J.R.R. Tolkien, the well-loved author of books such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, is best known as a British professor at Oxford University. His books were first published in England, his fandom first started in England...but the story of Professor Tolkien himself does not even start on that continent.
1888, England - Arthur Reuel Tolkien was thirty-one years old, and he had just proposed marriage to a girl just turned eighteen: Mabel Suffield. She accepted, but her father, John Suffield, was not so pleased. Mabel was too young to be married, and the couple's engagement was postponed for two years. One of the only ways they could communicate was through Mabel's younger sister, Jane, who delivered her sibling's messages to Arthur at the railway station. They also saw each other at evening parties where Arthur's sisters played the piano. The piano was, of course, one of those that the Tolkiens' had once manufactured, inscribed on the lid with the words "Irresistible Piano-Forte: Manufactured Expressly for Extreme Climates." The furtive glances and secret letters didn't last eternally, though. In 1891, Arthur and Mabel were married--but John Suffield was still not pleased. Proud but bankrupt, he thought the Tolkien family nothing compared to the respectable Suffields. But despite his displeasure, he gave the newlyweds his blessing.
Arthur was English by birth, of course, but his family's banking business in England became a poor business. A year after proposing to Mabel, he decided that South Africa would be much more profitable. He took the three-week voyage to Bloemfontein, and his fiancée met him there for their wedding two years later. Not that Mabel was very pleased to be in that country--she wrote to her family and called Bloemfontein a "Owlin' Wilderness! Horrid Waste!" But, with diamonds and gold being prolific in that part of Africa, and the climate improving Arthur's previously poor health, it looked like the Tolkiens' would stay in that "Horrid Waste" for quite some time.
On January 4th, 1892, Arthur wrote the following to his mother:
My dear Mother,
I have good news for you this week. Mabel gave me a beautiful little son last night (3 January). It was rather before time, but the baby is strong and well and Mabel has come through wonderfully. The baby is (of course) lovely. It has beautiful hands and ears (very long fingers), very light hair, 'Tolkien' eyes and very distinctly a 'Suffield' mouth. In general effect immensely like a very fair edition of its Aunt Mabel Mitton. When we first reached Dr Stollreither yesterday he said it was a false alarm and told the nurse to go home for a fortnight but he was mistaken and I fetched him again about eight and then he stayed till 12.40 when we had a whiskey to drink luck to the boy. The boy's first name will be 'John' after its grandfather, probably John Ronald Reuel altogether. Mab wants to call it Ronald and I want to keep up John and Reuel...
Thus J.R.R. Tolkien came into the world. Though his first name did become John, nearly everyone called him Ronald. School friends called him John Ronald, and later he was known at times as Tollers or J.R.R.T.
Dangers such as monkeys, snakes, and spiders abounded in South Africa. Young Ronald, who was beginning to walk, was bitten once by a tarantula, although his nurse sucked out the poison. Later he always insisted he didn't have an especial dislike of spiders, but arachnids of gigantic size were to make multiple appearances in his writings.
Mabel Tolkien still hated life in South Africa and wished to return to England at least for a visit. Unfortunately, the trip had to be postponed since her second son, Hilary Arthur Reuel, was born on February 17th, 1894. Hilary was a healthy little child, unlike his older brother, who was a bit frail and often feverish. The boys' father, Arthur, would have been just as sickly as his eldest son had he returned to England: he now saw a permanent abode in his mother country as detrimental to his health.
Nevertheless, Mabel and her sons set sail upon the S.S. Guelph in April, 1895, for a trip to England. Arthur promised to meet them there at a later time. Ronald met his Suffield relatives, and his health improved considerably in the English climate. But that winter, despite Ronald's delight at seeing his first Christmas tree, the news that Arthur had contracted rheumatic fever and would not be able to join them until he regained his health put a damper on the holiday spirit.
On February 14th, 1896, the family received a telegram saying that Arthur had suffered severe haemorrhage. He died the next day.
After slightly recovering from her husband's death, Mabel Tolkien decided she couldn't impose on her family and stay with them any longer. She found a relatively inexpensive brick cottage in the hamlet of Sarehole, where they moved that summer. Before they left, though, Ronald learned his Aunt Grace's version of the history of his surname. She said that the family name had originally been "von Hohenzollern." George von Hohenzollern had succeeded in an unofficial raid against the Turks during the Siege of Vienna in 1529, and was given the nickname Tollkühn, meaning "fool-hardy." The family also supposedly intermarried with French nobility; the French version of Tollkühn was du Téméraire. Aunt Grace told the improbable story of how the family anglicized their surname to Tolkien to escape the guillotine during the French Revolution.
At Sarehole, Mabel decided to homeschool Ronald and Hilary until they were old enough to try for admission to King Edward's School, the best grammar school in the city. After all, Mabel knew French, German, and Latin, could paint and draw, and played the piano. She concluded that she could manage teaching the boys for several years.
The traffic near the Tolkiens' cottage was so sparse that the city of Birmingham seemed very remote. There was a meadow, a small river, an old mill, a pond, fields--everything two small boys could want to explore. They picked mushrooms and were chased by mushrooms' owner, "the Black Ogre," as Ronald and Hilary called him. Apart from being in a country landscape, there were also new words in the Warwickshire dialect that the brothers gradually picked up, such as 'miskin' for dustbin and 'gamgee' for cotton-wool.
