J. R. R. Tolkien

Annie Lee | Jul 5, 2023

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John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, better known as J. R. R. Tolkien is a British writer, poet, philologist, essayist and university professor born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein (Orange Free State) and died on September 2, 1973 in Bournemouth (UK).

His two best-known novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, take place in the fictional world of Middle-earth, whose geography, peoples, history, and languages he developed during most of his life.

After studying at Birmingham and Oxford and the traumatic experience of the First World War, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien became assistant professor (reader) of English at the University of Leeds in 1920, then professor of Old English at the University of Oxford in 1925, and professor of English language and literature in 1945, also at Oxford. He retired in 1959. During his academic career, he defended the learning of languages, especially Germanic ones, and turned the study of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf upside down with his lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1936). His essay On the Fairy Tale (1939) is also considered a crucial text in the study of the fairy tale as a literary genre.

Tolkien began to write for his own pleasure in the 1910s, developing a whole mythology around a constructed language. The universe thus created, Middle-earth, took shape through rewrites and compositions. His friend C. S. Lewis encourages him in this way, as well as the other members of their informal literary circle, the Inklings. In 1937, the publication of The Hobbit made Tolkien an esteemed children's author. His long-awaited sequel, The Lord of the Rings, was darker in tone. It was published in 1954-1955 and became a social phenomenon in the 1960s, especially on American campuses. Tolkien worked on his mythology until his death, but did not manage to give a finished form to The Silmarillion. This collection of legends from the early ages of Middle-earth was finally edited and published posthumously in 1977 by his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien, in collaboration with Guy Gavriel Kay. In the decades that followed, his son regularly published unpublished texts by his father.

Many authors published fantasy novels before Tolkien, but the major success of The Lord of the Rings when it was published in paperback in the United States was largely responsible for a popular revival of the genre. Tolkien is thus often considered one of the "fathers" of modern fantasy. His work has had a major influence on later writers in the genre, particularly in the rigor with which he built his secondary world.

Family origins

Most of J. R. R. Tolkien's forebears on his father's side were craftsmen. The Tolkien family, originally from Saxony, had been established in England since the 18th century, and the Tolkens became "deeply English" there. Their surname is an anglicized form of "Tollkiehn", a name derived from the German "tollkühn" meaning "reckless". It is pronounced

Tolkien's maternal ancestors, the Suffields, were a family originally from Evesham, Worcestershire. In the late 19th century, they lived primarily in Birmingham, where Tolkien's maternal grandparents, John and Emily Jane Suffield, owned a haberdashery in a building called "Lamb House" in the city center.


John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa. He was the first child of Arthur Reuel Tolkien (1857-1896) and his wife Mabel, née Suffield (1870-1904). Both had left England a few years earlier when Arthur was promoted to head the Bank of Africa branch in Bloemfontein.

The child is named "John" by family tradition: in the Tolkien family, the eldest son of the eldest son is always named John. Ronald" is the choice of Mabel, who had originally chosen "Rosalind", expecting to have a daughter. As for "Reuel"

The climate of South Africa did not suit Mabel, nor her son. In April 1895, she returned to England with her children (a second son, Hilary Arthur Reuel, was born on February 17, 1894), but her husband died of an infectious rheumatism on February 15, 1896, before he could join them. Deprived of income, Mabel moved in with her parents in Birmingham (in Wake Green), then in Sarehole, a hamlet south of the city. The young Tolkien explored the surrounding area, especially the mill at Sarehole, which inspired scenes in his future books and a deep love for the English countryside of Warwickshire.

Mabel educates her two sons herself. She teaches Ronald botany, rudimentary Latin, German and French, a language he doesn't like the sound of. He also reads a lot: he doesn't like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island or Robert Browning's The Pied Piper, but he does love the stories of "Redskins" and King Arthur, as well as the works of George MacDonald and the collections of stories edited by Andrew Lang. At the age of seven, Ronald writes his first story (about a dragon), which he later retains only as a "philological fact".

In 1900, Tolkien attended King Edward's School in Birmingham, the same school as his father. His mother converted to Catholicism the same year, despite strong protests from her Anglican family, who cut her off. She moved in 1902 to Edgbaston, not far from the Birmingham Oratory, and sent her sons to St. Philip's School, the school attached to the oratory. They stayed there only briefly: Ronald obtained a scholarship and was able to return to King Edward's School in 1903. There he learns ancient Greek, studies Shakespeare and Chaucer and learns Old English on his own.

Mabel Tolkien died of complications from diabetes on November 14, 1904 - insulin treatment did not yet exist. For the rest of her life, her eldest son considered her a "martyr," a sentiment that deeply influenced her own beliefs. Before her death, she entrusted the custody of her two sons to Father Francis Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory.

Education and marriage

Since Father Morgan was unable to take them in, Ronald and Hilary moved in with an aunt by marriage, Beatrice Suffield, who lived not far from the oratory, in early 1905. Tolkien continued his studies at King Edward's School and became friends with other students, notably Christopher Wiseman (1893-1987) and Robert Gilson (1893-1916). He became increasingly interested in philology, learned Old Norse to be able to read the story of Sigurd in the text and discovered the Gotic language and the Kalevala. He also played rugby in his school's team, with such enthusiasm that he became the captain.

In 1908, Tolkien met a young girl named Edith Bratt when he moved in with his brother in the same building as her. Despite their age difference (she was three years older than him), they soon fell in love, especially since they were both orphans. However, Father Morgan opposes this relationship and forbids Tolkien to continue seeing her: he fears that his ward will neglect his studies. Edith's Protestantism was an additional obstacle. The young boy obeyed the letter rather than the spirit of the order and when Father Morgan learned of the accidental meetings between the two young men, he threatened to put an end to Tolkien's studies if they did not cease. His ward complies.

