John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was a bank manager. At the age of three, Ronald’s poor health led his mother to move with him and his brother, Hilary, back to England, where they settled in Sarehole, a county village on the outskirts of Birmingham. His father died soon after, and his mother died when he was twelve. His early education was at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, where he showed promise in languages and Old English literature. During his last years at St. Edward’s, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, also an orphan, and formed close friendships––and an informal literary society––with several of his schoolfellows.
In 1911, he entered Exeter College, Oxford, and received a First Class Honours degree in English in 1915. Immediately after graduation he entered the army. In 1916, he married Edith and was shipped to France as World War I raged. After four months on the front lines he was stricken with trench fever and sent home.
After the war, he joined the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary (writing entries in the Ws), taught at Leeds University, and was elected to a chair in Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.
“And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened. Tolkien came back to Oxford, was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty-years, was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, went to live in a conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the first part of his retirement, moved to a nondescript seaside resort, came back to Oxford after his wife died, and himself died a peaceful death at the age of eighty-one. . . . And that would be that––apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’ he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers.”
The creation of Middle-earth, which occupied Tolkien for sixty years, can be divided into three stages. The first stage, begun at the St. Edward’s School, involved first the creation of languages and then the development of a series of legends that could give these languages a social context in which to develop. These legends soon became important in their own right, a mythic cycle that combined Christian and pagan (especially Germanic and Celtic) sources to provide England with a national mythology that would express the English spirit as the Edda does for Scandinavia and the Kalevala does for Finland. As Tolkien put it:
“I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendor from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country. . . . I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.”
The death in World War I of most of his St. Edward’s friends apparently firmed Tolkien’s resolution, and after twenty years, he had elaborated several languages, a cosmology, and large parts of The Silmarillion, high heroic tales (written in verse and prose, English and Elvish) of the fall of the angelic Melkor and the futile struggles of men and elves against him.
As a diversion from these weighty labors, Tolkien composed stories and sketches for his own children. About 1930, one of these beginning with the idle sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” became more and more involved as Tolkien defined hobbits and created adventure for one particular hobbit. Gradually it became clear to Tolkien that Bilbo Baggins’s adventures took place in the same Middle-earth as his high heroic tales, but during a much later era. After six years of intermittent composition, The Hobbit was published as a children’s book to critical and popular acclaim. Immediately Tolkien began work on The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954–55 after years of painstaking revision. In many ways a reworking of the plot of The Hobbit, the length, intensity, and complex theses of the Rings trilogy make it the adult epic Tolkien desired to create. Although its reputation was slow to grow, the paperback publication of the trilogy in the mid-sixties established the enormous fame of Middle-earth and its creator.
There can be no question that the great popular success of Middle-earth is due to the labors and spirit of its creator. The creation of an accomplished storyteller, linguist, poet, and painter, Middle-earth’s depths and plausibility are unmatched in modern fantasy; its reworking of the common ground of Norse, Celtic, and Judeo-Christian tradition is based in Tolkien’s belief in the importance and perfectibility of man.
Although its most striking creatures are noble elves, evil goblins, proud dwarves, cunning dragons, wizards, Eagles, and demons, the most important race in Middle-earth is men, for whose creation and salvation Middle-earth is prepared. The men of Middle-earth, free to choose their own destinies, run the full gamut from demonic evil and goblin-like depravity to a purity and integrity equaling that of the noblest elves. The contrast between goblins and elves provides one of the most important measures of good and evil in Middle-earth. The Silmarillion tells that elves, the Elder Children of God, were created to guide men, the Younger Children, on the long journey to spiritual wisdom and love of God. Goblins, in contrast, are corrupted elves, bred in mockery of Morgoth, the Necromancer’s master, whose revolt against God brings evil to Middle-earth. Thus Bard’s ability to learn restraint from the Elvenking is an important sign of his virtue, and Bilbo’s love of elves indicates his spiritual grace.
Where the elves serve as a model for men’s aspirations, hobbits provide a touchstone. Their lives display a basic goodness, a conservative, pastoral simplicity. Close to Nature and free from personal ambition and greed, hobbits need no government and are generally anti-technology. Rarely corrupted, they never corrupt others. The hobbits’ Shire is a quiet backwater, removed both from the agonies and the high destiny of men, whether in Middle- earth or the twentieth century. The Shire is, for Tolkien, a mirror in which we can see reflected the simple peace at the center of our hearts.