Mabel Tolkien soon began to teach both boys. Ronald had a way with words from the beginning: he could read at age four and soon learned to write skillfully. He adored Latin, although he liked French much less. He had no interest in playing the piano; to him, words were musical in themselves. He liked to draw (especially trees, which he had had a fascination with ever since he watched his father planting trees in Bloemfontein), and his aesthetic tendencies also presented themselves in his elegant and adorned penmanship.
Because Ronald was showing a passion for anything having to do with words, his mother gave him many books to read. Ronald's favorites were the Red Indian books, Arthurian legends, George MacDonald's 'Curdie' books, and the Red Fairy Book. He was less fond of Treasure Island and The Pied Piper, although Alice in Wonderland entertained him slightly.
Until 1900, the Tolkiens' had warm relationships with their surviving relatives. But everything changed that spring. Mabel and her sister, May, became Catholic and were received into the Church of Rome. Their father, John Suffield, was enraged. As a Unitarian, he was absolutely furious and felt dishonored by his daughters' conversion. May's husband forbade his wife to ever enter the Catholic Church again, and the little money he had provided to Mabel and her sons was withdrawn.
In 1899, at age seven, Ronald was old enough to take the entrance exam to King Edward's School. He failed the test, but the next year he tried again and was accepted. The walk from the Sarehole to King Edward's was long and tiring, and trams were too expensive. This meant a move from the beautiful country cottage to Moseley, which was near the center of the city.
It took Ronald nearly the whole of his first term to adjust to life in the city and the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of King Edward's, but he soon grew to like it. When Ronald was ten, Mabel decided she didn't like the church they were going to. King Edward's was also expensive, and the Grammar School of St Philip, which was at the Birmingham Oratory, Mabel's preferred new church, was less expensive and would provide a Catholic education for Ronald and Hilary. At their new place of worship, they met Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who became a close friend of the family.
By 1903, Ronald was whizzing past his classmates at St Philip's, which provided a lower standard of excellence than King Edward's. Ronald received a Foundation Scholarship to his former school and returned there that autumn. Hilary failed to pass the entrance exam, so his mother educated him at home for the time being. Ronald was now near the half-way point in the school, and was learning Greek (which captivated him, but seemed alien), reading Shakespeare (which he disliked cordially), and listening to his English professor read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English (which he found immensely enjoyable).
So passed another year at King Edward's. That enjoyable time was soon to come to an end. In 1904, Mabel Tolkien was in the hospital, diagnosed with diabetes. By the summer, though, she had recovered enough to leave the hospital, and through the assistance of Father Francis, the Tolkiens were able to stay at a clerical country retreat house. But in November she suddenly collapsed, and fell into a diabetic coma. On November 14th, with Father Francis and her sister, May, at her bedside, she died. Ronald was twelve years old, and an orphan.
With the danger of the Tolkien boys' relatives trying to convert them back to Protestantism, Father Francis had to choose carefully where the brothers should live. At last he found out that their aunt, Beatrice Suffield, had no religious affiliation, and Ronald and Hilary would be safe and happy there. Safe, yes--but happy? Hilary wasn't nearly as distraught as his brother, and, as an easily pleased ten-year-old boy, enjoyed throwing stones at cats from his window. Ronald was plunged into despair over his mother's death and the ugly factory neighborhood. Aunt Beatrice burned his mother's personal papers and letters without considering that the boys might want to keep them.
Not all happiness was lost, though. Birmingham Oratory was still near, and Father Francis became a surrogate father to Hilary and Ronald. Hilary finally passed the entrance exam to King Edward's. Ronald made friends with a classmate, Christopher Wiseman, with whom he had a friendly academic rivalry (Ronald came in first in the class, Wiseman second). Both enjoyed rugby, and could have discussions about religion without becoming resentful (Wiseman was a Methodist). Ronald's studies became more and more engrossing. Built on a backbone of Greek and Latin, the classes also gave Ronald an opportunity to study Anglo-Saxon. He was excited to read Beowulf (first a translation, then in the original Old English), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in Middle English), and the story of Fafnir the dragon and his slayer, Sigurd--an Old Norse story which had fascinated him from his boyhood days.
All in all, Tolkien loved philology, the study of words. And this led to the creation of new languages. Ronald and his cousins, Mary and Marjorie, collaborated to form their own language, "Animalic." Primitive at best, it was constructed mainly out of animal names. "Dog nightingale woodpecker forty" meant "You are an ass." After Marjorie, the elder cousin, tired of the slightly immature pursuit, Mary and Ronald worked on another language, "Nevbosh." The cousins wrote a limerick in it:
Dar fys ma vel gom co palt "Hoc
Pys go iskili far maino woc?
Pro si go fys do roc de
Do cat ym maino bocte
De volt fact soc ma taimful gyroc!"
Translated, it meant:
There was an old man who said "How
Can I possibly carry my cow?
For if I were to ask it
To get in my basket
It would make such a terrible row!"
This was one of the first serious attempts Ronald made at his own language, but it didn't stop there. When studying Greek, he had tried to make up "Greek-style" words. He now wanted to invent a language more serious than Nevbosh, and he turned to Father Francis' collection of Spanish books. This new language was called "Naffarin" and was heavily influenced by Spanish. But now there was an existing language that excited Ronald, and he took a break from Naffarin to study Joseph Wright's Primer of the Gothic Language, which Ronald deemed at least as full of delight as Chapman's Homer. And now he decided that the next step in his language-inventing endeavors was to invent his own alphabet, which he called his "private lang."