After failing at the end of 1909, Tolkien obtained a scholarship to Oxford University in December 1910. During his last months at King Edward's School, he was one of the students who "lined the route" during the coronation parade of King George V at the gates of Buckingham Palace. More significantly on a personal level, he founded, with his friends Rob Gilson and Christopher Wiseman, the Tea Club Barrovian Society or TCBS, an informal society whose members, soon joined by Geoffrey Bache Smith (1894-1916) and a few others, shared the habit of taking tea at Barrow's Stores, not far from the school and in the school library itself, which is normally forbidden by the rules. The four friends at the heart of the TCBS remained in contact after they left the school.

In the summer of 1911, Tolkien went on vacation to Switzerland, a trip he vividly recalls in a 1968 letter in which he recalls how this trip may have inspired him to write The Hobbit ("the tumble down the slippery rocks into the pine wood") and The Lord of the Rings, calling the Silberhorn "the 'Silver Horn' (Celebdil) of my dreams."

In October 1911, Tolkien began his classical studies at Exeter College, Oxford; one of his main teachers was the philologist Joseph Wright, who had a great influence on him. He became interested in Finnish in order to read the Kalevala in the text, deepened his knowledge of Welsh and became involved in the social life of his college by continuing to play rugby and becoming a member of several student clubs. However, he was bored with Greek and Latin authors, and this was reflected in his grades: the only subject in which he excelled was his free subject, comparative philology. In 1913, with the blessing of his tutor, Provost Farnell, Tolkien switched his major to English literature and chose Scandinavian philology as his specialty. From then on, Kenneth Sisam became his new tutor.

On his coming of age in 1913, Tolkien wrote to Edith asking her to marry him. The young woman had meanwhile been promised to another man, but she broke off her engagement and converted to Catholicism at Tolkien's insistence. They celebrated their engagement in Warwick in January 1914.

World War I

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Tolkien was on vacation in Cornwall and soon after wrote the poem The Journey of Éarendel, the first seed of the future mythology of The Silmarillion. When he returned to Oxford, he arranged to train in the Officers' Training Corps, which allowed him to continue his studies in order to obtain his degree before having to leave for the front.

In December, Tolkien, Gilson, Smith and Wiseman met in London. In spite of the shadow that war cast over the country, they had faith in their potential: all had artistic ambitions and were convinced that the TCBS could and would change the world. From this meeting, from this "London Council", Tolkien's poetic vocation stems. He wrote many poems in 1915 and brilliantly passed his final exams at Oxford, obtaining first-class honors.

Tolkien became a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers and trained with the 13th Reserve Battalion for eleven months at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. During this time he wrote to Edith: "Gentlemen are rare among officers, and human beings themselves are rare. Knowing that his departure for the front was near, he married Edith on March 22, 1916 in Warwick. Transferred to the 11th Service Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force, he arrived in France on June 4, 1916. Afterwards, he wrote: "Junior officers were being shot by the dozen. Separating from my wife at that time ."

Tolkien served as a signal officer during the Battle of the Somme, participated in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge and the subsequent attacks on the Schwaben Redoubt. Victim of trench fever, a disease transmitted by the lice that swarmed in the trenches, he was sent back to England on November 8, 1916. His friends Rob Gilson and G. B. Smith were not so lucky: the first was killed in action on July 1, and the second, seriously wounded by a shell, died on December 3.

Weakened, Tolkien spent the rest of the war between hospitals and rear posts, being judged medically unfit for general service. His first son, John Francis Reuel, was born in 1917 in Cheltenham. During his convalescence at Great Haywood in Staffordshire, Tolkien began writing The Fall of Gondolin, the first of the Lost Tales.


When the war ended, the Tolkien family moved to Oxford. Tolkien's first civilian job after the armistice was for the Oxford English Dictionary, from January 1919 to May 1920. He worked on the history and etymology of terms of Germanic origin beginning with the letter "W", under the direction of Henry Bradley, who praised his work on several occasions afterwards. During this period, Tolkien supplemented his income by tutoring several students at the university, mainly girls from Lady Margaret Hall, St. Hilda's, St. Hugh's and Somerville.

In 1920, the year his second son Michael was born, Tolkien left Oxford for the North of England where he became assistant professor (reader) of English literature at the University of Leeds, then professor in 1924. During his time at Leeds, he produced a glossary of Middle English, A Middle English Vocabulary, as well as a definitive edition of the poem Sire Gauvain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon. These two books remain considered academic references for several decades. Tolkien also continued to develop his world of fiction: if the Lost Tales remained unfinished, he began to write a version in alliterative verse of the story of the Children of Húrin. It was also in Leeds that his third son, Christopher, was born in 1924.


"After that, you might say, nothing really happened. Tolkien returned to Oxford, was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Rawlinson and Bosworth Colleges for twenty years; was then elected professor of English language and literature at Merton; moved to a very conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the early part of his retirement: moved to some seaside town; returned to Oxford after his wife died; and died peacefully at the age of eighty-one."

In 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford as Professor of Old English and Fellow of Pembroke College, a position he held until 1945. During his time at Pembroke, he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings, mainly at number 20 Northmoor Road, in the north of Oxford. It was there that the Tolkien's fourth and last child, their only daughter, Priscilla, was born in 1929. Very attached to his children, Tolkien invented many tales for them, including Roverandom and The Hobbit. He also wrote them letters every year, supposedly from Santa Claus.

Tolkien, "Tollers" to his friends, met C. S. Lewis in 1926, at Oxford. A deep and lasting friendship soon developed between them. They shared a taste for dialogue and beer, and Tolkien soon invited Lewis to the meetings of the Coalbiters, a club dedicated to reading Icelandic sagas in Old Norse. Lewis's return to Christianity was partly due to Tolkien, even if the latter regretted that his friend had chosen to return to Anglicanism and not to join him in the Catholic faith. Lewis constantly encouraged Tolkien when he read from his books at meetings of the Inklings, an informal literary club that gathered in the 1930s around Tolkien, Lewis, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson and other Oxford teachers.

