Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien

Arthur and Mabel Tolkien and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was the first child of Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield. Arthur Tolkien was 13 years older than Mabel Suffield when he proposed to marry her when she was 18. Her father resisted so they never married until Mabel was 21 years old. Mabel's father was a very proud man who lost his successful drapery business. Still, he looked down on the Tolkien family who he considered German immigrants and certainly not good enough for his daughter. Arthur's father, John Benjamin Tolkien, was a piano maker who, like Suffield, lost his business. Arthur worked at the Lloyds Bank in Birmingham, but there were few chances for promotion. A year after he proposed to Mabel he was offered a job at the African Bank and traveled to the Cape in South Africa, where he and Mabel were married on April 16, 1891. On January 3, 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemenfontein, South Africa where his father was manager of the Bank of Africa. Mabel wrote to her mother-in-law that the infant looked like a fairy when dressed up in white frills and like an elf when very much undressed. On February 17th, 1894 his brother, Hilary Arthur Reuel was born. Ronald was very robust with blond hair and blue eyes. His health suffered a lot under the hot climate so his mother decided to take the two boys to England. Their father remained in Bloemenfontein and would join them later, but he became sick and died when Ronald was four years old. While in search for a house to rent, Mabel stayed with the two boys at her parents and took care of their education. Ronald once wrote: “However by name a Tolkien, I have the taste, talents and education of a Suffield.”

In 1896 they rented a house in Sarehole, in the countryside south of Birmingham. Ronald and his brother were very fond of this place. Mabel taught the boys to read and write English, Latin and French, as well as, botany, drawing and piano. Ronald was a very good student, especially in languages and drawing. Ronald was very fond of trees and passionately enjoyed his surroundings, but there was one dream that bothered him: a big wave rolled over the trees and green meadows destroying everything. This dream would come back many years later, which he referred to as his “Atlantis complex”.

In 1899 Ronald failed the entrance examination for King Edward School but succeeded the following year. In 1900 his mother became a member of the Catholic Church, which made both the Suffield and Tolkien families so angry that they stopped giving financial support. Mabel couldn't afford a train ticket for Ronald to attend school so they had to move closer to Brimingham. Ronald missed Sarehole very badly. In 1904 his mother developed diabetes and was hospitalized, during which time Hilary and Ronald stayed with family. On November 14, 1904 she died.

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Edith and Ronald: Luthien and Beren

After the death of their mother, Mabel, John Ronald and his brother Hillary were left in the care of catholic priest Father Francis Morgan. Mabel had been converted to Catholicism and would not allow her sons to be brought up any other way Father Morgan found the two teenagers lodgings at Dutchess Road, Birmingham. It was here that John Ronald met and fell in love with Edith Bratt, another lodger. She was attractive, small and slender with grey eyes like Luthien Tinuviel, but she was also three years older than John Ronald and she was not catholic. Concerned for John Ronald's education, Father Morgan forbade him to see or have any contact with her until he was 21. John Ronald did not give up on his love, and the midnight beginning his 21st birthday, he wrote to her again, saying, “How long will it be before we can be joined together before God and the world?”. When Edith replied that she was engaged to someone else, John Ronald quickly traveled to see her. Edith broke off the engagement and was engaged to “Ronald” when he was 22, after she became a Roman Catholic. The faith was a source of contention in the marriage.

John Ronal married Edith the year after graduating from Exter College, Oxford in 1915, and they enjoyed a 56-year marriage.

Much of John Ronald's feelings for his wife were expressed so eloquently and beautifully in his letters. Most of his letters written to her while he was away at training and the war have not been published due to their personal nature, but in some he sent her drafts and poems in preference to his literary friends. On 26th of November 1915, he sent Edith a poem he had written while in training at Rugdey Camp in Staffordshire. The poem was “Kortirion” and was about elves and fairies and their magical home.