Father Francis finally came to the conclusion that Ronald and Hilary weren't at all happy at Aunt Beatrice's house. He made arrangements with a Mrs. Faulkner for the boys to board with her, and in early 1908 the brothers moved in. They weren't the only occupants, though: Mrs. Faulkner lived there with her husband, daughter, and maid. The only other boarder was a dark-haired, grey-eyed, nineteen-year-old orphan named Edith Bratt.
Edith and the Tolkien brothers got along very well, and Ronald and Edith especially liked each other. She was three years older than he was, he had no interest in her love of piano-playing, and she had no interest in his love of languages. But this didn't matter to them, and they joined forces in escapades to smuggle food out of the kitchen and have secret feasts in Edith's room. They frequently visited teashops and threw sugar-lumps into hats of passers-by. The summer after they met, they decided they were in love.
Around autumn 1909, Edith and Ronald went for a bicycle ride, taking great pains to make sure no one knew they were together. They had tea in Rednal village and rode home afterwards (separately, of course). The woman who gave them tea told the caretaker of the Oratory House, Mrs. Church, that Ronald had had tea with an unknown girl. Mrs. Church told repeated the gossip to the cook at the Oratory, and the cook told Father Francis.
Father Francis was stunned. Not only was Edith three years Ronald's senior, but the two were living in the same house. He demanded of Ronald that the love affair should immediately cease. Ronald, not being rebellious by nature, and depending upon Father Francis for financial support, agreed. Ronald and Hilary were forced to leave Mrs. Faulkner's house.
All this time, Ronald had been studying for a scholarship to Oxford University. Before Father Francis had discovered his clandestine relationship, half of his mind had been on his "private lang." and half had been on Edith, with barely any attention paid to Oxford. Now, he wanted to prove to Father Francis by winning a scholarship that he hadn't been distracted by Edith, but it was not to be. Being in a tumultuous state of mind at the time of the exam, it is no wonder that he failed to win an award. Even though competition for Oxford scholarships was extreme, Ronald was still dejected. His misery is evidenced by his diary entry on January 1st, 1910: "Depressed and as much in dark as ever. God help me. Feel weak and weary."
Ronald and Edith decided to meet secretly, and they took a train into the countryside. At a jeweller's shop, Ronald bought Edith a wrist-watch for her twenty-first birthday, and she bought him a pen for his eighteenth. Unfortunately, they were seen together again, and Father Francis ordered Ronald never to see or write to Edith until he was twenty-one. But on February 15th, Ronald saw Edith by accident and told her he was not allowed to write her. He saw her again accidentally on the 21st and 23rd of February. And on the 26th he got a letter from Father Francis, who called these "accidental" meetings evil and foolish, and threatened to cut off Ronald's university career unless he stopped.
Ronald saw Edith once more on the night of March 2nd. He wrote in his diary, "At Francis Road corner she passed me on bike on way to station. I shall not see her again perhaps for three years."
To put Edith out of his mind, Ronald busied himself with his studies. He was still at King Edward's School, having failed the Oxford exam. Ronald and a number of senior boys (Christopher Wiseman, R.Q. Gilson, and three or four others) controlled the school's library, and formed the "Tea Club" and "Barrovian Society," which were later known as T.C.B.S. Later, Geoffrey Bache Smith was added to the group to make a tight foursome, even though Geoffrey was three years younger than Ronald.
Ronald wasn't merely a bookish student, though. He was still quite involved in the muddy sport of rugby, which provided many hours of enjoyment although it sometimes led to injuries: Ronald broke his nose once, and cut his tongue another time, to which he attributed his indistinct speech (although the real cause was the many ideas in Tolkien's head which all clamored to get out of his mouth at once). Debating was another source of delight. King Edward's had a custom of holding their debates in Latin, but what novelty was there in Latin for Tolkien? Other languages were much more fun. So when he took the part of a Greek Ambassador, he decided to speak in Greek. Taking the part of a barbarian envoy, he spoke in Gothic. On another occasion he spoke in Anglo-Saxon. Needless to say, his classmates were astonished.
That December, he was ready to re-attempt what he should have won the first time around: an Oxford scholarship. On the 17th, he learned to his joy that he had been awarded an Open Classical Exhibition to Exeter College. The scholarship was worth sixty pounds a year, and although Ronald was skilled enough to have won a more valuable award, it was still a great achievement.
Ronald loved Oxford and his own college, Exeter, from the very moment he laid eyes on it. It was a real home to him, his name was painted at the foot of his staircase, his living quarters were handsome--it was pure perfection. Unfortunately, the pure perfection of Oxford (breakfast served in one's rooms was customary) meant that it was difficult to keep a tight budget such as Ronald had. He himself said at the end of his first year that "Money matters are not very cheerful." But economical problems didn't weigh him down, and he joined numerous clubs, even starting one of his own: the Apolausticks (the meaning being "those devoted to self-indulgence"). Its members were freshmen like Ronald, and they discussed and debated, smoked and chattered, and (living up to their club's name) indulged themselves.
For the academic part of his Oxford experience, Ronald was intrigued by both Germanic literature and Comparative Philology (his love of words struck again). The latter subject was taught by Joseph Wright, who came from humble beginnings but was now well-respected in the study of languages. Wright's Aberdeen terrier, Jack, was trained to smack his lips when his master uttered the Gothic word for fig-tree, smakka-bagms. Wright also encouraged Ronald to study Welsh, which Ronald had been fascinated with ever since seeing long and unpronounceable Welsh names on coal-trucks at a young age.
Although he was absorbed in his studies and clubs, Ronald hadn't forgotten one very important day: January 3rd, 1913--his twenty-first birthday. At last he was free from the ban on seeing or writing to Edith Bratt. As the clock struck midnight and proclaimed the beginning of January 3rd, Ronald snatched up his pen and wrote to the girl he hoped would be his bride.
Edith's letter in reply was to say she was engaged to marry George Field, her friend Molly's brother.
How could Edith have done this to him? He had waited three long years, assuming that she held the same fond memories that remained to him, and that she had longed as eagerly for his twenty-first birthday as he had. The only sensible course of action was to try to forget him. But after all the vows and promises they had made, the sensible was not possible. Ronald set out by train to Cheltenham to plead with Edith to marry him instead of George.
As Edith met him at the train platform, Ronald knew that she would accept him, as she had only agreed to marry George since she knew no other eligible young men except Ronald, whom she thought had ceased to care for her. But after talking to Ronald all that day, she had agreed to send back George's ring and break off the engagement, and marry John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. George and his family were angry and upset at first, but after some time passed, they grew friendly again and the former wedding plans between Edith and George were forgotten.
Ronald wrote of his engagement to Father Francis, who gave the couple his blessing, albeit without enthusiasm. Edith, at Ronald's insistence, converted from the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church. She received hardly adequate instruction in Catholicism from Father Murphy of Warwick, and this insufficiency was later to blame for Edith's unhappiness with the Church. Ronald and Edith also quarrelled. They no longer knew each other well after their separation, Ronald's letters were full of exuberant descriptions of the partying life at Oxford, and Edith sat at home dejectedly reading how happy Ronald was. She had been ordered out of her Uncle's house where she had been staying upon becoming Catholic, and now lived a boring and tedious life with her cousin, Jennie Grove.
Fortunately, Ronald had no troubles when he announced to his fellow T.C.B.S. members that he was engaged; they all congratulated him and knew that he would always be the staunch John Ronald they had known. But the wedding was still postponed, though not according to Edith and Ronald's wishes. It was 1914, and what would become known as World War I was underway.
Ronald was reluctant to jump on the bandwagon and enlist in the British army, as so many other young men seemed to be doing. The real impetus was when he heard about a plan where he could train for the army while staying at the University, and defer his call-up until his degree was finished. Ronald was also happy to learn that fellow T.C.B.S. member G.B. Smith had enlisted, and it might be possible for them to be in the same regiment, or even the same battalion.
Army drills started, which Ronald didn't mind. He even seemed to like his double life as a soldier and scholar. 1914 came and went with a highlight being a meeting of T.C.B.S. The members (Ronald, Christopher Wiseman, R.Q. Gilson, and G.B. Smith) had a delightful time, feeling that they were "four times the intellectual size" when they were gathered together. In 1915, Ronald completed his final exam in English Language and Literature, and passed with flying colors. He achieved First Class Honors, an award any scholar would have been proud of.
His degree finished, he had the disagreeable task of taking up duties as a second lieutenant. He wasn't even serving in the same battalion as G.B. Smith, as he had hoped. Every day was uncomfortable, grey, and wearying, and "the dull backwaters of the art of killing" were far from enjoyable. Ronald took the time to learn the arts of signalling (such as Morse code, signal-rockets, and carrier pigeons), and was appointed battalion signalling officer.
With the battalion about to embark for France, there was an important event that had to take place before the departure. On Wednesday, March 22, 1916, Ronald Tolkien and Edith Bratt were married in Warwick. The choice of a Wednesday was to commemorate the day of their reunion in 1913. The couple set out on their honeymoon, but had scarcely returned from it when Ronald finally had to leave his beloved England. He had barely settled Edith in her new house, and had been married not even three months, when he crossed the English Channel to fight in France.
By the time Ronald arrived at Calais on June 6th, he discovered that his entire army kit was missing, and he had much difficulty borrowing and buying replacements. He certainly had enough time, though. Three long weeks crawled by, with Ronald writing poems and listening to seagulls to pass the time. He gained admiration for his inferior soldiers, the privates, who were the loyalist and most steadfast men anyone could wish for. Finally, the battalion was on the move (however slowly) to the Somme, where they heard distant gunfire. On July 1st, the British charged the German defences. R.Q. Gilson was in the thick of things; Ronald remained in reserve. The battle had devastating results: twenty thousand Allied troops were killed, all on the first day. Two weeks later, Christopher Wiseman sent Ronald the news that Gilson had been killed. T.C.B.S. was already breaking apart.
Ronald's battalion now entered the fighting, with heavy losses resulting. Ronald remained uninjured for the duration of his service, but every day he stayed was another day of death chasing him. His army leave was supposed to be granted, but it kept getting put off, and the days seemed endless. Ronald caught trench fever and his illness progressively worsened, which became a blessing in disguise. He was sent back to England and was reunited with Edith. And then he received a letter from Christopher:
H.M.S. Superb. 16 December 1916.
My dear J.R.,
I have just received news from home about G.B.S[mith]., who succumbed to injuries received from shells bursting on December 3rd. I can't say very much about it now. I humbly pray Almighty God I may be accounted worthy of him.
