John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3 January 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in what was then an independent republic, The Orange Free State. His father worked for a British bank in the city and had moved there a few years before Tolkien's birth. In 1894, Tolkien’s brother Hilary was also born in the republic.
At the age of three Tolkien, his mother and brother went to visit relatives in Birmingham in England. At the time this was only intended as a temporary visit but, his father died in Bloemfontein while they were away – leaving the family without income and thousands of miles from home. Tolkien's mother, Mabel, moved the family in with her staunchly Baptist parents in Birmingham. Mabel took care of her sons’ education herself, and by the age of five Tolkien could read and write fluently even understanding some rudiments of Latin. He read voraciously, disliking Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland but falling in love with the works of George MacDonald and Andrew Lang’s Rainbow Fairy Books – passions that would affect his own writing in later life.
Winning a scholarship to King Edward's School, Birmingham, Tolkien was an excellent student. He joined the Officer Training Corp and was one of the cadets selected to guard the route at the coronation of George V. His mother converted to Catholicism in 1900, leading her Baptist parents to withdraw financial support. She raised her two sons as Catholics, taking them to the Birmingham Oratory where Tolkien became an altar boy. His Catholic faith would endure throughout his life, influencing his views and all his writing. Tolkien began writing poetry whilst still at school, founding a club of fellow writers – the ‘Tea Club and Barrovian Society’, whose members would gather together to drink tea and read each other’s poems.
In 1904 Mabel died of Type 1 diabetes (insulin would not be developed for another 20 years) and her two sons were placed under the guardianship of a priest at the Oratory – Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan.
In 1911 he moved to Oxford to study at Exeter Collegel; the city would be his home for many years to come. While studying Classics and later English Literature, Tolkien lodged in the same house as Edith Mary Bratt, who was three years older than him. They would often visit a local tea shop and surreptitiously throw sugar lumps into the hats of the passers-by. The two soon fell in love and aged just 19, Tolkien asked her to marry him. As Edith was a Protestant, Fr. Morgan forbade the match and demanded that Tolkien cut off all contact with her. Tolkien obeyed his demand, not writing or seeing Edith. On the eve of his 21st birthday he wrote her a letter, the first for two years, declaring that he still loved her and explaining what had occurred. Edith replied that she had already consented to marry someone else as she had thought Tolkien no longer cared for her. However, she soon realised she was still in love with him and broke off her engagement. At his insistence she converted to Catholicism and they married three years later in March 1916.
Tolkien was able to avoid immediately being called up into the army so he could complete his studies. He graduated in 1915 and in June 1916 was sent to France as a junior officer, where he served at the Battle of the Somme. As letters from the front were censored Edith and Tolkien communicated in a code, allowing Edith to plot on a map where her husband was fighting. Many of his friends died in the conflict, including all but one of his fellow ‘Barrovians’.
Tolkien was invalided out of the war with ‘trench foot’, and returned to England for home service in November 1916. For the rest of the war he remained in the army with duties in various camps. It was at this time that he began working on the stories that would form the basis for the most famous Tolkien books, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. One day whilst walking with Edith in the woods, in north east England they found a clearing with hundreds of hemlock in flower. Edith began to dance in amongst them and sang for him. Tolkien was so moved by the scene it inspired him to write the legend of Beren and Lúthien which would later appear in The Silmarillion.
After the war Tolkien returned to academia, taking a job as a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary and spending two years working on the etymology of words beginning with ‘W’. He later became a reader at the University of Leeds for three years before returning in 1925 to Oxford, where he became a professor of Anglo-Saxon studies. During this time he continued to work on creating myths, legends and poetry which would become the world of Middle Earth.
Edith and Tolkien had four children who they were deeply devoted to; one of the most famous J. R. R. Tolkien books,The Hobbit originated as stories he made up for his children. The Hobbit was published in 1937 to critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal in Literature.
After the success of the Hobbit his publishers asked him for a sequel. What they expected was another children’s story of adventure - what they received in 1947 was the early draft for the three-book epic The Lord of the Rings. Taking almost 12 years to complete (he didn’t finish his final revision of the text until 1949) the first of the three books was published in 1955 with the others published in the succeeding years (this was largely due to the post-War paper shortages). The books were an enormous success making Tolkien a literary celebrity. His fame rocketed in the 1960s when the books were embraced by the counter-culture movement.
Whilst working on his stories and lecturing he also completed translations from the old English of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both revolutionising the understanding of the text. Tolkien also was one of the preeminent members of a group of writers called ‘The Inklings’ (whose members included writers C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams) who met at an Oxford pub to discuss and read each other’s unfinished work.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings brought Tolkien enormous wealth and fame, and made him one of the most successful writers of all time. At first he was delighted to correspond with fans about the world of Middle Earth; however as his fame increased he became less enamoured – speaking of his success within the counter-culture movement in 1972 he said 'even the nose of a very modest idol [...] cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense!'
In the 1960s Tolkien retired from the world of academia, moving with Edith to the seaside town of Bournemouth. After years of the academic world of Oxford, the move to the town was to please Edith who relished the chance to play the society hostess. Tolkien on the other hand missed Oxford and the ‘Inklings’.
In 1971 Edith died. Tolkien returned to Oxford where Merton College gave him rooms. However, after nearly 50 years of marriage Tolkien was bereft. He died two years later on 2 September 1973. He is buried beside Edith in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford – their gravestones marked with their names but also the names Lúthien and Beren, the characters Tolkien had written for Edith after she danced amongst the hemlock flowers many years before.