J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, shortly before beginning what became The Silmarillion.
He was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to English parents (of German descent). Tolkien's father Arthur died when he was three, whilst Tolkien, his younger brother Hilary and his mother Mabel were on an extended family trip in the UK. Left without an income, Mabel raised her sons in dire financial straits in and around Birmingham. She converted to Catholicism in 1900, to the horror of her strict Baptist family, and was given assistance by her local church. Mabel gave the young Tolkien a love of language, starting by teaching him Latin, as well as her renewed faith. Mabel suffered from diabetes and died from the disease in 1904, when Tolkien was twelve years old (insulin, which would have saved her life, was not discovered until the 1930s).
Tolkien and his brother were raised by their mother's friend, Father Morgan. Tolkien credited Morgan with instilling in him strong values of charity, compassion and respect. In 1908, at the age of sixteen, Tolkien met Edith Bratt, three years his senior. Both were orphans and both were intelligent, but with a playful side (one of their favoured pastimes was throwing sugar cubes into the hats of passersby without them noticing). Bratt was both older and also a Protestant, to Father Morgan's dismay. After several months of courtship, Morgan insisted that Tolkien did not contact Edith again until he was 21. Tolkien reluctantly obeyed.
Tolkien's first brush with history came when he was one of the young men chosen to line the route for King George V's coronation in 1910. In 1911 Tolkien formed the "T.C.B.S." ("Tea Club and Barrovian Society") with several friends: Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith and Christopher Wiseman. This informal group discussed literature and books, and Tolkien gained a newfound appreciation for poetry from their influence. The same year, Tolkien visited Switzerland and went hiking in the Alps, which he later said was a profound experience that he credited for inspiring his later work. At the end of the year Tolkien began attending Exeter College, Oxford.
In January 1913 Tolkien resumed his communications with Edith and was dismayed to discover that she had become engaged to someone else. However, she admitted this was due to feeling neglected. She broke off the engagement and she and Tolkien resumed their romance; they became engaged themselves very quickly thereafter and married in March 1916, Edith converting to Catholicism in the process.
Tolkien avoided the start of WWI, choosing to finish his studies under a government programme rather than immediately join the fight on the Western Front. This attracted some censure from members of his family, but as the initial optimism of 1914 turned into the attritional horrors of trench warfare in 1915 and early 1916, Tolkien felt his decision was justified. However, as a patriot he decided to join the fighting as soon as possible after graduation. In June 1916 he was deployed to France as a signals officer to the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, which saw action during the Battle of the Somme (during which Tolkien's fellow T.C.B.S. members Rob Gilson and Geoffrey Smith were killed). However, in November that same year Tolkien came down with trench fever and was invalided back to England. Although he recovered, he was not judged fit for combat and spent the remainder of the war serving in training and administrative roles at home, doing well enough to be retained in the ranks after the war ended.
In 1920 Tolkien was finally demobilised and sent back to civilian life. He worked on the Oxford English Dictionary and then became a Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds. In 1925 he returned to Oxford University as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, a position he retained for twenty years before becoming Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College. He remained in that post until his retirement in 1959.
J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith had four children: John (born 1917, died 2003), Michael (b. 1920, d. 1984), Christopher (b. 1924) and Priscilla (b. 1929). Edith died in 1971 at the age of 81, and Tolkien himself passed away in December 1973, also at the age of 81. Shortly before his death Tolkien was named a Commander of the British Empire, an honour he received from Queen Elizabeth directly, to his pride.
And, in the middle of that, Tolkien also wrote what was arguably the single most transformative-ever work of genre literature.
J.R.R. Tolkien towards the end of his life.
Tolkien's interest in language began with his mother, who taught him Latin, and continued through adolescence, when he would make up languages for fun with family members. The T.C.B.S. furthered his love of poetry, and he already had a keen interest in history. A deeply romantic man, as his epic courtship of Edith showed, Tolkien loved tales of daring and adventure, but he was also uninterested in the empty lionisation of heroes. He also believed in tragedy, and that victory could not come without a cost.
He started writing stories for fun at a young age, but it is harder to say when he "invented" his most famous creation. In 1916, whilst waiting for deployment, he wrote a poem called "The Lonely Isle", and earlier he had drawn a painting of two great blazing trees of light, but it seems unlikely that he connected these elements at this stage. Still, he was certainly thinking of mythology and history, and had a long-standing complaint (formed whilst quite young) that the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 had robbed the country of its own native mythology. Much of what was supposed to be English mythology and folklore was actually introduced or "corrupted" by the French (most notably the story of King Arthur, the original core of which transformed by French additions such as Lancelot), to Tolkien's dismay. Tolkien's encounter with the great Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, convinced him that England deserved something of its own of a grand and epic scale.
He discussed these ideas at length with the T.C.B.S. and they were encouraging. The final motivation came when Tolkien received distressing news of Geoffrey Smith's death in December 1916. In his final letter to Tolkien Smith had said, "May you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them," which stayed with Tolkien. The only other surviving member of the group, Christopher Wiseman, serving in the British Navy, was likewise affected and wrote to Tolkien telling him that he "should start the epic."
And Tolkien did. Very early in 1917, on the front of a cheap notebook, he wrote in blue pencil a name: The Book of Lost Tales. He started writing a story about a young warrior seeking succour in a great city, only to see it laid waste in a devastating war. The story gained its own title, The Fall of Gondolin, and Tolkien saw it as but one of a large number of tales that would together tell the story of an epic war in a mythologised land that would eventually be revealed to be a prehistoric Europe, before great floods changed the shape of the lands. It was a tale of tragedy, horror and heroism, but also of hope. A minor character gained the name Earendel, linking the story to the earlier poem about the Lonely Isle.
Tolkien completed that story and moved onto a second, a romance inspired by seeing Edith dancing in a forest on a romantic picnic. This was the story of Beren and Luthien, two lovers from differing backgrounds who had to overcome trying obstacles - including death itself - before being able to finally marry and have children. The biographical parallels were clear, although Tolkien and Edith sadly never owned a talking giant wolfhound.
Tolkien continued working on the stories right through the 1920s, amassing a large amount of material including timelines, maps and related poems. By the end of the decade the epic history was completed in its conception and overview, but not in the detailed account. Tolkien, whose writing improved remarkably over this period, was also eventually unhappy with many of his original ideas (such as the "Lonely Isle" framing device) and his younger, more inexperienced writing style. By 1930 he had started rewriting many of the stories in a new, updated and more accessible style and even given the book a new title, the one by which it would remain known until publication: The Silmarillion. Also by 1930 Tolkien had settled on a name for the continent on which the great story takes place: Middle-earth.
But, in or around that year, Tolkien also started writing a new and apparently unconnected story. Whilst marking exam papers he found a blank piece of paper. In a moment of inspiration he wrote down, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." He took the piece of paper home with him, studied it, and decided to find out what "hobbits" were. He constructed a story about the diminutive but cunning and brave Bilbo Baggins, who is dragged away from his comfortable home life by a gang of dwarves who are seeking treasure and the return of their homeland from a greedy dragon. Tolkien read the story to his children even as he wrote it, but eventually the typescript stopped short of the ending, which Tolkien narrated to his children out loud. Tolkien had originally intended the book to be completely independent, but elements from The Silmarillion crept in: the legend of Beren and Luthien is referenced, as is the fall of Gondolin. The elf lord Elrond indicates he was born during the great War of the Jewels that frames The Silmarillion. Tolkien realised that Middle-earth was "the land into which Mr. Baggins had strayed."
It's entirely possible that this would have been the end of the matter, had not one of Tolkien's students-turned-family-friends, Elaine Griffiths, heard about the manuscript and read it. She casually mentioned the existence of the story to her colleague Susan Dagnall, who worked at the publishers Unwin & Allen. Dagnall read the manuscript, enjoyed it, and asked Tolkien to finish it, which he did in October 1936. Tolkien had considered two titles for the children's book, The Hobbit and There and Back Again. Unable to decide, he simply decided to call it The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, the title by which it was published (although for reasons of space, most publishers only used The Hobbit on the cover and spine) in September 1937. Stanley Unwin himself had taken an interest in the book and realised he was onto something when his ten-year-old son Rayner reported that it was a terrific and exciting story.
