story which he told to his children. In 1936, Tolkien was asked to complete the manuscript, and in 1937, The Hobbit was published.

Soon, Tolkien collected his completed tales, calling it the Silmarillion, and presented this to The Hobbit’s publisher. It didn’t fare as well as The Hobbit, and Tolkien took the challenge of writing a sequel to his first novel. This sequel developed into something far more complex—.



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