John Ronald wrote of his wife to his son Michael in a letter dated the 8th August 1941:

“…I fell in love with your mother at the age of eighteen. Quite genuinely, as has been shown - though of course defects of character and temperament have caused me often to fall below the ideal with which I started. Your mother was older than I, and not a Catholic. Altogether unfortunate, as viewed by a guardian…these things are absorbing and nervously exhausting. I was a very clever boy n the throws of work for (a very necessary) Oxford scholarship. The combined tensions nearly produced a breakdown. I muffed my exams and though…I ought to have got a good scholarship, I only landed by the skin of my teeth an exhibition of £60 at Exter…

“However, trouble arose and I had to choose between disobeying and grieving (or deceiving) a guardian who had been a father, more than most fathers, but without any obligation, and ‘dropping' the love-affair until I was 21. I don't regret my decision, though it was very hard on my lover. But that was not my fault. She was perfectly free and under no vow to me, and I should have had no just complaint…if she had got married to someone else. For nearly three years I did not see or write to my lover. It was extremely hard, painful and bitter, especially at first… I fell back into folly and slackness and misspent a good deal of my first year at College…

…On the night of my 21st birthday I wrote again to your mother - Jan. 3 1913. On Jan. 8th I went back to her and became engaged, and informed an astounded family.”

John Ronald does not mention that Edith was engaged to someone else at the time, but broke it off to marry him.

John Ronald's love for his wife was never so touching as when he wrote about her after her death:

On 29th November 1971 John Ronald wrote to William Carter

“I am grieved to tell you that my wife died this morning. Her courage and determination (of which you speak truly) carried her through to what seemed a recovery, but a sudden relapse occurred which she fought for nearly three days in vain. She died at last, in peace.

“I am utterly bereaved, and cannot yet lift up heart…”

Two months later on 24th January 1972, John Ronald wrote to his son Michael:

“…I do not feel quite real or whole, and in a sense there is no one to talk to… we had shared all joys and griefs, and all opinions (in agreement or otherwise) so that I often feel myself thinking ‘I must tell Edith about this' - and then suddenly I feel like a castaway left on a barren island under a heedless sky after the loss of a great ship…”

“…I met the Luthien Tinuviel of my own personal ‘romance' with her long dark hair, fair face and starry eyes, and beautiful voice…. But now she has gone before Beren, leaving him indeed one-handed, but he has no power to move the inexorable Mandos…”

About the grave inscription, he wrote on 11th July 1972:

“I have never called Edith Luthien - but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of The Silmarilion. It was first conceived in a woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire…”

“…For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.”

John Ronald only outlived his wife by less than two years. Both are buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.

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Tolkien and his Children

The debate continues on whether Tolkien's works are children's books, but, no matter whom his books are meant for, most of them began as bedtime stories. Tolkien's four children were the first to hear many of the stories that have now become classics. The Hobbit and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil both began as tales to amuse Tolkien's children, among many other stories, some published and some not.

Tolkien had a close relationship with all of his children. To help his oldest son, John, fall asleep, Tolkien told him elaborate stories about Carrots, a red haired boy who went on adventures through a cuckoo clock, and about Bill Stickers, a man who could get away with anything. These stories were never recorded. During a vacation at Filey, in 1925, Tolkien's second son, Michael lost his favorite toy, which inspired Tolkien to come up with the story of Roverrandom.

This tale told of a dog that was turned into a toy by a wizard, was lost then turned back into a dog and went on great adventures to the moon. Roverrandom was offered as a possible sequel to the Hobbit, but publishers turned it down, and Tolkien never offered it again.

At Christmastime, Tolkien went to great lengths, creating letters from Santa Claus for each of his children. The letters featured characters that lived with Santa, such as a polar bear, an elf, Ilbereth, who was Santa's secretary, and Snow Man, who was a guard. Tolkien customized each letter with the handwriting of the character: the polar bear wrote in runes, Snow Man in all caps, Ilbereth in a flowing script and Santa in a shaky script.

