The Unknown Tolkien

Article excerpt

Not too many people have an inkling that J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday is January 3. Nor do many people know that 113 years ago the author of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and many other works of fantasy was born not in England but in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

There's a lot unknown about this world-famous author. Ask almost anyone what his first three initials stand for, and they won't have a clue that his full name is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

His was a rough, almost Dickensian, childhood. His father died when he was just 4 years old, so his mother moved with her two children back to England and settled in the Midlands. Passing coal trucks had destinations with such strange-sounding names as Nantyglo, Penrhiwceiber, and Senghenydd. Such an environment might well have been the initial stimulus of Tolkien's lifelong love of language and imaginative invention.

When Tolkien was just 8 years old, his mother decided the family should be received into the Roman Catholic Church, a decision that estranged them from both sides of their extended family. Four years later his mother died of diabetes.

At 16 he fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior; and Father Francis, who was responsible for the Tolkien family's conversion, forbade him to see or write her until he was 21. He obeyed. They again took up the relationship in 1913 and were married in 1916 right before he was sent off to war. He was only at war four months when he came back to England with "trench fever," which would reoccur over the next few years.

After his brief war service he became an assistant lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary, the last word on the English language. Then he became a professor at the University of Leeds and eventually at Oxford, the last word on higher education. …