The first edition of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, published in September 1937 by Unwin & Allen.
The Hobbit was highly successful when first published, winning plaudits and strong reviews in both the UK and USA, where the book also did well, winning the New York Herald Tribune prize for the best children's book of the year. Unwin realised he had a bestseller on his hands and wrote to Tolkien to request a sequel.
Tolkien was unprepared for the success of the book and the request for a follow-up, which he had not planned. However, Tolkien (by his own admission) was susceptible to flattery and professional compliments, and was certainly not immune to the benefits of the "grosser forms of literary success". Sitting down to re-assess The Hobbit, he noted that he had said that Bilbo "lived happily for the rest of his days", which he did not want to contradict. However, he also noted that he had established several elements that had not been developed further: the villainous Necromancer, a resolutely off-page villain that Gandalf leaves the main party to deal with at a key point in the adventure; and the magic ring that Bilbo (rather conveniently) finds on his journey. There was also the matter of the ring's former owner, Gollum, who was unhappy at it being taken from him. Tolkien saw the possibility here for further development of the mythology.
Tolkien began writing "the new Hobbit" on 19 December 1937 with a sequence which mirrors the start of The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins has a big party and leaves the Shire on an adventure. However, this time the party is long-expected and Bilbo's departure is pre-planned. As the story unfolds, Bilbo's nephew Bingo takes centre-stage. Mysterious black riders arrive in the Shire looking for him and the ring, which he has inherited from Bilbo. Tolkien sketched out several chapters and was pleased with the idea of a band of hobbits rather than a solitary hero and also the arrival of the black riders in the quiet and bucolic Shire, which immediately differentiated the book from its predecessor. However, Tolkien was also completely making this up as he went along. Every time the story took an unexpected turn he had to roll back and rewrite the previous chapters to accommodate and better set-up the changes. Most of 1938 was spent both inventing and developing the story but also getting to the bottom of what the story was actually about, both literally and thematically.
By the summer of 1938 Tolkien had advanced the story to the village of Bree, where the hobbits met a mysterious hobbit named Trotter. By this point Tolkien had decided to make the Necromancer the villain and it would be revealed that he had created the ring (and several others). The black riders would be wraiths, men who had lost themselves to the magic rings. After struggling with character motivations, Tolkien suddenly realised that Bilbo's ring would be the One Ruling Ring, the most powerful and dangerous of them all, and that the heroes would fight the corrupting influence of the Ring as an internal force as well as the external threat of the Necromancer's minions. Tolkien also decided that the Necromancer would be Sauron, a minor villain in The Silmarillion (although the primary antagonist of the story of Beren and Luthien) whose fate had not been revealed in that narrative. This was a logical move, as Tolkien himself had already referenced Sauron off-hand (despite no-one else knowing who that was) in his correspondence with Stanley Unwin.
These decisions moved "the Hobbit sequel" onto a more epic and mythological level. Tolkien decided to dispose of the name Bingo, which he now considered far too frivolous, and renamed his main, tragic hero Frodo Baggins, the younger cousin of Bilbo. The mysterious hobbit Trotter was transformed into a heroic man, a mighty warrior named Aragorn who adopted the alias "Strider" when working behind the scenes. And Sauron's quest to reunite the Rings of Power gave Tolkien the title for the novel: in late September 1938 he wrote to the publishers and declared that the book would now be called The Lord of the Rings.
The writing of the novel proceeded in fits and starts, with Tolkien distracted by the outbreak of World War II and the signing-up of his sons Michael and Christopher to fight (his eldest son, John, had joined the priesthood and was exempted from fighting). The war was a distraction, but the near-suspension of college activities for the duration of hostilities gave Tolkien a lot more time to write the book. He was also considered for service as a cryptographer during the war, but ultimately passed over. Despite this free time, Tolkien several times hit writer's block, suspending the writing for months and, at one stage, a year, due to complexities in the narrative process. Particularly problematic for Tolkien was the splintering of the narrative with the Breaking of the Fellowship and the need to now pursue simultaneous narrative paths for multiple groups of characters. He overcame this by tackling Frodo and Sam's journey to Mordor as an adventure serial, sending chapters to his son Christopher in South Africa (where he was training with the RAF) as they were completed.
