Born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien on Jan. 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, Free State Province, South Africa, he was the eldest son of English parents Mabel Suffield and Arthur Reuel Tolkien, a bank employee who had come to South Africa for a job promotion. One year after the birth of his younger brother Hilary in 1894, the three-year-old returned to England with his new sibling and his mother for a family visit. Tragically, before he could join his young family, Arthur died from complications due to rheumatic fever. Without any means to support her children, Mabel and her sons were forced to stay with her parents in Kings Heath, Birmingham and later settled in the nearby bucolic hamlet of Sarehole. For the next several years, Tolkien, his brother and his mother lived in what could be described as "genteel poverty," with little but the family's generosity to sustain them. As a student he attended King Edward's School, Birmingham, where he excelled in his studies. A rift in the family began after Tolkien's mother was received into the Catholic Church in 1900. It was a decision that estranged her from her strict Baptist family ever after, and once again left the widowed mother without financial support.
Four years later, Mabel died of complications due to acute diabetes - a sad inevitability, as insulin had not yet been discovered in 1904. Fortunately, she had made previous arrangements to have the 12-year-old Tolkien and his younger brother placed under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. The kindly priest had promised to not only provide for the boys' educational and housing needs, but most importantly, to raise them as good Catholics. After staying with an unsympathetic aunt for a brief period, Father Morgan installed the Tolkien brothers in a boarding house in nearby Edgbaston, where they remained throughout Tolkien's continuing education. Instilled with a deep love of language and literature from his mother, Tolkien thrived at school, devoting his energies to the study of the classics. An astute linguist, he not only became proficient in several languages but began creating several of his own, a vocation that would play a substantial role in his later literary endeavors. Not surprisingly, Tolkien's social life also reflected his academic leanings and interest in the arcane. With three friends at King Edward's School, he formed a secret society called the "The Tea Club and Barrovian Society" (T.C.B.S.) a group of like-minded comrades who encouraged his burgeoning literary aspirations.
At the age of 16, Tolkien met Edith Bratt, a young woman three years his elder, who rented a room at the same Edgbaston boarding house as he and Hilary. A close friendship soon developed between the two and eventually blossomed into romance over a period of years before Father Morgan at last intervened. Disapproving of his fraternizing with a Protestant girl, Morgan forbade any further contact between Tolkien and Edith until the boy's 21st birthday - threatening to cut off all financial and educational support should the ward not comply. Begrudgingly, Tolkien acquiesced and dutifully cut off all interaction with the girl, leaving Edgbaston soon after to study at Exeter College, Oxford in 1911. However, upon turning 21, Tolkien promptly reconnected with Edith and after convincing her that his love remained strong - despite the fact that he had not communicated with her in three years and that she had recently accepted a marriage proposal from another young man - the couple were engaged. Not long after graduating with honors and a degree in language and literature from Oxford, Tolkien and Edith - who had reluctantly converted to Catholicism - were wed in the spring of 1916.
Although it raised eyebrows within the ranks of his extended family, Tolkien chose not to immediately enlist with the British Army at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, opting instead to remain in school and complete his studies. Upon graduation, however, he promptly joined the service and after 11 months of training, was eventually sent to France as a member of the British Expeditionary Force's 11th Battalion. It had been barely two months since his marriage to Edith. Not long after serving as a signal officer during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, Tolkien was struck down by alternating bouts of a rheumatic-like fever and trench foot, which rendered him largely unfit for regular duty on the frontlines. Returning to England, he continually battled recurring bouts of illness, but was eventually deemed well enough to undertake home duties, stationed near Staffordshire, where Edith was able to join him for a time. Despite the comfort of having his wife at his side, a noticeably frail Tolkien was distraught over the fact that by the end of the war, all but one his friends from the T.C.B.S. had been killed in the fighting. The horrors of this first global war and the increased effects of worldwide industrialization would provide some of the darker themes in Tolkien's literary masterpieces, still some years in the distance.