The Hobbit was published in September 1937, almost by chance: it was a former student of Tolkien's, Susan Dagnall, who was enthusiastic about the manuscript, who put him in touch with the London publishing house George Allen & Unwin and convinced him to have it published. The book was a great success, both critically and commercially, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the publisher Stanley Unwin urged Tolkien to write a sequel. Tolkien then began writing The Lord of the Rings, without suspecting that it would take him more than ten years to complete it.

In March 1939, the British government contacted Tolkien and offered him the opportunity to join a team of specialists dedicated to the deciphering of Nazi codes, located at Bletchley Park. He declined the offer of full-time employment, but according to a British intelligence historian, there are as yet unpublished documents that attest to his ongoing and significant participation in the code-breaking effort.

In addition to the additional workload that prevented Tolkien from advancing as quickly as he would have liked in writing The Lord of the Rings, the outbreak of the Second World War had an unexpected consequence: the arrival of the London writer Charles Williams, much admired by Lewis, in Oxford. Williams was quick to make a place for himself among the Inklings. Although he had a cordial relationship with the man, Tolkien did not appreciate the writer, whose novels were full of mysticism and sometimes bordered on black magic, which could not but horrify a Catholic as convinced of the importance of evil as Tolkien. Tolkien judged Williams' influence on Lewis' work unfavourably. Tolkien's friendship with Lewis was also dampened by Lewis's growing success as a Christian apologist, especially through his broadcasts for the BBC, which led Tolkien to say in the mid-1940s that Lewis had become "too famous for his taste or ours".

In 1945, Tolkien became professor of English language and literature at Merton College, a position he held until his retirement. At Pembroke, he was succeeded as professor of Old English by another Inkling, Charles Wrenn. The Thursday meetings of the Inklings became increasingly rare after Williams' death and the end of the Second World War, and ceased for good in 1949. Relations between Tolkien and Lewis became increasingly distant, especially since the latter left Oxford for Cambridge in 1954. His marriage to Joy Davidman, a divorced American woman, in 1957, did not please Tolkien. However, the latter was very shocked by Lewis' death in 1963, which he compared to "a blow with an axe".

Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings in 1948, after a decade of work. This novel of more than a thousand pages was published in three volumes in 1954-1955 and met with great success from the moment of its publication, being adapted for radio in 1955. Although the success of his work put him in a position of permanent financial security, Tolkien remained a thrifty and generous man who did not allow himself many eccentricities.

Retirement and death

Tolkien retired from university in 1959. In the years that followed, he became increasingly famous as a writer. At first he wrote enthusiastic responses to his readers, but became increasingly suspicious of the emergence of fan communities, especially within the hippie movement. In the United States, his novel became a bestseller when the publisher Ace Books published it in paperback without permission; the ensuing legal dispute gave Tolkien's name even more publicity. In a 1972 letter, he lamented that he had become an object of worship, but admitted that "not even the nose of a very modest idol can remain totally untouched by the tickling sweet smell of incense!" However, enthusiastic readers became more and more pressing, and in 1968 he and his wife moved for more peace and quiet to Bournemouth, a seaside town on the south coast of England.

The work on The Silmarillion occupied the last two decades of Tolkien's life in a dotted line, without him managing to complete it. Readers of The Lord of the Rings looked forward to the promised sequel, but had to make do with the collection of poems The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962) and the Smith tale of Great Wootton (1967). During the same period, Tolkien also participated in the translation of the Jerusalem Bible, published in 1966: in addition to proofreading, he translated the Book of Jonah.

Edith Tolkien died on November 29, 1971 at the age of 82 and was buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, in the northern suburbs of Oxford. Her husband had the name "Lúthien" carved on her grave, in reference to the story of Beren and Lúthien, a tale of his legend partly inspired by a vision of Edith dancing in the woods in 1917.

After the death of his wife, Tolkien returned to Oxford to spend the last years of his life in an apartment on Merton Street, courtesy of his former college. On March 28, 1972, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. During a visit to friends in Bournemouth, at the end of August 1973, he felt ill: he died in hospital on September 2, 1973, at the age of 81. "Beren" is inscribed under his name on the grave he shares with Edith.


After being baptized in the Church of England, Tolkien was educated in the Catholic faith by his mother after his conversion in 1900. Her untimely death had a profound influence on her son. Humphrey Carpenter suggests that he found in religion a kind of moral and spiritual comfort. He remained faithful to his faith throughout his life, and it played an important role in the conversion of his friend C. S. Lewis, then an atheist, to Christianity, although he chose Anglicanism, much to Tolkien's dismay.

The reforms of the Second Vatican Council aroused in him divided opinions. While he approved in theory of the ecumenical developments brought about by these reforms, he bitterly regretted the abandonment of Latin in the Mass. An anecdote told by his grandson Simon shows him making a point of making his responses in Latin, and very loudly, in the midst of the faithful who responded in English. Clyde Kilby recalls Tolkien's dismay when, during the celebration of a mass in the new rite, he noticed a drastic decrease in the number of genuflections and left the church in dismay.


Tolkien was essentially conservative in his political views, in the sense that he favored established conventions and orthodoxy over innovation and modernization. In 1943, he wrote to his son Christopher, "My political views lean more and more toward Anarchy (in the philosophical sense, meaning the abolition of control, not mustachioed men with bombs) - or toward 'unconstitutional' Monarchy." In 1956, he explained that he was not a Democrat "only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, which results in giving us, not universal modesty and humility, but universal grandeur and pride."