G.B. Smith's last letter to Ronald had been received not long before:
My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight--I am off on duty in a few minutes--there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob [R.Q. Gilson] before I go off to-night. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.
Geoffrey Bache Smith's last words to Ronald were May you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them. Grief-stricken as he was by his friend's death, those words still presented an inspiration and challenge to Ronald. All his dreams of languages and mythology came to a head. But this was not the first time he had dreamed of his own mythology; he had always lamented the fact that England had no "true" mythology. Even the Arthurian tales, thought by any to be explicitly British, were probably borrowed from Welsh myths. England had need of its own heroic tale, and Ronald was about to create one.
Back in the English countryside with Edith, Ronald pencilled onto his notebook a title: "The Book of Lost Tales." It would become his enormous masterpiece, The Silmarillion.
Ronald's love of words came to the surface again. For him, the name came first and the character afterward--although sometimes, caught up in a passionate fit of writing, he would scribble in names that just sounded 'right' with no linguistic meaning whatsoever. But names were quite important, and most had complex and fitting meanings. By 1917, Ronald's invented Finnish-based language, Quenya, was very sophisticated. Eventually Quenya gave birth to Sindarin, a more Welsh-based tongue.
Early in 1917, Edith became pregnant. Ronald had recovered from his case of trench fever, he was supposed to cross the Channel back to France, he longed to stay in England--and he fell sick again. The illness gave him a credible excuse to stay in his homeland.
On November 16th, 1917, John Francis Reuel Tolkien was born. The "Francis" was in honor of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, but excepting that name, the boy was named completely after his father. Ronald was in better health now, and he had become a full lieutenant. On his free days, he and Edith strolled in the woods with Edith singing and dancing, her dark hair streaming gracefully behind her. She was Ronald's inspiration for the beautiful elf-maid Lúthien, a prominent character in The Silmarillion. The tale of Lúthien and her mortal lover, Beren, was Ronald's favorite of his tales.
World War I came to an end on November 11th, 1918. Ronald had been sick on and off for the past year, but he was finally feeling well. Later that month, he, Edith, John, and Edith's cousin, Jennie Grove, moved to Oxford.
Ronald started work on the New English Dictionary, which he enjoyed immensely. The philological origins of the word 'wasp' might seem long and tiresome to regular people--but Ronald was, of course, unique. After all, who could say the study of "wasp" was dull when it had origins in languages anywhere from Lithuanian to Teutonic? But his own languages were more exciting, and creating his own alphabet, "The Alphabet of Rúmil," thrilled him.
October, 1920, held two very important events for the Tolkiens. Their second son, Michael Hilary Reuel Tolkien, was born that month. Not long before, the first term at the University of Leeds had begun, with Ronald as Reader in English Language. Together with a Canadian named E.V. Gordon, he compiled a Middle English dictionary and a new edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The two men also formed the Viking Club. They "made up rude verses about the students, translated nursery rhymes into Anglo-Saxon, and sang drinking songs in Old Norse." (Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, p. 118) Both men were popular teachers.
In late spring, 1923, Ronald became sick again. Although illness wasn't exactly alien to him, this time his cold turned into pneumonia and he became bed-ridden. During that time, his grandfather John Suffield not-so-helpfully stopped by to tell him that he and his family were degenerate weaklings.
In 1924, Ronald became Professor of English Language at the age of thirty-two. Also that year, Edith became pregnant again. Ronald's third and perhaps favorite child, Christopher Reuel Tolkien, was born that November. Professorships weren't over for Ronald yet, though. The Anglo-Saxon chair at Oxford was unoccupied, Ronald applied, and he got the job.
On May 11th, 1926, a meeting of the English Faculty at Merton College (part of Oxford) is called, and there is one new face present: a twenty-seven-year-old named Clive Staples Lewis. He usually goes by "C.S. Lewis," or to his friends, "Jack." His opinion on Professor Ronald Tolkien? "A smooth, pale, fluent little chap. No harm in him: only needs a smack or so."
"Jack" and Ronald developed a close, life-long friendship. Jack joined Ronald's Icelandic club, the Kolbítar, or Coalbiters. Jack read Ronald's massive poem, "The Gest of Beren and Lúthien," and suggested both useful and slightly absurd emendations. But most importantly for both, they discussed religion, and Ronald brought Jack to Christianity with the resounding point that not all myths are falsehoods, and that the story of Christ is simply a true myth. Unfortunately, later strains in their relationship were caused in part by Jack's decision to become a Northern Ireland Protestant again, not a Catholic as Ronald wished.
In 1929, the Tolkiens' fourth and last child, Priscilla Mary Tolkien, was born. Edith finally had the daughter she always wanted, and the household seemed filled with children. But this event was hardly as life-changing as what happened a few years later.
One summer's day at Northmoor Road, Ronald was grading exam papers. It was a tedious job, to be sure, and he was relieved when he saw that "One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner)." But what happened to that blank sheet of paper started a legacy: "I wrote on it: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like. But that's only the beginning."
All Ronald's fascinations and studies were mounting in epic fashion. His language study helped him create names; themes of the Norse tales and Arthurian legends that he had always loved were seamlessly woven into the new story; and most importantly (although he hadn't intended this at first), the world of hobbits started to become the same world of The Silmarillion. Ronald was finally living his dream of creating truly English mythology, and the heroes of the story were rustic English people themselves.