Tolkien believed deeply in Catholicism, and his oldest son Jonathan Francis, who was named for Tolkien's former guardian Father Francis Xavier, shared this faith. He entered the seminary and studied in Rome, returning to England as a priest. The next youngest sons, Michael Hilary Reuel and Christopher Reuel followed in the footsteps of their father, enlisting in the Royal Air Force and later becoming educators. They both attended Trinity College. Christopher is best known for finishing his father's work on the Silmarillion, which was published in 1977. Tolkien's youngest child and only daughter, Priscilla, attended Lady Margaret Hall and became a social worker.

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John Ronald and the Fellowship: Friends

When we read “The Lord of the Rings” it is clear that Tolkien understands and values the bonds of fellowship, most predominately, male friendship; for he was at his happiest with male company, good conversation and plenty of tobacco. Was the desire for such companionship an endeavour to avoid female company and romance after agreeing to have no contact with the woman he loved, Edith Bratt? Or did the social customs at the time discourage women from taking on leadership roles in academic circles and therefore not welcomed to these discussion groups? Probably both.

The first club Tolkien formed was the “Tea Club” which met in the King Edward's School library. During the summer term, meetings moved to the Tea Room at the Barrow's Stores so the name of the club was changed to The Tea Club Barrovian Society, commonly referred to as TCBS. Four school friends, Robert Q Gilson, Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey B Smith and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien shared a common interest in Latin and Greek literature. After leaving King Edward's the friends kept in touch and held a “council” in December 1914 at Wiseman's house. Wiseman now served in the navy, and Gilson, Smith and Tolkien served in the 11th Lancaster Fusiliers. It was after this meeting that John Ronald, as his friends called him, decided he was a poet and would send his poems to Smith and Wiseman for criticism. World War I, however, had claimed its first casualty from the TCBS when Robert Gilson was killed on July 1, 1916. In a letter to Geoffrey Smith he says, “I honestly feel that the TCBS has ended…”, to which Smith replies, “ The TCBS is not finished and never will be.” Smith died of injuries sustained in a bombing on December 3, 1916. Although Tolkien and Wiseman did meet on occasion it became clear that the TCBS has indeed ended.

In 1926, Tolkien founded a club among the dons at Oxford to read Icelandic myths and sagas. They called themselves the Kolbitars, which meant ‘men who lounged so close to the fire in winter that they bite coal'. Members included: R M Dawkins, C T Onions, G E K Braunholz, John Fraser, Nevill Coghill, John Bryson, George Gordon, Bruce McFarlane, J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. This was the beginning of a very long friendship between Tolkien and Lewis when they discovered that they shared the same intense interest in Norse mythology. The Kolibitars met once every few weeks during term and continued to meet until they read the major Icelandic sagas, then the club was dissolved.

A University College undergraduate, Tangye-Lean, founded the Inklings. He asked some dons to become members in hopes that the club would become permanent. C S Lewis and Tolkien became members of the Inklings, which met with the purpose of reading unpublished compositions aloud then opened up for immediate criticism. Soon, Lewis and Tolkiens were the only members left so they started to meet in Lewis's room at Magdalen but were eventually joined by Warren Lewis, R E Havard, Owen Barfielf and Hugo Dyson. In 1939, Charles Williams joined the group. Generally they met Thursday evenings during university term and Tuesday for lunch at a local pub, The Eagle and Child, affectionately dubbed “The Bird and Baby”. As Tolkien completed chapters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he would read them aloud to the Inklings. Charles Williams especially enjoyed the Lord of the Rings, as did Lewis, however, not without criticism. Tolkien found this particularly painful and Lewis would at times take offense to criticism of his works. In spite of this they both found the Inklings brought great encouragement. Through the years other men joined the Inklings including Tolkien's son, Christopher, in 1945. The death of C. S Lewis in November 1963 marked the end of the Inklings. Tolkien felt very lonely with the lack of male friendship in the years that followed. In a diary entry he wrote, “…What am I going to do? Be sucked down into residence in a hotel or old-people's home or club, without books or contacts or talk with men? God help me!”