If he loves England - "not Britain and certainly not the Commonwealth (grr!)" -, Tolkien is not however a blind patriot. During the Second World War, he criticized the British propaganda relayed by the newspapers, in particular an article "solemnly calling for the systematic extermination of the entire German people as the only adequate measure after the military victory". After the end of the war in Europe, he worries about "British or American imperialism in the Far East", stating: "I am afraid that I am not animated by the slightest spark of patriotism in this war that is going on. For it I would not give a penny, much less a son, if I were a free man."

During the Spanish Civil War, Tolkien privately expressed his support for the nationalist camp when he learned from Roy Campbell that Soviet death squads were destroying churches and killing priests and nuns. At a time when many Western intellectuals admired Joseph Stalin, Tolkien made no secret of his contempt for "that bloody old murderer", as he called him in a letter to his son Christopher in 1944. Nevertheless, he was vehemently opposed to an interpretation of The Lord of the Rings as an anti-communist parable, in which Sauron corresponded to Stalin: "an allegory of this kind is totally alien to my way of thinking," he wrote.

Before the Second World War, Tolkien expressed his opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. In his unfinished novel The Lost Road, written around 1936-1937, the situation of the island of Númenor under the yoke of Sauron shortly before its submergence has similarities with Germany at that time, as Christopher Tolkien points out: "the unexplained disappearance of people unpopular with the 'government,' informers, prisons, torture, secrecy, fear of night; propaganda in the form of 'historical revisionism,' the proliferation of weapons of war, for unspecified, but glimpsed, purposes."

In 1938, the publishing house Rütten & Loening, which was preparing a translation of The Hobbit into German, wrote to Tolkien asking him if he was of Aryan origin. Tolkien was outraged and wrote a letter to his publisher Stanley Unwin condemning the "insane laws" of the Nazi regime and anti-Semitism as "totally pernicious and unscientific" and declaring his willingness to "leave all German translations in the lurch". Tolkien sent Unwin two possible replies to be forwarded to Rütten & Loening. In the one that was not sent, he points out the Nazi misuse of the term "Aryan" (originally linguistic) and adds:

"But if I am supposed to understand that you want to know whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only answer that I regret that I cannot apparently count among my ancestors anyone of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather left Germany for England in the eighteenth century, so most of my ancestry is English, and I am an English subject - which should be enough for you. Nevertheless, I have been accustomed to look upon my German name with pride, even throughout the last and unfortunate war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot help remarking, however, that if impertinent and improper requests of this kind are to become the rule in literature, then it is not far to the point that a German name ceases to be a source of pride."

In 1941, in a letter to his son Michael, he expressed his resentment of Hitler, "that little redneck ignoramus uining, perverting, hijacking and forever cursing that noble spirit of the North, the supreme contribution to Europe, which I have always loved and tried to present in its true light." After the war, in 1968, he objected to a description of Middle Earth as a "northern" world, explaining that he disliked the word because of its association with racist theories.

Accusations of racism

The question of the alleged racism or racialism of Tolkien himself or of certain elements of his work has given rise to frequent debate in the public and academic spheres. Christine Chism distinguishes three categories of accusations of racism made against Tolkien or his work: conscious racism, unconscious Eurocentric tendencies, and latent racism in his early writings that evolved into a conscious rejection of it in his later works.

Most of the accusations of racism in The Lord of the Rings can be summed up by John Yatt's phrase: "White men are good, 'black' men are bad, orcs are worse than anything. Chris Henning even states that "the whole appeal of The Lord of the Rings is that it is a fundamentally racist book. This idea has been taken up by authors such as Isabelle Smadja in The Lord of the Rings or the Temptation of Evil (2002), a book criticized for its lack of scientific rigor and for failing to take into account the rest of Tolkien's work. Several accusations of racism against The Lord of the Rings also relate to Peter Jackson's adaptations, in which the Sudrons are presented wearing turbans and with an oriental appearance, which has sometimes been considered tendentious in the context of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In 1944, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher, then stationed in South Africa with the Royal Air Force: "As for what you say or imply about the 'local' situation, I had heard about it. I don't think it has changed much (even worse). I used to hear about it regularly from my mother, and have since taken a special interest in that part of the world. The way people of color are treated almost always horrifies those who leave Britain, and not only in South Africa. Unfortunately, few retain this generous sentiment for very long." He publicly condemned the apartheid policy in South Africa in his farewell address at Oxford University in 1959.


Tolkien was very fond of nature: his correspondence and his illustrations testify to the pleasure he derived from contemplating flowers or birds, and especially trees. His last photograph, taken in August 1973 by his son Michael, shows him leaning against the trunk of a black pine in the botanical garden of Oxford University, which he particularly liked. This love of nature is reflected in his work, notably with the Ents of the Lord of the Rings, these "shepherds of the trees" who go to war against Saruman, "a machine-loving enemy", or the Two Trees that light up Valinor in The Silmarillion. The symbolism of the tree is also at the heart of Niggle's short story Leaf, inspired by the vehement (and successful) efforts of one of Tolkien's neighbors to have the old poplar tree growing in front of her house cut down.

The effects of industrialization were highly displeasing to Tolkien, especially in their invasion of England's rural landscapes: in 1933, he was distressed to recognize almost nothing of the places of his childhood when he passed through the old hamlet of Sarehole, overtaken by the growth of the urban area of Birmingham. The drafts of his essay From the Fairy Tale contain several disapproving passages about airplanes and automobiles. He did not cut himself off from the modern world: he even owned a car in the 1930s, and if he eventually gave it up, it was only when World War II brought gasoline rationing. However, in the 1950s, he violently opposed a proposed road bypass of Oxford that would destroy many of the city's monuments.


One of Tolkien's main influences was the English author William Morris (1834-1896), a member of the Arts & Crafts movement. As early as 1914, Tolkien expressed a desire to imitate his archaic style of novels, interspersed with poems, and began writing a version of the Finnish myth of Kullervo, which his biographer Humphrey Carpenter described as "little more than a pastiche of Morris. Morris' novel The House of the Wolfings (1888) takes place in the forest of Mirkwood, a name of medieval origin also used in The Hobbit, and Tolkien admits the "great debt" that the landscapes of the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings owe to The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains (1889). Another Morris novel, The Spring at the End of the World (1896), features an evil king named Gandolf and a very fast white horse named Silverfax, which may have influenced the names of the wizard Gandalf and the horse Scadufax in The Lord of the Rings. However, the main influence of Morris on Tolkien is to be found in a common taste for medieval Northern Europe, archaisms of style, a close conception of destiny and of the quest leading the hero to enchanted worlds. Anne Besson notes that Tolkien does not push the use of archaic vocabulary as far as Morris, which makes his style less artificial and more accessible.

Many critics have discussed the similarities between Tolkien's work and the adventure novels of H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), mainly King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1887). The latter presents a ruined city named Kôr, a name taken up as such by Tolkien in the first versions of The Silmarillion, and Queen Ayesha, who gives the novel its title, evokes several aspects of Galadriel. In King Solomon's Mines, the final battle and the character of Gagool recall the battle of the Five Armies and the character of Gollum in The Hobbit.

The Hobbits, one of Tolkien's most famous creations, were inspired in part by the Snergs in Edward Wyke-Smith's (1871-1935) 1924 novel The Marvellous Land of the Snergs. Like the Hobbits, the Snergs are small humanoids who love food and parties. As for the name "hobbit", Tolkien also suggests a possible unconscious influence of Babbitt, a satirical novel by the American Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) published in 1922, whose eponymous hero possesses "the same bourgeois self-importance as the hobbits".

A major influence on Tolkien is Germanic literature, poetry and mythology, especially Anglo-Saxon, his field of expertise. Among these sources of inspiration, the main ones are the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, the Norse sagas such as the Völsunga saga or the Hervarar saga, the prose Edda and the poetic Edda, the Nibelungenlied.

Despite the similarities of his work to the Völsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied, which served as the basis for Richard Wagner's tetralogy, Tolkien refused to make direct comparisons with the German composer, stating that "These two rings (the One Ring and the Nibelung Ring) are round, and that is their only resemblance. However, some critics believe that Tolkien actually owes Wagner elements such as the inherent evil of the Ring and its corrupting power, both of which are absent from the original legends but central to Wagner's opera. Others go further and believe that The Lord of the Rings "stands in the shadow of Wagner's even more monumental Ring of the Nibelung.

Tolkien was "formidably attracted" to the Finnish mythbook Kalevala when he discovered it around 1910. A few years later, one of his first writings was an attempt to rewrite the story of Kullervo, many of whose characteristics are later found in the character of Túrin, the unfortunate hero of Children of Húrin. More generally, the important role of music and its links with magic are an element of the Kalevala that is also present in Tolkien's work.

Tolkien was well acquainted with the Arthurian myth, especially the 14th century Middle English poem Sire Gauvain and the Green Knight, which he edited, translated and commented on. However, he does not appreciate this body of legends too much: "too extravagant, fantastic, incoherent, repetitive" for his taste to be able to constitute a true "mythology of England". This does not prevent Arthurian motifs and echoes from appearing diffusely in The Lord of the Rings, the most obvious being the resemblance between the tandems Gandalf-Aragorn and Merlin-Arthur. More generally, parallels appear between Celtic and Welsh myths and Tolkien's work, for example between the story of Beren and Lúthien and Culhwch ac Olwen, a story from the Welsh Mabinogion.

Catholic theology and imagery were involved in shaping Tolkien's worlds, as he himself acknowledges:

"The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously at first, and then consciously when I reworked it. That's why I hardly added, or removed, references to anything approaching "religion", to cults and customs, in this imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and into the symbolism."

In particular, Paul H. Kocher argues that Tolkien describes evil in the orthodox Catholic way: as the absence of good. He cites many examples in The Lord of the Rings, such as Sauron's "eyeless eye": "the black slit of the pupil opened on a well, a window to nothing. According to Kocher, Tolkien's source is Thomas Aquinas, "whose work Tolkien, as a medievalist and Catholic, could reasonably be expected to know well. Tom Shippey supports the same idea, but rather than Thomas Aquinas, he believes that Tolkien was familiar with Alfred the Great's translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, also known as Boethius' Metes. Shippey argues that the clearest formulation of the Christian view of evil is Boethius' "evil is nothing." The corollary that evil cannot create is the basis for Frodo's remark that "the Shadow that produced them can only imitate, it cannot make: no truly new things, that are its own"; Shippey points to similar remarks made by Barbebois and Elrond and goes on to assert that in The Lord of the Rings, evil sometimes appears as an independent force, not the mere absence of good, and suggests that Alfred's additions to his translation of Boethius may be the source of this view.

Some commentators have also linked Tolkien to G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), another English Catholic writer who used the marvellous and the fairy world as allegories or symbols of religious values and beliefs. Tolkien was familiar with Chesterton's work, but it is difficult to say whether he was really one of his influences.

In the essay On Fairy Tales, Tolkien explains that fairy tales have this particularity of being both consistent within themselves and with some real-world truths. Christianity itself follows this pattern of internal consistency and external truth. His love of myths and his deep faith come together in his assertion that mythologies are an echo of the divine "Truth", a view developed in the poem Mythopoeia. Tolkien also introduces in The Fairy Tale the concept of the eucatastrophe, a fortunate turn of events which he believes is one of the foundations of fairy tales and which is also found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.


Tolkien began writing poems in the 1910s. It was then his main form of artistic expression, far ahead of prose. His verses were most often inspired by nature, or by texts he studied and enjoyed, such as Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or William Langland's Piers Plowman. A characteristic feature of his early poems is their depiction of fairies as small winged beings living in meadows and woods. Later, Tolkien disavowed this Victorian image of the fairy, and his Elves became detached from it. Nevertheless, the poem Goblin Feet (published in 1915) had a respectable success and was reprinted in several anthologies, much to the despair of its author for whom it symbolized everything he had come to hate about elves. Encouraged by his friends in the TCBS, notably by the "London Council" of 1914, Tolkien sent a collection of poems entitled The Trumpets of Faery to the London publishing house Sidgwick & Jackson in 1916, but it was rejected.

After his return from the war, Tolkien abandoned verse somewhat to devote himself to writing the Lost Tales, in prose. However, he continued to publish poems in various magazines during the 1920s and 1930s. During his stay in Leeds, he began to write the story of Túrin Turambar in alliterative verse. This effort remained unfinished: Tolkien abandoned it in 1925, after writing a little more than 800 verses, to devote himself to the Leithian Lai, which tells the love story of Beren and Lúthien in octosyllabic distichs. Tolkien worked on the Lai for seven years before abandoning it in 1931, at verse 4,175, despite the approving comments of his friend C. S. Lewis. The 1930s saw him try his hand at long poems of Nordic inspiration (the two lais published in 2009 under the title The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún), Arthurian (the unfinished The Fall of Arthur, published in 2013) or Breton (The Lai of Aotrou and Itroun, published in 1945).

Tolkien's best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, contain many poems, described by Tolkien as "integral to the story (and to the representation of the characters)," but which often leave critics wary. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962), a collection of poems consisting largely of reworked versions of poems written and published in the 1920s and 1930s, did not attract much attention, but was generally well received by the press and the public.

In the 1920s, Tolkien began to make up stories to entertain his children. Many of these stories, such as those of the bandit Bill Stickers and his arch-enemy Major Road Ahead, whose names were inspired by signs he saw on the street, were never written down. Others are, such as Roverandom, written to console little Michael who had lost his favorite toy, Mr. Wonder, which recounts the misadventures of the eponymous hero with his automobile, or Farmer Gilles of Ham, which acquires a more adult tone with each rewrite. In addition, Tolkien wrote an illustrated letter from Santa Claus to his children every year between 1920 and 1942; a collection of these Letters from Santa was published in 1976.

Tolkien's most famous children's book, The Hobbit, was also based on a story Tolkien had written for his children. When it was published in 1937, it was well received by critics and the public alike, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and won an award from the New York Herald Tribune. It is still considered a classic of children's literature. However, a few years later, Tolkien took a critical look at his book, regretting that he had sometimes indulged in too childish a tone. "Intelligent children possessing sound taste (there seem to be a number of them) have always distinguished as weaknesses, I am glad to say, those moments when the narrative is addressed directly to children."

After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien's publisher, Stanley Unwin, asked him for a sequel. Uncertain, Tolkien began by proposing a very different work: The Silmarillion, a collection of imaginary mythological legends on which he had been working for nearly twenty years.

It is indeed around 1916-1917 that the writing of the first version of the legends of The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, begins. It is a collection of stories told to Eriol, a Danish sailor of the 5th century AD, by the elves of the island of Tol Eressëa, located far to the west. Tolkien's idea was to create "a mythology for England": the end of the Lost Tales, never written, was to see the island of Tol Eressëa, broken in two, become Britain and Ireland. The elves would have gradually disappeared from their former country, and the semi-legendary Anglo-Saxon chiefs Hengist and Horsa would have turned out to be the sons of Eriol. Tolkien abandoned this ambitious project of "English mythology" early on, but he retained the idea of the human sailor as a means of transmitting the elven legends: this role was later assigned to Ælfwine, an English sailor of the 11th century. After having tried his hand at poetic form in the 1920s with the Children of Húrin, and then the Leithian Lai, Tolkien returned to prose in the 1930s and wrote a set of texts that developed his legends: the cosmogonic myth of the Ainulindalë, two sets of annals, précis on the history of languages (Lhammas) and the geography of the world (Ambarkanta). At the heart of the ensemble is the Quenta Noldorinwa or "History of the Noldoli", which later took the name of Quenta Silmarillion.

This collection of texts was received with circumspection, to say the least, by Allen & Unwin. In December 1937, Tolkien began writing a true sequel to The Hobbit. It took him almost twelve years to complete The Lord of the Rings, a novel that had almost completely lost the childish tone of its predecessor in favor of an epic and noble atmosphere closer to The Silmarillion. When it was published in 1954-55, the novel received mixed reviews from critics, but the public loved it, especially in the United States after its publication in paperback in the 1960s. Its popularity has never wavered since: it has been translated into some 40 languages, has been the subject of countless articles and reviews, and has won numerous public surveys.

The success of The Lord of the Rings assured Tolkien that his long-awaited Silmarillion would be published, but he still needed to complete it. The author spends the last twenty years of his life working towards this goal, but the task proves to be arduous and he fails to accomplish it, falling victim to his hesitations and the sheer amount of rewriting and editing that must be done to make it consistent with The Lord of the Rings. What's more, he frequently gets distracted by writing about minutiae while neglecting the main plot: "The sub-creation itself had become a hobby that brought its own reward, independent of the desire to be edited."

The Silmarillion was still unfinished when Tolkien died in 1973. He made his third son, Christopher, his literary executor: it was up to him to proceed with the edition of this work. He worked on it for nearly four years with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay, reorganizing the heterogeneous and sometimes divergent writings of his father into a continuous text, without an external narrator. The Silmarillion was published in 1977 and received a wide variety of reviews: many critics judged its archaic style, its lack of a central plot and its large number of characters.

Christopher Tolkien continued his editorial work until his death in 2020, first with Unfinished Tales and Legends (1980), a compilation of various texts after The Lord of the Rings, essentially of a narrative nature, and then with the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth (1983-1996), a "longitudinal" study of his father's texts that served for the elaboration of The Silmarillion, as well as the drafts of The Lord of the Rings and other unpublished writings. The drafts of The Hobbit, deliberately left aside by Christopher Tolkien, were published in 2007 by John D. Rateliff in the two volumes of The History of The Hobbit.

After the completion of the History of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien is editing six more books by his father. Three of them are about the "Great Tales" of The Silmarillion: The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018). While the first is a "stand-alone, full-fledged" version of the story of Túrin as Tolkien wrote it in the 1950s, the other two are compilations of all the versions, completed and unfinished, of the relevant stories written by Tolkien during his lifetime, from the time of the Lost Tales until his death. The other three new books Tolkien published during this period do not concern Middle-earth: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), two long poems inspired by Norse mythology, The Fall of Arthur (2013), an unfinished verse retelling of the Arthurian myth, and The Story of Kullervo (2015), a juvenile work retelling an episode from the Kalevala.

Tolkien began drawing and painting watercolors as a child, an activity he never completely abandoned, although his other obligations left him little time to devote to it and he considered himself a mediocre artist. Drawing characters is not his strong point, and most of his works therefore represent landscapes, real or (from the 1920s onwards) imaginary, inspired by his readings (the Kalevala, Beowulf) or the emerging mythology of The Silmarillion. As he grew older, he partly abandoned figurative art in favor of ornamental motifs scribbled on envelopes or newspapers where the figure of the tree is frequently found.

The stories he imagined for his children were also abundantly illustrated, whether they were Letters from Santa Claus, Roverandom or The Hobbit. When The Hobbit was published, it included fifteen black and white illustrations by Tolkien (including two maps), who also designed the book jacket. The American edition includes five additional color illustrations. On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings, an expensive book to produce, does not include any illustrations by Tolkien. Several collections of Tolkien's illustrations were published after his death, including Paintings and Watercolors by J. R. R. Tolkien (1979), J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (1995), The Art of the Hobbit (2011) and The Art of the Lord of the Rings (2015).


"Tolkien revived fantasy; he made it respectable; he created a taste for it among readers and publishers alike; he brought fairy tales and myths back from the margins of literature; he "raised the bar" for fantasy writers. His influence is so powerful and pervasive that for many authors, the difficulty has not been to follow him, but to break free from him, to find their own voice. The world of Middle-earth, like that of the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers in the previous century, has become part of the mental furniture of the Western world."

- Tom Shippey

Tom Shippey sums up Tolkien's influence on literature by saying that "he founded the genre of serious heroic fantasy": if he is not the first modern author of the genre, he left his mark on the history of fantasy thanks to the commercial success of The Lord of the Rings, which was unequalled at the time. This success gave rise to the emergence of a new market in which publishers were quick to jump on board, notably the American Ballantine Books (which also published Tolkien in paperback in the United States). Several fantasy cycles published in the 1970s show a strong Tolkien influence, for example Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara (1977), whose story is very close to that of The Lord of the Rings, or Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, whose fictional world is reminiscent of Middle Earth. Conversely, other authors define themselves in opposition to Tolkien and the ideas he seems to convey, such as Michael Moorcock (who castigates him in his article Epic Pooh) or Philip Pullman. Shippey emphasizes that they too owe their success to that of Tolkien.

In 2008, The Times ranked Tolkien sixth on a list of the "50 greatest British writers since 1945." In 2012, the Swedish Academy's archives revealed that Tolkien was one of the fifty authors nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961. Tolkien's candidacy, proposed by his friend C. S. Lewis, was rejected by the Nobel Committee: the academician Anders Österling wrote that The Lord of the Rings "is in no way great literature". The prize goes to the Yugoslavian Ivo Andrić.

In the field of science, more than 80 taxa have been named after characters or other elements of Tolkien's fictional universe. Flores Man, a hominid discovered in 2003, is frequently referred to as a "hobbit" because of its small size. The Tolkien asteroid (2675), discovered in 1982, is also named after the writer, as is the Tolkien crater on the planet Mercury in 2012.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been the subject of several television and film adaptations, the most famous of which are the two series of three films directed by Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and The Hobbit (2012-2014).

In 2019, a biopic soberly titled Tolkien, directed by the Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski is released. This film adaptation recounts in a fictionalized way the youth of the writer, played by the English actor Nicholas Hoult. Tolkien's family and estate stated that they "did not 'approve of, authorise or participate in the making of' the film".

The Bibliothèque nationale de France is dedicating a major exhibition to his work from October 22, 2019 to February 16, 2020, entitled "Tolkien, Journey to Middle-earth". This exhibition ranks first in attendance of any exhibition in the history of the BnF.

Academic career

Tolkien's academic career, as well as his literary production, are inseparable from his love of languages and philology. At university he specialized in this field and graduated in 1915 with Old Norse as his specialty. Between 1918 and 1920, he worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and contributed several entries beginning with the letter "W"; he later claimed to have "learned more in those two years than in any other equivalent period of time. In 1920 he became assistant professor (reader) of English at Leeds University, and boasted that he had increased the number of linguistics students there from five to twenty, more proportionately than at Oxford at the same time, pointing out that "philology seems to have lost for these students its connotation of terror, if not of mystery. He taught courses in Old English heroic poems, English history, and various Old and Middle English texts, as well as introductions to Germanic philology, Gothic, Old Norse, and medieval Welsh.

After his arrival at Oxford, Tolkien became involved in the age-old quarrel between linguists ("Lang") and literary scholars ("Lit") in the English faculty. He was dismayed by the situation that this led to concerning the programs: in fact, the phonological rules that students of linguistics had to learn were not based on the actual study of Old and Middle English texts, the reading of which was not part of the program, which Tolkien considered absurd. He proposed a reworking of the curriculum, making the study of nineteenth-century writers optional, in order to make room for medieval texts. This reform of the curriculum was violently opposed, including by C. S. Lewis himself at first, but was finally adopted in 1931. Despite growing opposition after 1945, the programs designed by Tolkien remained in effect until his retirement.

Among his academic works, the 1936 lecture Beowulf: Monsters and Critics has a decisive influence on the study of the poem Beowulf. Tolkien was among the first to consider the text as a work of art in itself, worthy of being read and studied as such, and not simply as a mine of historical or linguistic information to be exploited. The consensus of the time belittles Beowulf because of the monster battles it features and regrets that the poet does not speak of the real tribal conflicts of the time; for Tolkien, the author of Beowulf seeks to evoke the fate of all humanity, beyond tribal struggles, which makes the monsters essential.

Privately, Tolkien is attracted to "facts of racial or linguistic significance," and in his 1955 lecture The Englishman and the Welshman, which illustrates his view of the concepts of language and race, he develops notions of "inherent linguistic preferences," contrasting "the first language learned, the language of custom" with "the native language." In his case, he considers the West Midlands Middle English dialect his "native language," and as he writes to W. H. Auden: "I am West Midlands by blood (and took a liking to the West Midlands High Middle English as a known language as soon as I saw it).

As a child, Tolkien learned Latin, French and German, which his mother taught him. During his school years, he learned Latin and Greek, Old and Middle English, and developed a passion for Gotic, Old Norse, Welsh, which he discovered as a child through the names written in chalk on the trains that passed by his house in Birmingham, and Finnish. His contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary and the instructions left for the translators of The Lord of the Rings show a more or less extensive knowledge of Danish, Lithuanian, Middle and Modern Dutch, Norwegian, Old Slavic, Russian, Proto-Germanic, Old Saxon, Old High German and Middle Low German.

Tolkien was also interested in Esperanto, then a young international language, born shortly before him. In 1932, he declared: "I have particular sympathy for the claims of Esperanto, but the main reason for supporting it seems to me to be that it has already acquired the first place, that it has received the widest welcome". However, he later qualified his statement in a letter of 1956; according to him, "Volapük, Esperanto, Novial, etc., are dead languages, much more dead than ancient languages that are no longer spoken, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legend".

Constructed languages

In parallel to his professional work, and sometimes even to its detriment (to the point that his academic publications remain quite few), Tolkien had a passion for constructed languages. A lover of words beyond his profession, he had a passion that he called his "secret vice": the pure and simple construction of a whole imaginary vocabulary, with its share of etymological notes and fictional grammars. No less than a dozen constructed languages appear in The Lord of the Rings, through place names or character names, brief discursive allusions or songs and poems. The whole contributes to the verisimilitude of the story, each of the peoples of Middle-earth having its own traditions, history and languages.

Tolkien discusses his personal conception of constructed languages in his essay A Secret Vice, from a lecture given in 1931. The composition of a language, for him, is an aesthetic and euphonious desire, part of an intellectual satisfaction and an "intimate symphony". He says that he started inventing his own languages at the age of 15, and his profession of philologist is only one of the reflections of his deep passion for languages. If he considers the invention of a language as an art form in its own right, he does not conceive that it can exist without having its own "mythology", i.e. a set of stories and legends accompanying its evolution, as shown by his remark on Esperanto. He begins to conceive of his languages before the first legends were written. Considering that there is a fundamental link between a language and the tradition it expresses, he is naturally led to conceive his own legendarium in which his languages are inscribed: he ironically claims to have written The Lord of the Rings only in order to have a framework that would make natural an Elvish greeting of his own composition.

Tolkien worked all his life on his constructed languages without ever really completing them. His pleasure lay more in creating languages than in making them usable. While two of them (Quenya and Sindarin) are relatively developed, with a vocabulary of more than 2,000 words and a more or less defined grammar, many of the others he alludes to in his writings are only just sketched out. These various languages are nevertheless built on serious linguistic bases, with a will to respect the model of natural languages. For example, Khuzdul, the language of the Dwarves, and Adûnaic, the language of the men of Númenor, resemble Semitic languages in certain respects, particularly in their triliteral structure or in the presence of devices such as mimicry. If the Quenya of the High Elves is a language with inflections (like Greek and Latin), its vocabulary and phonology are designed on a model close to Finnish. As for the Sindarin language of the Grey Elves, it is very freely inspired by Welsh in some of its phonological aspects, such as the mutations of initial consonants or "lenitions". Tolkien's languages are not, however, simple "copies" of natural languages and have their own specificities.

Tolkien also imagines several writing systems for his languages: a cursive script (the tengwar of Fëanor) and a runic alphabet (the cirth of Daeron) are illustrated in the body of The Lord of the Rings. A third system, the sarati of Rúmil, appears in Middle-earth, but Tolkien also uses it, in the late 1910s, to write his diary.

Posthumously, edited works by Christopher Tolkien and others:

In addition to the History of Middle-earth and under the aegis of Christopher Tolkien and the Tolkien Estate, the American fanzines Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon and the academic journal Tolkien Studies regularly publish unpublished texts by J. R. R. Tolkien.


  1. J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien
  3. Il existe un ouvrage consacré au travail de Tolkien pour l'Oxford English Dictionary : (en) Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall et Edmund Weiner, The Ring of Words : Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2006 (ISBN 978-0-198-61069-4).
  4. ^ Tolkien pronounced his surname /ˈtɒlkiːn/ TOL-keen.[1][page needed] In General American, the surname is commonly pronounced /ˈtoʊlkiːn/ TOHL-keen.[2]
  5. Carpenter, 1993, Carta n.º 131, de finales de 1951, a Milton Waldman.
  6. Carpenter, 1993, Carta n.º 153, de septiembre de 1954, a Peter Hastings (borrador).
  7. Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien; The Authorised Biography, bladzijde 111, 200
  8. Toerisme na de lockdown: Lauterbrunnen
  9. Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien; The Authorised Biography, bladzijde 44

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