But by 1936, Ronald had abandoned The Hobbit. He was certain that his first plan for the death of the dragon, Smaug, was completely unfitting. "Bilbo plunges in his little magic knife. Throes of dragon. Smashes walls and entrance to tunnel." A hobbit who killed dragons didn't fit Ronald's conception of hobbits at all. And while he emended Smaug's death to what would become the final version, with Bard the bowman shooting the dragon, his three sons were growing older and no longer had much interest in "Winter Reads," as they called them. It seemed like The Hobbit was going to suffer the same fate as so many of Ronald's other deserted writings.
It could have suffered the same fate. But it didn't. Elaine Griffiths, a former Tolkien pupil, was shown the draft of The Hobbit; she in turn showed it to Susan Dagnall, a staff member of publishers Allen & Unwin. Susan thought Allen & Unwin should by all means consider publishing the story--if the tale had a proper ending. She contacted Ronald, who hurried to finish it and turned in the final manuscript at the beginning of October, 1936. Allen & Unwin chairman Stanley Unwin gave the typescript to his son, Rayner Unwin, age ten. Rayner was paid a shilling for the following badly misspelled report:
"Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves perswaded him to go. He had a very exiting time fighting goblins and wargs. at last they got to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who gawreds it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home--rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9."
Stanley took his son's word. After a few minor squabbles between publisher and author (although they seemed anything but minor to Ronald himself), The Hobbit was published on September 21, 1937. Most critics had no criticisms; except for a few puzzlingly disparaging reviews, everyone loved the book--including C.S. Lewis, who paid his friend a worthy compliment by saying, "All who love that kind of children's book which can be read and re-read by adults should take note that a new star has appeared in this constellation." With the first edition sold out that Christmas, the second was printed up with all possible speed, and graced American bookshelves with its presence a few months later. The book had reached bestseller status, and what did Stanley Unwin want now? Another hobbit story.
The Silmarilion, "Mr Bliss," "Farmer Giles of Ham," "Roverandom," and "The Lost Road" were all sent. None were about hobbits, and none were sent to the publishing presses. So by that December, Ronald was already writing his new "hobbit story." The new hero to replace the now-elderly Bilbo was Bingo Baggins, Bilbo's son. The "return of ring" was a plotline in the back of Ronald's mind. By February, Bingo had become Bingo Bolger-Baggins, and was now Bilbo's nephew. Bingo's cousins, who were also the hero's travelling companions, were called Odo and Frodo. But now the story, supposedly another cheerful hobbit-tale, was turning darker. A Black Rider had appeared out of nowhere, and the story was taking on the majesty of The Silmarillion.
Ronald's friend, E.V. Gordon, died in a hospital in the summer of 1938. This tragic event delayed Ronald's writing almost as much as young Christopher's worrisome heart condition. But by August, Ronald knew the book was flowing along, getting darker and more epic, and included a new character. Trotter, a "queer-looking brown-faced hobbit" that Bingo, Odo, and Frodo met at Bree, had entered the story. He was a far cry from his later characterization as Aragorn, but other changes were in the making. Ronald was attached to the name Bingo, but was contemplating changing it to "Frodo." Bilbo's ring was now the One Ruling Ring from Mordor, and a certain Sam Gamgee had squeezed into the already-overflowing tale. And Ronald was now referring to his epic as "The Lord of the Rings."
Next summer, Bingo had transformed into Frodo and the story was no longer geared toward children. It was "becoming more terrifying than The Hobbit," as Ronald wrote to Stanley Unwin. The world of "The Lord of the Rings" was firmly set as the world of The Silmarillion, and the "hobbit sequel" was more of a "Silmarillion sequel." Even the Elvish languages and Fëanorian alphabet were playing a part in the new tale.
World War II started that September, and Michael Tolkien became an anti-aircraft gunner. John was in Rome, training for the priesthood; he had to be evacuated later. Christopher took up his studies at Trinity College, and only the youngest child, Priscilla, remained at home. Ronald himself served air raid warden duty on and off. "The Lord of the Rings," just like its prequel, was stalled--this time at Balin's Tomb in the Mines of Moria. Fortunately, this delay only lasted a year, and as soon as writing resumed a new species came into being: the Ents. Ronald had always loved trees, and the leader of these tree-herders, Treebeard, had a curious manner of inserting "Hrum, hroom" into his speech pattern. This was modelled on C.S. "Jack" Lewis, whose booming voice could be heard yards away as he ambled into a lecture hall. Ronald thought that the story would end around chapter XXXVII, but he had miscalculated: when published, the book consisted of not thirty-seven but sixty-two chapters. And in summer 1943 he was stalled again.
Ronald's new short story called Leaf by Niggle turned out to be the catalyst for "The Lord of the Rings." Just actually writing something inspired Ronald to go to work again, and Jack Lewis gave him constant encouragement. In April, 1944, Ronald journeyed back to Middle-earth again, and wrote to Christopher (now training as a pilot in South Africa) on his progress. The Dead Marshes, Faramir, and Shelob appeared, Ronald agonized over inaccurate cycles of the moon, and what would become The Two Towers was finally finished. Jack was moved to tears by the last chapter.
Writing stalled yet again in 1945, even as WWII came to an end. Ronald became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. He distanced himself slightly from Jack Lewis, who harshly criticized "The Lord of the Rings" at times. Ronald thought Jack's Chronicles of Narnia absurd, and was annoyed by Jack's ability to pump out nearly a book a year, while he himself still struggled to finish his "hobbit sequel."