The Lord of the Rings was completed in 1947. Tolkien then had to type up the enormous story, revising as he went, which was not completed until 1949. Tolkien submitted the book for publication in 1950, but Unwin & Allen struggled with the immense size of the manuscript given that paper was still being severely rationed. For a time Tolkien flirted with defecting to Collins, who had a much larger paper allowance, but Tolkien then sabotaged his own success by demanding that The Silmarillion be published alongside The Lord of the Rings. This was problematic because it simply wasn't finished. Tolkien also envisaged the finished Silmarillion rivalling the Lord of the Rings in size, which dismayed Collins. After a chastising exchange of letters and a final demand from Collins to cut the size of the books, a somewhat conciliatory Tolkien decamped back to Unwin & Allen in 1952.
The first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, published in July 1954 by Unwin & Allen.
The Lord of the Rings, at almost half a million words, was still too big to publish in one volume, despite the easing of the rationing, so Rayner and Stanley Unwin (Rayner now working for his father's company) suggested splitting the book in three. As Tolkien had already divided the novel into six smaller "books" during the writing process, this was straightforwardly done. The Fellowship of the Ring, being the first part of The Lord of the Rings was published on 29 July 1954 and was followed by the second part, The Two Towers, on 11 November. The Return of the King was not published until 20 October 1955, as Tolkien delayed the book whilst he was working on the appendices and some new maps.
The Lord of the Rings received an initially critically mixed reception, but eventually the strong notices by C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden won out and the book began selling in larger and larger numbers. Tolkien soon found himself enjoying the fruits of his success, such as the money and fans writing letters to him in his own invented elven languages. But he was still at the "cult author" level. The book only achieved massive success in 1965, when an American publisher, Ace, took advantage of a copyright loophole to publish an unauthorised paperback edition. Tolkien was furious and publicly reprimanded them, something which was picked up in the American press. Quickly the Science Fiction Writers of America, an influential union with many ties to Ace Books, also joined the fray and Ace backed down, paying Tolkien royalties and withdrawing the book from sale.
The publicity and resulting reviews both the unauthorised and authorised paperback editions triggered an explosion of interest in the novel: sales in both the UK and USA sky-rocketed over the next few years and Tolkien found himself at the centre of attention. Some of this he welcomed, such as increased respect from fellow scholars and language experts across the world. Some he was less keen on, such as autograph hunters trying to track down where he lived and the young people seeing his stories as examples of "hippy" culture. When the Beatles tried to buy the film rights to make a trippy movie directed by Stanley Kubrick (Kubrick seemed less keen) he put his foot down and refused to sell. He did, however, sell the film rights a few years later to secure the financial future of his children and grandchildren.
Tolkien died in 1973 but Middle-earth lived on. His third son Christopher, who was closest to his father in his literary and academic interests, had been groomed for the role of literary executor for several years and Tolkien had begun a renewed burst of essay and story writing, both for The Silmarillion and for a possible follow-up book expanding on the mythology. Tolkien had also decided to re-order The Silmarillion into a much more accessible and streamlined version for publication, but this process was incomplete when he died. Christopher completed this project, aided by a young student (and later excellent fantasy author in his own right, Guy Gavriel Kay), and The Silmarillion was released in 1977. Christopher also assembled his father's essays and notes about the "worldbuilding" of Middle-earth as Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth, which was published in 1980. And after that he went further by releasing almost all of his father's writings, including early drafts of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, as The History of Middle-earth, a twelve-volume series published between 1983 and 1996.
By using material from the history series and Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien was also able to release two further books focusing on narrative episodes from The Silmarillion: The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beren and Luthien (2017).
J.R.R. Tolkien did not create epic fantasy or the secondary world fantasy genre, but he popularised it like no-one else before or since. His books have sold close to 400 million copies and nine movies based on his books have been released, grossing $5.8 billion. Hundreds of authors have followed in his train (some much more closely, and derivatively, than others), resulting in the genre as we know and appreciate it today. A doff of the cap and a raising of a glass to Professor Tolkien's memory is in order today for everyone who enjoys the genre of the fantastic.