Happy Birthday

JRR Tolkien, Tolkein, Tolkien
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of “The Lord of the Rings”

January 03, 2009
by Amy Goldschlager
Philologist and English professor J.R.R. Tolkien popularized an entire genre of literature when he wrote his fantasy epic “The Lord of the Rings.” A story built upon an elaborate mythology, set of languages, and detailed landscape that took years of work, “The Lord of the Rings” continues to collect devoted fans (and slavish imitators).

Early Days

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on Jan. 3, 1892, to English parents. When his father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, died in 1896, the family returned to England; both the countryside of the West Midlands and the bleak urban landscape of Birmingham had a profound effect upon his later writing.

Tolkien’s mother Mabel died from diabetes when he was 12, and he and his brother Hilary were brought up in a boarding house; a local priest served as a father figure to them both.

Tolkien graduated from Exeter College with a degree in English Language and Literature in 1915, after which he fought in World War I. He then worked for the Oxford English Dictionary for several years, before joining the English faculty at Leeds University. In 1925 he assumed the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, where he would spend the rest of his academic life.

Notable Accomplishments

At Oxford, Tolkien and writer C.S. Lewis founded the famous literary society The Inklings, comprised of a group of Oxford colleagues who met to critique one another’s writing and discuss other topics of interest.

After the war, Tolkien had begun to construct the mythology, landscape and languages of the world of Middle-Earth. He wrote a few Middle-Earth stories in the next several years, but no novel was in the offing until the summer of 1928. He was grading test papers when he scribbled the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on a student’s blank answer sheet.

The chairman of the publishing house Allen & Unwin gave the manuscript to his 10-year-old son, and the boy’s favorable review convinced him to publish Tolkien’s fantastic tale. On Sept. 21, 1937, the first copies of “The Hobbit,” subtitled “There and Back Again,” appeared in English bookstores. With its illustrations and maps drawn by Tolkien, the book gained immediate popularity. By Christmas the publisher had sold out of its first printing. The book crossed the pond in 1938 and the American version sold 3,000 copies in the first two months.

After the first book’s popularity, Tolkien’s publishers demanded more. They were forced to wait for quite some time, but their patience paid off. The popularity of 1954 and 1955’s three-volume epic “The Lord of the Rings” far outpaced that of “The Hobbit.” Darker in tone than its predecessor, “The Lord of the Rings” concerns a quest to get rid of a magical ring once belonging to the evil Lord Sauron. Destroying the Ring will defeat Sauron forever, but he who bears the Ring must fight off the terrible temptation to claim the Ring’s power for his own.

The books proved to be such a hit, in fact, that American publisher Ace released pirated paperback editions of the trilogy. After gaining wide appeal in the 1960s, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is ranked among the most-read literary works of the 20th century. Many of the fantasy novels written after the trilogy’s publication clearly owe a great debt to Tolkien.

The Rest of the Story

Although his life may seem to have been consumed by Middle-Earth, Tolkien did write a few stories that were not set there, including “Farmer Giles of Ham,” “Smith of Wootton Major,” and “Leaf by Niggle.” He also wrote several scholarly articles about language and the nature of storytelling, and made some important translations of Middle English poems, such as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and “Orfeo.”

Tolkien died Sept. 2, 1973, at the age of 81. He is buried in the same grave as his wife, Edith, with the inscription “Beren” below his name, and “Lúthien” below her name, in honor of a pair of tragic lovers from his Middle-Earth mythology.
After Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher Tolkien began collecting, editing and publishing various unpublished stories and incomplete story drafts that contributed to the early mythology of Middle-Earth. These collections include “The Silmarillion,” several volumes of “Lost Tales,” and most recently, “The Children of Húrin.”

From 2001–2003, producer/director Peter Jackson released three blockbuster films based on the “Lord of the Rings.” He is currently producing two more Middle-Earth films for 2011 and 2012, one based on “The Hobbit,” the other a bridge between the events of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

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