Finally, in summer 1947, the book was sufficiently complete to allow Rayner Unwin to read most of the story. Rayner thought it was a "brilliant and gripping story," and made a reference to it being an allegory. Ronald was not pleased, as allegory was a writing tactic he had always "cordially disliked." But he was delighted with Rayner's overall reaction to the tale.
After what seemed like ages of obsessing over minute details only the most attentive reader would catch, The Lord of the Rings was finished. It had taken twelve years, partly because Ronald found he was unhappy with some sections of The Hobbit, and those, of course, had to be revised, delaying the completion of the sequel to The Hobbit. Ronald, almost sixty years old by now, sent his completed typescript to Jack Lewis for an opinion. Although Jack wrote that "There are many passages I could wish you had written otherwise or omitted altogether," he also praised the book by saying it "is almost unequalled in the whold range of narrative art known to me."
The Lord of the Rings now needed a publisher, and Allen & Unwin was definitely not Ronald's first pick. In his mind, they had spurned The Silmarillion for publication (in truth, all they said was that it wasn't the hobbit-story they wanted). The Silmarillion was the companion piece to The Lord of the Rings; one without the other was unfathomable. Milton Waldman of Collins publishing house was interested in publishing both novels, and Ronald was ready to desert Allen & Unwin for this seemingly better option. To rid himself of his first publisher, whom he had a friendly relationship with, he wrote unencouraging letters to them, saying he had finished but the tale was "quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody)" and that his request to publish both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings was "ridiculous and tiresome." He also droned on about the length of the book, which he presumed would be objectionable to Allen & Unwin. Stanley Unwin, on receiving the letter, suggested breaking the book into separate volumes. Impossible, said Ronald, and continued discouraging the publishing house. Stanley asked his son, Rayner, for advice again. Rayner wrote that he "never felt the lack of a Silmarillion when reading it," and that perhaps if Ronald refused to try to incorporate the relevant Silmarillion material into The Lord of the Rings, one of Ronald's sons might agree to it.
Stanley sent the letter to Ronald. Ronald was outraged, wrote immediately to the publishers, and demanded a decision on whether or not The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings would both be published. The answer was a sorrowful no, and Ronald had so far succeeded in his plan. Everything was coming along smoothly with Collins publishing, until May 1950. The Lord of the Rings "urgently wanted cutting," Milton Waldman said. And Ronald was back to the same trouble of his enormous tale containing nearly half a million words. Telling Milton that The Silmarillion, on completion, would be almost as long as The Lord of the Rings, didn't help the situation. Milton left for Italy and fell ill. The publishing company itself knew practically nothing about the work, and the novel was no nearer the presses than it had been a year ago.
Paper was now expensive, but Ronald wanted an ultimatum from Collins. He demanded they either publish the book immediately, or he would try Allen & Unwin again. Collins refused on April 18th, 1952, and Allen & Unwin was now Ronald's only possible publisher. He had to live with the fact that The Silmarillion would not be published with The Lord of the Rings, and the book might be split into separate parts. But it was his only option, and when on November 10th, 1952, Rayner wrote that the book would indeed be published, Ronald was overjoyed. The book would be split into three parts, priced at twenty-one shillings each. It might be a lucrative venture, and then again it might bankrupt Allen & Unwin--The Lord of the Rings was not intended explicitly for adults, and, in Ronald's own words, was "quite unfit for children." The publishers expected it to sell only a few thousand copies.
Now came the matter of naming the book. As a whole it was called "The Lord of the Rings," but what about the three individual parts? Part I, II, and II wouldn't do. So Ronald suggested "The Return of the Shadow," "The Shadow Lengthens," and "The War of the Ring." Needless to say, these initial suggestions were turned down, and together with Rayner, Ronald finally agreed on "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers," and "The Return of the King." The last title was not to his liking, as it gave away the main idea of the plot.
After publishing problems quite like those encountered with The Hobbit (Ronald and the editors squabbled over spelling changes from dwarves to dwarfs and elvin to elfin), everything was almost prepared for the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring that summer, 1954. Rayner decided to have three authors (Naomi Mitchison, Richard Hughes, and C.S. Lewis) write praises for the book on the front flap, although C.S. Lewis warned that, as a hated man in some circles, his name "might do you more harm than good."
C.S. Lewis' warning proved all too true. Edwin Muir of the Observer managed to both commend Ronald and snub Jack by writing "Nothing but a great masterpiece could survive the bombardment of praise directed at it from the blurb." Among the other reviews, many critics decided it was a brilliant new epic, but a smattering thought it immature and whimsical. On a whole though, both the reviews and word of mouth were enough to empty bookstore shelves within six weeks. Ronald himself was mostly pleased with the critiques, but was busy receiving honorary doctorates and degrees while trying to finish the appendices for "The Return of the King." He also decided to omit an epilogue in which Sam Gamgee tries to answer his children's questions on what happened to the main characters of the story.
"The Two Towers" received very similar reviews when it was published that November. The cliff-hanger ending left readers pleading for the last volume, which was still not finished because Ronald was working on everything from the Shire Calendars to the Fëanorian alphabet. Finally, after encountering map-making and rune chart delays, Ronald sent in the finished appendices. He then took a much-needed holiday to Venice, Italy, which he described as "elvishly lovely." At last, after almost a year between books, "The Return of the King" was published on October 20th, 1955.
Yet again, the reviews were mixed. W.H. Auden keenly remarked that "Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion; either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre, or they cannot abide it." Ronald was amused by the controversy, and wrote:
The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like you do:
if you don't, then you boo!
Meanwhile, the fandom continued to grow. Ronald received a letter from a real Sam Gamgee. As the young man had not read the books (but heard his name belonged to a character), Ronald sent him a signed collection of all three novels. Three American gentlemen gave Ronald a story line of their proposed movie interpretation, in which the Fellowship rode everywhere on eagles and lembas was described as "food concentrate." Needless to say, Ronald turned it down.
In October of 1965, the authorised version of The Lord of the Rings appeared in America (the unauthorized version had been published some time before without Ronald's consent and without paying him royalties). But every cloud has a silver lining, and the controversy over the two versions gave the book considerable publicity. The unauthorized publisher, Ace Books, cowed under the pressure and offered to reimburse Ronald for every copy they had sold, and to cease to print copies after their current stock had sold out. By now it was at the top of the best-seller list, and drawing in millions of student fans. Students at Yale University snapped it up faster than The Lord of the Flies; at Harvard, it overtook The Catcher in the Rye. "Frodo Lives" and "Gandalf for President" were popular slogans, and "J.R.R. Tolkien is Hobbit-forming" appeared as graffiti. Ronald called the mania "my deplorable cultus."
Now, with his fame at an all-time high, life at 76 Sandfield Road was getting hectic. Sometimes the Tolkiens' would get a call in the middle of the night from an American stranger who had no idea that while it was 8 PM in New York, it was 1 AM in England. Other people took photos through the window. And the number of letters and gifts was enormous. It was definitely time to move out of this chaotic environment to a place of Shire-like tranquility.
Any hope of peace was also broken by C.S. Lewis' sudden marriage to Joy Davidson. Ronald was shocked and irritated by this, as Joy, by no intention of her own, interfered with his already strained relationship with Jack. But Edith, who in turn had resented Ronald's interfering friendship with Jack, was kind enough to make friends with the new Mrs. Lewis.
Ronald had officially retired. He and Edith moved to Sandfield Road, about two miles from Oxford. He hoped to finish The Silmarillion for publication, but it was difficult to get any work done, as he was always getting distracted playing card games, or solving crossword puzzles (he would often doodle on the puzzles, creating artwork incorporated into Middle-earth).
Then, on November 22nd, 1963, C.S. Lewis died. Ronald declined to write anything for Jack's obituary, but felt the pain of his loss: "This feels like an axe-blow near the roots," he wrote to his daughter, Priscilla. Jack's wife had died in 1960, only three years after her marriage.
Two years later, Ronald began a new book. The beginnings were unintentional: he was asked to write a preface to a book by George MacDonald (whose work Ronald usually held no fondness for, due to its allegorical innuendo). Uncharacteristically, he agreed to write the preface, and characteristically, he never finished it. He meant to explain to children the meaning of "Fairy," but the writing didn't stop there. It became a short story in itself, was typed on a typewriter (very unusual), and even had a bit of that cordially disliked allegory in it. It was titled Smith of Wootton Major. It would be his last story.
The Tolkiens' were now quite affluent, but Ronald still kept track of every bit of money spent--a habit left over from his days of scratching out a meagre living. Edith was nearing eighty, though, and housekeeping was growing harder every day. They also needed to escape from the continuing deluge of fan mail. So they settled on moving to Bournemouth, a seaside resort town. Edith was happy there, for once--she had almost never enjoyed her days as an Oxford professor's wife as she was shy, hardly ever returned visits from neighbors, and was never invited to dinner parties. At Bournemouth, she could hold her own as the wife of celebrated author J.R.R. Tolkien. That celebrated author wasn't enjoying himself as much as his wife, though. He felt imprisoned at times, and eloquent conversation was hard to come by. But he could work as much as he chose in his room, there was a Catholic church nearby, and of course there was his beloved sea.
Work on The Silmarillion continued. Elvish languages were being revised, Galadriel and the Ents were making appearances, and on a whole, he had made considerable progress. And then Edith, age eighty-two, fell ill. She was taken to a hospital with an inflamed gallbladder, and died on Monday, November 29th, 1971.
Ronald was heartbroken. Edith had been a close part of him for over sixty years. But, uncaring as it may seem, he was now free to live life as he himself wanted, with very few family constraints. He moved back to Oxford, visited his children and grandchildren, and chatted with fellow T.C.B.S. member Christopher Wiseman. He drove to Evesham to visit his brother, Hilary. He also had his share of honorary titles. At Buckingham Palace, he received a C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), the level below knighthood, from the Queen. Oxford bestowed a Doctorate of Letters upon him. Despite all this, he was lonely. Edith's death, although it gave him more freedom, had left an indelible mark of sadness on him.
On the morning of Friday, August 31st, 1973, Ronald was rushed to the hospital. He had an acute bleeding gastric ulcer. The next day a chest infection had developed. With Christopher in France and Michael in Switzerland, only John and Priscilla were at his bedside. On September 2nd, early Sunday morning, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died, age eighty-one.
Today, if you go to Oxford, look for the corporation cemetery at Wolvercote. Find the area with the mostly Polish tombstones; this is the Roman Catholic section. On a grey Cornish granite slab, you will see this inscription:
Edith Mary Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
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