Tolkien's last days were not lonely even though he often felt overcome by loneliness. He frequently visited his sons Christopher and John and his daughter, Priscilla. He also revisited his TCBS friend, Christopher Wiseman and spent time with his brother, Hilary. But it was not the same as the fellowship he shared with male companions, good conversation and plenty of tobacco.

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Tollers and Jack: A Classic Friendship

Clive Staple Lewis and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien first met on May 11, 1926 at a meeting of the English Department at the university where Lewis was a professor. Lewis wrote later in his diary of Tolkien: “He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap.”

Lewis, who liked to be simply known as Jack, together with his brother Warnie (who was also an author), soon joined the Coalbiters. The group often met at Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College. Generally ten to fifteen men attended; Tolkien, Lewis and Warnie were regulars.

Jack was often invited to the Tolkiens' home, and the relationship between the two developed. The bond flourished amidst the camaraderie of the university, surrounded by other members of the Coalbiters. (It is interesting to note that these two men also had a common author who “shaped” them during their childhood - George Macdonald.)

Although Jack later married to Joy Davidman, a Jewish American who had converted to Christianity, he and Tolkien remained true friends. They took long walks together and had deep discussions about matters philosophical as well as personal. They even revised the entire English curriculum at Oxford together, emphasizing on the study of Old and Middle English. They both made it more interesting for the students.

With the publication of The Hobbit, Lewis was not only loyal, but was genuinely impressed. He wrote in The Times newspaper in London, “It must be understood that this is a children's book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”

When C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, Tolkien was distraught. Said Tolkien - “I shall greatly miss him.”

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Origin of the name ‘Tolkien'

His father Arthur Tolkien died when Ronald was four years old. His grandfather John Benjamin Tolkien was so grieved by the death of his son that he died six months later. Ronald didn't have the chance to spend much time with the family of his father's side. But there still was aunt Grace, his father's younger sister, who told him the family tales. According to aunt Grace the Tolkien family was of German origin and the original name of the family would have been ‘von Hohenzollern'. George von Hohenzollern fought at the side of archduke Ferdinand of Ostrich during the siege of Vienna in 1529. He showed a lot of courage when he organized an attack on the Turkish all by himself and for that reason he was given the nickname ‘Tollkühn', which means ‘very impulsive'. It was also speculated that the family was connected to French nobility by marriage and there was a French version of the nickname, ‘du Téméraire'. The Tolkien family never agreed about why and when their forefathers came to England, so there are two versions. In the first version it is told the Tolkien family came to England in 1756 to escape from the Prussic invasion of Saxons . The more romantic members of the family said one of the ‘du Téméraires' crossed the Channel in 1794 to escape the guillotine and changed his name to a more English version of the German nickname ‘Tolkien'.

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Planet-Tolkien Writer's Guild Contributors

  • Arthur and Mabel Tolkien and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien: Gnampie
  • Edith and Ronald: Luthien and Beren: Allyssa
  • Tolkien and his Children Chikakat
  • John Ronald and the Fellowship: Friends: Rednell
  • Tollers and Jack : A Classic Friendship: Thalionyulma
  • Origin of the name ‘Tolkien': Gnampie

References

  • “Biography: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien” 26 Jun 02
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. J R R Tolkien: A biography. Glasgow, 2002, Harper Collins.
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C S Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their friends. Glasgow, 1997, Harper Collins.
  • The Children of Ronald and Edith Tolkien 25 Jul 02
  • Hammond, Wayne G and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. London, 1998, Harper Collins.
  • Hooper, Walter. Through Joy and Beyond: A pictorial biography of C S Lewis. New York, 1982, Macmillan Publishing Co.
  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Glasgow, 1995, Harper Collins.

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