John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as he was christened, was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892. His early and barely memorable years were spent divided between the city and a country farm. His father, an English banker, was making efforts to establish a branch in that country. Many of Tolkien's early memories of South Africa, including an incident when he was bitten by a tarantula while visiting a rural district, are reported to have influenced his later works.
He left South Africa to return to England with his mother and his brother, Hilary. His father, Arthur, was supposed also to return to England within the next few months. However, Arthur Tolkien died of rheumatic fever while still in South Africa. This left the grieving family in relatively dire straights and on a very limited income.
They soon moved to Birmingham, England, so that young Tolkien could attend King Edward VI school. His mother, Mabel, converted to Catholicism and the religion would have a long lasting effect on young Tolkien. The family was befriended by the Parish Priest, Father Francis Morgan, who would see the Tolkiens through some troubled times.
An avid reader, Tolkien was influenced by some of the great writers of his day including G.K. Chesterton and H.G. Wells. It was during this period of financial hardship, but intellectual stimulation that Tolkien suffered the loss of his devoted mother. She succumbed to diabetes in 1904 when Tolkien was only 12 years of age.
Father Morgan took over as his guardian, placing him first with an aunt and then at a boarding house for orphans. It was at this boarding house, at the age of 16 that he would meet and fall in love with Edith Bratt. Naturally, their relationship was frowned upon. Tolkien and Edith were caught in affectionate circumstances - they bicycled together out to the countryside surrounding the city and had a picnic.
Edith became somewhat of an obsession for Tolkien, and his guardian, Father Morgan, determined to separate the young couple. For, it seemed that their relationship was interfering with Tolkien's studies and leaving him ill-prepared to take exams to enter college. This was driven home to him when he failed to enter the college on his first try. Tolkien temporarily swore off the love of his life an knuckled down to the work at hand. On his second try he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship to Oxford.
Throughout his life, Tolkien had cultivated a love of language, especially ancient languages. At Oxford he would major in philology, which is the study of words and language. He would be much influenced by Icelandic, Norse and Gothic mythology. Even some of the characters and place names he would later develop would be drawn from the names from ancient sagas. The forest of Mirkwood, which played a prominent roll in both "The Hobbit" and in "The Lord of the Rings" was borrowed from Icelandic mythology. The names of many of the dwarves in "The Hobbit" were actual placenames in the myths.
Having reached the age of maturity in 1914, while still attending college, he looked up his lost love, Edith Bratt, and proposed marriage. She had accepted a proposal from another quarter, but in the end was persuaded to return to Tolkien. They would marry in 1916.
World War I, the "war to end all wars", came in 1914. It would forever mark the end of many of the Empires of Europe and would unleash death across the European Continent. Tolkien lost many of his friends in the war, and he himself would serve as an officer on the front lines at the Battle of the Somme. He caught trench fever in 1917 and was sent back to England to recuperate. He would not see front line service again.
Throughout his schooldays he had been a determined poet and scholar. His interest in language was such that he had even developed his own languages based loosely on Finnish and Welsh. It was while recuperating in Birmingham, with his wife at his side, that he began to create a mythology behind his languages. This work would one day result in his famous books.
It was about this time that Tolkien was blessed with the first of his four children. After the war he was offered a professorship at the University of Leeds. Besides lecturing, he continued work on his mythology. He felt that he, in a sense, was creating England's mythology.
In 1925 Tolkien with a colleague published a translation and analysis of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." It was a turning point in his career. It brought him notice at Oxford where he was offered the professorship of Anglo-Saxon.
"The Hobbit", the work that would make him famous, came out in 1936. He began it one evening while grading exam papers. Seated at his desk, he opened up an exam booklet to find the first page blank. He was surprised and pleased that the student had somehow entirely skipped the page. It seemed an invitation to write, and in that space he began his work on "The Hobbit".
The finished manuscript of "The Hobbit" fell into the hands of George Allen and Unwin, Publishers. Unwin paid his ten year old son a shilling to read the story and report on its publishability. The young man lavished praise on the book, and Unwin decided to take a risk on it.
"The Hobbit" soon became a best seller and made Professor Tolkien famous. He was already well-known as a scholar for his work in Philology, and he was also part of a group of friends who called themselves the Inklings. The center of this group was C.S. Lewis who would long be one of Tolkien's best friends and admirers.
In the late 1930's Tolkien began writing the "Lord of the Rings". Work on the story would go on for ten and a half years. He gave first chance at publication to Allen & Unwin, the publishers of "The Hobbit". But it was rejected by a staff editor when Unwin was away on business in France. The younger "Unwin" was now in the family publishing business. He found out about the rejected manuscript, wrote to his father in France, requesting permission to take on the project. Recalling the success of "The Hobbit", but skeptical about a "hobbit book" written for adults, he acquiesced to his son's request reluctantly.
"The Lord of the Rings" was published in three parts and would become a huge publishing success.
Fame and fortune were both a blessing and a bane for Tolkien. He enjoyed the popularity of his work. Yet, he was burdened with work responding to his adoring public. After his retirement at Oxford, he and his wife Edith moved to Bournemouth in 1966. Edith died in 1971. The loss of his life's companion did not sit well with Tolkien; yet he struggled on for some two years till his death of Pneumonia on 2 September 1973.