During this time in 1917, Tolkien began his first forays into writing the tales that would later evolve into his better known works with The Book of Lost Tales, a collection of early short stories that would only be published posthumously. One such early tale concerning the human Beren and the elven-maiden Lúthien was inspired by a particularly enchanting afternoon he had spent walking to a forest clearing with Edith. Beren and Lúthien would form the basis for two prominent characters in his later works and were clearly literary ideals inspired by the love Tolkien felt for his new bride. With the cease of hostilities in 1918, Tolkien returned to civilian life at last and, fittingly enough, took a job as a lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary then at the University of Leeds in 1920, where he was installed as the prestigious school's youngest professor. There he continued to work on his Lost Tales and further refined the "Elvish" languages he had been creating for more than a decade. In a more purely academic endeavor, he also co-authored a now famous rendering of the Arthurian tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E.V. Gordon. Having fathered his first son, John, in 1917 while still in the service, Tolkien and Edith later welcomed their second and third children, Michael and Christopher, into the growing family during his time at Leeds.
Tolkien returned to his alma mater of Oxford in 1925 after being accepted to a prestigious post as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College. In 1929, the Tolkien family gave birth to their first daughter and final child, Priscilla. Echoing his schoolboy days as a member of the T.C.B.S., Tolkien cofounded a loose confederation of friends, writers and drinking buddies known as "The Inklings." Among its members were C.S. Lewis, a close friend of Tolkien's - it was Tolkien who was responsible for converting the atheistic Lewis to Catholicism - and a fellow fantasy author whose novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would also become a classic of children's literature. During this idyllic period at Pembroke, Tolkien and his family lived in a comfortable home in North Oxford and it was there that he began writing his seminal novel The Hobbit in the early 1930s, almost by mere happenstance.
While engaged in the tedious task of grading examination papers one day, Tolkien, noticing that a student had left one page of his answer book completely blank, for no apparent reason jotted down the cryptic sentence, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." As was his way, the naturally inquisitive Tolkien wanted to know more about this hobbit, why he lived in a hole and what said hole might look like. In his spare time, Tolkien continued to tinker with the story, further exploring the world of the hobbits and completing a rough draft of the story in 1932. In the meantime, the professor's academic research and lectures like his famous "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" from 1936 proved to be some of the most influential in the field. The Hobbit reentered Tolkien's life after a friend from The Inklings brought the manuscript to the attention of a staff member of the publishing company George Allen & Unwin. Suitably impressed, they passed the tale along to Stanley Unwin, who in turn asked his 10-year-old son Rayner to read it and give him a report. Rayner's review of the book was quite enthusiastic, so much so that his father chose to publish it.
From its first edition in 1937, The Hobbit - the adventure of hobbit Bilbo Baggins and a band of dwarves on a dangerous quest to steal a vast treasure from the fearsome dragon Smaug - was a resounding success, going into a second printing before the end of the year. Widely considered one of the greatest books in children's literature, more than 70 years after its initial publication the book never went out of print. With the success of his first novel, Tolkien's publisher quickly urged him to pen a sequel. After several false starts, the tale that began to emerge would eventually become the The Lord of the Rings, an epic fantasy so large in scope and scale that it was divided into three separate books. The writing process, however, was exceptionally slow, as Tolkien was kept busy with his fulltime duties as a professor. The outbreak of World War II and a new appointment at Merton College, Oxford in 1945 also proved an impediment to his finishing the tome, which he would not complete for several more years. Published between 1954 and 1955 as The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King, the volumes collectively told the saga of Frodo Baggins and his various elven, human and dwarf companions as they set off on yet another quest, this time to destroy the malevolent One Ring with the help of the heroic wizard Gandalf. Although initial reviews were not quite as uniformly positive as they had been with The Hobbit, the three-part novel was hailed as a remarkable literary achievement by many critics and eventually went on to become the third best-selling novel of all time.
So profitable were the sales of his books, in fact, that Tolkien later voiced regret over not taking an early retirement, which he finally did in 1959. By the late-1960s, The Hobbit and, in particular The Lord of the Rings, had become increasingly popular with the counter-culture movement of the era, achieving a cult-like status among the so-called "hippies." For his part, Tolkien had mixed feelings about this unexpected fan base. On the one hand he was flattered by the adulation, while on the other he was appalled by the idea of his tales of fantasy and adventure being associated with - or worse still, thought to be enhanced by - the use of mind-altering drugs. As appreciative as he was of the attention heaped upon him, the situation soon grew untenable for the reserved academic, who, after having his phone number removed from the public directory, moved with Edith to the quiet seaside resort of Bournemouth. Although Tolkien dearly missed his friends from The Inklings, Edith greatly enjoyed the social life available to her in Bournemouth, where they happily remained until her death in 1971. Following Edith's passing, the grieving widower returned to the comforting environs of Oxford, spending his remaining two years amongst friends, children and his beloved grandchildren. On Sept. 2, 1973, Tolkien died at the age of 81. Inscribed beneath Edith's and his proper names on their gravestone were the names Lúthien and Beren, the early characters that his deep abiding love for his wife had inspired more than 50 years before.
