You may have seen the recently released trailer for the 2019 movie “Tolkien,” a film about the life of well-known author J.R.R. Tolkien.
In advance of the new movie, we’ve documented his inspiring life story.
Born in 1892, John Ronald (or Ronald to his friends), was born to Arthur Tolkien and Mabel Suffield in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (now modern-day South Africa).
Arthur Tolkien had moved his family there when he was promoted head of the Bloemfontein office of the British bank at which he was employed.
In 1895, his mother returned to England along with a young J.R.R. and his brother on what was intended to be a family visit. This changed when his father contracted rheumatic fever and passed away while still in South Africa.
His mother moved the family to Birmingham, to live with her parents.
Even as a child, Tolkien was said to be incredibly intellectual, reading and writing at 4 years of age and learning Latin very early.
The family later moved to Rednal, after his mother Mabel converted to Catholicism and was shunned by her very Baptist family.
It is there that she passed away of diabetes (this was before insulin treatments), when Tolkien was 12. Mabel had granted custody of the siblings to their parish priest before her passing.
Tolkien was then sent to study at King Edward’s School, then later St. Phillip’s School. Here he lived just under the shadow of Edgbaston Waterworks Victorian tower, which is thought to have influenced his dark tower imagery.
In his early teens, Tolkien was introduced to his first constructed language. Already gifted with skill in the study of language, he decided to create his own along with friends, and in 1909 he wrote his first work that included his new language.
While at King Edward’s School, he and three friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith (both of which would later lose their lives in WWI) and Christopher Wiseman, formed a semi-secret society called the T.C.B.S. or the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. These four remained friends after school and are said to have influenced Tolkien’s love for writing poetry.
In 1911, Tolkien went on holiday to Switzerland, in a trip that would heavily influence his writing. He stated that Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the Misty Mountains with his 12 companions was directly influenced by Tolkien’s journey with his party of 12.
Later that year he started at Exeter College in Oxford, where he graduated in 1915 with first class world honors in English and literature.
In 1915, a year after the start of World War I, Tolkien enlisted in the British Army and was sent to France to participate in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history.
There he penned his poem “The Lonely Isles,” and developed a code so he could correspond with his new wife, free of military eavesdropping.
In 1916, Tolkien contracted “Trench Fever” a common disease carried by lice that infested the barracks (authors A.A Milne and C.S. Lewis also contracted this disease from the war).
He was sent back to England in November of that year, and later had this to say to those who searched his works for parallels to the war:
“One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
As he recovered from this illness, Tolkien penned the works “The Book of Lost Tales,” his first attempt at creating a fantasy version of England and “The Fall of Gondolin.”
He was also inspired during this time to create the meeting of Beren and Luthien from the Silmarillion, crediting a walk in the woods where his beloved wife danced for him in a field of hemlock.
Tolkien was released from military duty in 1920 and took a series of jobs focusing on English and literature firstly working at the Oxford English Dictionary, then as the youngest professor at the University of Leeds. It was here that he penned “A Middle English Vocabulary,” and the definitive edition of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” with E.V. Gordon.
“The Hobbit” was never intended to be a famous work of literature, but after being read by Susan Dangal of the George Allen and Unwin Publishing firm, Tolkien submitted it for publishing. It quickly took off and he was asked for a sequel.
As World War II began, Tolkien was contacted and asked if he would be a codebreaker, to which he agreed. He took a class at the Headquarters of the Government Code and Cypher school, but was later told he was not needed.
He returned to Oxford to be the Merton College Professor of English and Literature, where he taught until he retired. In 1954, he received an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland.
Tolkien finally completed “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 1948, almost a decade after the first drafts.
During his retirement, he found increasing fame and success, and was even nominated by his close friend, C.S. Lewis of “The Chronicles of Narnia” fame, for the Nobel Prize in literature.
His wife, Edith Tolkien, passed away in 1971 and J.R.R. less than two years later. They are buried in the same grave, with Luthien and Beren engraved on the stone, at his request.
In the Silmarillion, Luthien is the most beautiful of the elves who forsook her immortality for the love of her mortal human lover Beren. This theme would again be repeated in “The Lord of the Rings” with the elf Arwen and human Aragorn.
While Tolkien was a devout Catholic, he avoided overt allegories in this works. However, you can still see his faith displayed in his writing with the theme of Good versus Evil, and other passages such as the scene in “The Lord of the Rings” where the hobbits are at Mount Doom.
This was said to represent the Lord’s Prayer, especially the line “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” In this scene, the main character Frodo is at the end of his journey and must destroy the evil one ring in the only place that can destroy its power, but is tempted by the power of the ring to keep it and be overcome by its evil.
Tolkien believed that mythology was a “divine echo of the Truth.” Speaking of the work in whole and the influence of his faith, Tolkien explained:
“We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
Author Stratford Caldecott interpreted “The Lord of the Rings” with this viewpoint:
“The Ring of Power exemplifies the dark magic of the corrupted will, the assertion of self in disobedience to God. It appears to give freedom, but its true function is to enslave the wearer to the Fallen Angel. It corrodes the human will of the wearer, rendering him increasingly ‘thin’ and unreal; indeed, its gift of invisibility symbolizes this ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity. You could say the Ring is sin itself: tempting and seemingly harmless to begin with, increasingly hard to give up and corrupting in the long run.”
Tolkien’s devout faith in God even helped lead his fellow author C. S. Lewis to the Lord, which inspired many great classic works of allegory from Lewis. Lewis in return greatly encouraged Tolkien to continue writing and publishing.
Tolkien continued to attend church until he died.
Much can be said about this incredible man and his intellect, invention of languages, and creativity, but mostly for how his faith in God influenced every factor in his life from his childhood friends, to his marriage of over 50 years, to his many prominent works of literature.
Check out some of Tolkien’s most beloved works here:
And watch the recently released trailer of the new film, Tolkien: