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15 Things About J. R. R. Tolkien That You May or May Not Know

As you probably know if you’re visiting this blog, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) wrote The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), which are set in a pre-historic era in a version of the world which he called by the Middle English name of Middle-earth, a world peopled by humans, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs (Goblins) and Tolkien’s own creation, Hobbits.

But here are some things that you may not know unless you’ve read his biography by Humphrey Carpenter.

1. Tolkien was a major scholar of the English language, specialising in Old and Middle English, and was twice Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford.

2. In 1997 Tolkien came top of three British polls, organised respectively by Channel 4/Waterstone’s, the Folio Society, and SFX, the UK's leading science fiction median magazine. Readers were asked to vote for the greatest book of the 20th century.

3. The name ‘Tolkien’ is believed to be of German origin; Toll-kühn: foolishly brave, or stupidly clever - hence the pseudonym ‘Oxymore’ (from ‘oxymoron’) which he occasionally used.

4. His father's side of the family seems to have migrated from Saxony in the 18th century, but had become thoroughly Anglicised by the time he was born.

5. His father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, was a bank clerk, and went to South Africa in the 1890s for better prospects of promotion. He was joined by his bride, Mabel Suffield, whose family were from the West Midlands. John Ronald was born in Bloemfontein, S.A., on 3rd January 1892.

6. Tolkien’s memories of Africa were slight but vivid, including an encounter with a large spider.

7. Tolkien spent time in the hamlet of Sarehole, with its mill, just south of Birmingham and in urban Birmingham itself, where he was eventually sent to King Edward's School.

8. In 1900, together with her sister May, Tolkien’s mother was received into the Roman Catholic Church. From then on, both Ronald and his brother Hilary were brought up in that faith and remained devout Catholics throughout their lives.

9. In 1904, Mabel Tolkien was diagnosed as having diabetes, which was usually fatal in those days. She died on 14 November of that year leaving the two orphaned boys without any means of support. A Catholic priest, Father Francis, stepped in to take care of them

10. Tolkien showed that he was gifted with languages from an early age. He mastered Latin and Greek and was becoming more than competent in a number of other languages, both modern and ancient, including Gothic and Finnish. He made up his own languages for fun.

11. When Tolkien was 16, he met a 19 year old young woman called Edith Bratt. They became friends, and gradually this relationship deepened. Father Francis forbade Ronald to see or even write to Edith for three years, until he was 21, for fear that the girl would distract Tolkien from his studies. Ronald obeyed Father Francis to the letter and went up to Exeter College, Oxford in 1911, where he stayed until 1913, when he quickly re-established his relationship with Edith.

12. When studying English Language and Literature, one of the poems Tolkien discovered was the Crist of Cynewulf - he was attracted by the two lines:

‘Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast

Ofer middangeard monnum sended’

‘Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men’.

(‘Middangeard’ was an old word for the ‘middle world’ of Earth, between Heaven and Hell.)

13. During the First World War, Tolkien enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers whilst working on ideas of Earendel the Mariner, who became a star, and his journeyings.

14. Tolkien was sent to active duty on the Western Front, just in time for the Somme offensive. Four months in and out of the dismal trenches took its toll and he caught ‘trench fever’, a form of typhus-like infection.

15. All but one of Tolkien’s close friends had been killed in action during the War. Partly due to his war experiences, he had begun to put his stories into some kind of shape. These initial stories developed into the Book of Lost Tales (not published in his lifetime), in which most of the major stories of The Silmarillion appear in an early form.


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