Assigned to the role of Tolkien's literary executor by his father prior to his death, Christopher Tolkien oversaw the publication of the early works collected in The Silmarillion in 1977 and additional fragmentary material collected in the 12-volume The History of Middle-earth over the years. As the hunger for more of the mythology created by Tolkien grew in the decades that followed, it seemed there was an almost inexhaustible supply of supplemental notes, outlines and material left behind for Christopher to mine. Highly skeptical and often dismayed at the quality of the several proposed cinematic interpretations that had been submitted to him during his lifetime, Tolkien did not live long enough to see the first screen adaptation of his work. Produced by the legendary animation team of Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. "The Hobbit" (NBC, 1977) was a musical interpretation of Bilbo Baggins' adventure and featured the voices of Orson Bean as the titular hobbit, Richard Boone as Smaug and John Huston as Gandalf. While brought to task by several Tolkien enthusiasts for certain divergences from the novel, most found the made-for-TV movie an admirable attempt at bringing the world of Middle-earth to the screen.
This effort was followed a year later by the theatrically released adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" (1978), directed by pioneering animator Ralph Bakshi. Notably, Bakshi's film employed a rotoscope technique - wherein animated images are traced over live-action footage - to imbue the characters with more lifelike movements. The lushly illustrated production attempted to closely follow Tolkien's novel, although time constraints dictated the film ending with the battle of Helm's Deep, an event that takes place at the end of The Two Towers. Originally intended to be followed by a sequel, the studio's refusal to add "Part One" to the title - they feared audiences would be unwilling to pay to see "half a film." - left theater goers simultaneously confused, frustrated and ultimately unsatisfied after Bakshi abandoned the proposed follow-up over disagreements with the producers. Seizing the opportunity, Rankin and Bass returned to the material, to a large degree picking up where Bakshi's uncompleted project had left off with the animated feature "Return of the King" (1980). Orson Bean returned to voice the older Bilbo as well as the story's younger hobbit protagonist, Frodo, along with Huston once again voicing Gandalf. As well intentioned as it was, this animated effort was met with less enthusiasm than its predecessors. Perhaps due to the challenges inherent in attempting to do justice to the literary works on film, Tolkien's epic high fantasy material remained largely within the realm of his continuously printed novels and as inspiration for the growing medium of video games over the next 20 years.
In one of the most ambitious and expensive film undertakings of all time, longtime Tolkien fan, New Zealand-born director Peter Jackson convinced New Line Cinema to let him direct, produce and co-script a massive live-action film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Committed to adhering as closely as possible to the source material, Jackson and his team reached the conclusion that the story would need to be told in three separate movies, one for each corresponding volume of the original novel. After a production process that ultimately took eight years, the first installment, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), was released to nearly universal acclaim and massive commercial success. Filmed on location in New Zealand, the film began the story of Frodo's quest to destroy the One Ring and featured an impressive ensemble cast that included Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis, whose voice and motion-capture performance as Gollum melded acting with digital effects in ways previously unimagined. Released one year apart from each other, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), out-performed its predecessor and the final film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) went on to become the second film in history to gross over $1 billion. Boasting unrivaled critical acclaim, each film received numerous Academy Award nominations, each won for Visual Effects and "Return of the King" took home statuettes for all 11 of its nominations, including the award for Best Picture.
A decade later, fans around the world thrilled when Jackson returned to Tolkien's fantasy world to adapt the author's first novel into another three-part film trilogy, beginning with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). In cinematic terms, the film would serve as a prequel to the "Lord of the Rings," with British actor Martin Freeman playing a younger version of Bilbo Baggins - Ian Holm reprised his role as the older Bilbo - alongside Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the proud leader of the Company of Dwarves seeking to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Such familiar faces as Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee also returned for one of the most highly anticipated adventures of the year, proving that the universe created by Tolkien a generation earlier had lost none of its appeal.
By Bryce Coleman
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