Overview of Tolkien’s Life

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Lecture 1: Overview of Tolkien’s Life


Tolkien had a problem, along with Lewis, and as we should, with sentences that begin like this. But he also had a problem with people who tried to understand works of literature as simple extension of biography. At the same time, we cannot simply dismiss the outline of someone’s life as irrelevant to the work they do. An author is more than a simple pipeline or conduit for inspirations from the BEYOND. How Tolkien lived his life, what his worldview was, what influenced him, are all relevant.

Early Life:

Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, the son of an English banker, in the town of Bloemfontein.  His father died when he was four-years-old, and while he was visiting England with his mother. After this, his mother and brother and he remained in England.

Earlier in Africa, when he was first beginning to walk, he was bitten by a tarantula, and ran terrified to a nurse who sucked out the poison. He said this left him with no particular fear of spiders, but perhaps it left him with a peculiar awareness of them? It ought to have. Biographical details do make a difference. Tolkien and his brother were once chased out of a field by a farmer they called the “Black Ogre” who was displeased at their picking of his mushrooms. A nearby inventor of cotton wool dressing was named Dr. Gamgee, and so cotton wool was called gamgee. As you read Tolkien’s biography, a number of obvious connections will be evident.

Tolkien grew up without a father, but under the influence of a gracious, cultivated mother. The small family was not wealthy, but his mother knew Latin, French, and German, and was artistic in her gifts. Tolkien, as we all know now, was brilliant, and had the kind of upbringing which could frequently leave him with his own thoughts – including in his case, invented languages. He loved the sounds of words.

In 1900, his mother was received into the Roman Catholic Church. This caused great tension in the Suffield family (her family), and Tolkien blamed her early death on the treatment she received at their hands. He actually considered her a martyr, and this also helps explain his whole-hearted devotion to the Roman church. Personal loyalties are not always a matter of rational calculus.

Wanting to Conquer the World:

At school, Tolkien developed a friendship with Christopher Wiseman, a son of a Methodist minister. They were both gifted in Latin and Greek, and were both what we Americans call jocks. They were fierce rugby players. During this time, Tolkien made his acquaintance with Anglo-Saxon – a language which combines in a strange way the familial and the remote, both characteristics of Tolkien’s writing.

He met Edith Bratt at this time, his future wife. They were separated for three years before Tolkien could pursue his interest in her. He was Beren; she was Luthien.

The schoolboys formed the TC, BS – Tea Club, Barrovian Society. It was called this because they had tea, and for a time met in Barrow’s Stores. Tolkien, Wiseman, Gilson, and some others, had a deep sense of their own mission. They were not far wrong, and this same mentality surfaces again with the Inklings.

Let one anecdote suffice for this time in his life.

There was a custom at King Edward’s of holding a debate entirely in Latin, but that was almost too easy for Tolkien, and in one debate when taking the role of Greek Ambassador to the Senate he spoke entirely in Greek. On another occasion he astonished his schoolfellows when, in the character of a barbarian envoy, he broke into fluent Gothic; and on a third occasion he spoke in Anglo-Saxon. [citation?]

The Great War:

Tolkien married Edith just before he shipped out. The war is significant, in my view, for two things. First, it represented the breaking of the great schoolboy fellowship. Rob Gilson was killed in action. Smith was killed. Great men were once boys, but boys sometimes know they will be great men.

The other great thing was a close up view of the machinery of modern warfare. This was Mordor. The American War Between the States was the first post-industrial revolution war, but the First World War was the first modern war on such a grand scale. Tolkien never forgot what he called the “animal horror” of trench warfare. The modern age clanks, grinds, and devours.


After the war, Tolkien got his first academic position at Leeds. He helped put the English department there on the map. But when a position opened at Oxford in 1925, a professorship of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien applied for it and was accepted. Tolkien’s interest in this subject was far more than academic; it was a religious issue for him. This can be misunderstood, so let us use the term lifeview, or worldview.

It was at Oxford that he met C.S. Lewis. The two men were wary of one another at first. Lewis wrote in his journal “No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” More on this later in the course.

Lord of the Rings:

England had no mythology, unlike the Scandinavian nations, and unlike the Mediterranean nations. Tolkien’s avowed aim was to write one. But “inventing” for him was more a matter of “finding out.” Is all this true? he was once asked. One hopes, he replied.

The writer does not bring things into existence; he finds. When he finds, he assembles. But as a sub-creator, he never creates ex nihilo.

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