How does one even start a biography of one of the greatest English authors of all time? This is a brief biography, so we can’t start with his birth and move slowly forward, at least not in any detail. And most people who know the name “Tolkien” will already be familiar with his works, so it scarcely makes any sense to begin with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Where does that leave us, then? I think there is a good possibility left: we should start in the mind. Tolkien’s mind, of course, not our own. Let’s start as a child, and see if we can look out of Tolkien’s head and watch his own story stream past.
The first scene in the Tolkien story seems fairly normal. We peer out of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s eyes as an infant. Around him are his mother, Mabel Suffield, born to a formerly wealthy old-school family, but one that had fallen a bit further down the social ladder than they had grown accustomed to. Mabel’s father delayed the engagement of Mabel and Arthur Tolkien for three years, but at last relented, despite his dislike of the Tolkien family. The Tolkiens themselves were enduring a rough patch; they owned a piano-making business for a while, but no longer ran it. Their family name was not quite so ancient as “Suffield.” The Tolkiens were German, in the not-too-distant past. In true British fashion, it seems that Mabel’s father hadn’t been able to forgive Arthur for that fault.
A closer look at this touching familial scene reveals something interesting. There is Mabel, and there Arthur, now a successful banker. But not a banker in England; around this new Tolkien family isn’t the drab grey of Victorian London, but the hot, dry air of the Highveld. The city is Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State – what we know as South Africa. It is the Bank of Africa Arthur works for, not the Bank of England. This is a young town, a new town, surrounded by high dusty plains populated by wild dogs, jackals, and lions. The year is 1892. The date, January 3.
This scene does not last long; Ronald, as his parents refer to him, leaves in November 1894 for the coastline near Cape Town. The heat of Bloemfontein had not agreed with him, forcing his mother to take her almost-three-year-old son and seek cooler climates. After recovering, she returns to Bloemfontein. Mabel does not like the hot, new city. With the two boys – for Hilary Arthur Tolkien arrived in February 1894 – she leaves for England and a visit to her family. Ronald Tolkien departs, with vague impressions of a hot land and a few fleeting memories of his own father. These are the only memories Ronald will ever make with Arthur.
Next scene. This is a recognizably English countryside. Ronald and Hilary, now young boys, run through summer fields. They spy on the father and son who work at a local mill, grinding bones for fertilizer. The son is covered in the dry, white powder produced in the operation, and his appearance is quite startling. When he discovers Ronald and Hilary, he chases them off. For this, they christen him the “White Ogre.” A deep pond feeds water to turn the wheel and power the mill. The boys are drawn, entranced, to the sluice and the rush of water over the powerful wheel.
Disturbed in their explorations of the mill, they run off. The “Dell” is a favoured blackberry patch, but the path to it weaves through the White Ogre’s farm. He does not approve of trespassing. Nor does the Black Ogre, another neighbour, though his own land produces wonderful mushrooms, which Ronald loves. Finishing their day’s trespassing, the boys run home. A sign marks the edge of the little village – Sarehole.
Mabel Tolkien, Ronald, and Hilary live in this village, settled finally after spending time with Mabel’s family. The village sits outside of Birmingham, and although only a short distance away from the city, feels very much of the countryside. It is a quiet village, and an ideal location for the small family. Ronald and Hilary spend much of their time exploring, but Mabel also begins to give Ronald lessons. By 4, he can read. Soon after, he becomes a proficient writer, loosely adopting his mother’s own peculiar handwriting style, full of extra curls and flourishes.
He begins lessons in Latin (which he loves), and French (which he likes much less). Even now, it is apparent that Ronald loves words – their meanings, their sounds, their origins. Their stories.
He has another love as well – drawing. He draws nature especially well; trees are his favourite, as well as landscapes.
This is the scene of Ronald’s childhood, but before we hurry on, we need to see one more thing. It is the books which Mabel gives Ronald – they will shape him strongly. Alice in Wonderland amuses him; the works of George Macdonald intrigue him. But it is the Fairy Books, written by Andrew Lang and each one focused on a different color, which seem to inspire him. The Red Fairy Book includes one story, about Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir, which particularly entrances the young Ronald.
Years pass. We peer out again, seeing this time not the pastoral scenes of the English countryside, but the chimneys of Edgbaston, Birmingham. It is 1905. A woman moves around a large, dark house, but it is not Mabel Tolkien. This is Beatrice Suffield. In November 1904, Mabel died. She leaves the boys under the direction of Father Francis, a priest at the Oratory, a Catholic institution in Birmingham. Father Francis loves the boys; he tends towards laughter and loudness, and they respond well to him. Father Francis seeks a home for the boys, but Mabel’s Catholic faith does not agree with many of the Suffields. He fears that if the boys live with their grandparents, the Suffields will seek to convert Ronald to Protestantism. He settles them instead with a more distant relation, Aunt Beatrice, whose religious views are as cold as her emotional attachments.
Ronald despises the city. The countryside calls to him, with memories of his mother intertwined with his love of nature. But the countryside is removed from him for now, and instead he devotes himself with increasing ardour to languages.
He attends King Edward’s school, in Birmingham, and begins to excel. The power of words attracts him. He discovers Welsh, which he enjoys, and ancient Greek. He admires Greek, but fails to be entirely seduced by it. But by the time he is sixteen, he has moved up in the ranks of the students. He is in the first class, directly under an insightful teacher (and the headmaster of the school) named Robert Gilson. Gilson recognises Tolkien’s linguistic talents, and pushes him further in the study of Latin, Greek, French, and German. Tolkien begins to go beyond the understanding of the rudiments of grammar and vocabulary, beyond the “how” of those languages. He strives to understand why languages behave as they do, why words mean and sound the way they do. Another teacher, George Brewerton, sees the pull of the older languages on Tolkien’s mind and heart. He introduces Ronald to Anglo-Saxon, Old English, spoken by many of the early kingdoms of Britain.
Through those languages, long dead, Tolkien finds a gateway to new literature. One new style appeals to him, although it is nothing new, but rather an ancient mode of storytelling. The saga beckons him. Through Old English, Tolkien reads Beowulf in the original tongue. Through Middle English, he meets Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These are ancient epics, and stories bound closely to the deep history of the countryside which Tolkien loves so much. The stories, and the form they take, interest him mightily. The words they use fascinate him even more.
We see him now firmly on the path of the philologist, the lover of words. It marks him from this point on; he has grasped the hilt of a powerful sword – though how he will swing it remains to be seen.
Other loves also beckon him. In 1908, Father Francis moves Ronald and Hilary from the dreary care of Aunt Beatrice to the only slightly-less detached supervision of a Mrs. Faulkner. The boys move in, to find no more motherly care than their previous arrangement. Ronald discovers something far more appealing, however, in the companionship of another tenant of Mrs. Faulkner. The nineteen-year-old Edith Bratt lives under the same roof. Older than Ronald by nearly three years, she embodies the beauty, mystery, and friendship he yearns for. In short, he soon regards her as far more than a friend. They carry on a secret romance, but word of a clandestine bicycle ride in the countryside makes its way back, through gossiping tea-ladies and house cooks, to Father Francis. Enraged and feeling betrayed by his young ward – who is supposed to be preparing diligently for the Oxford exams, not flirting with housemates – he separates Ronald and Edith immediately, sending him to a new residence. Though separated, he and Edith continue to meet at different times, till eventually, in March of 1910, she is sent to Cheltenham, and the two are utterly forbidden to communicate for three years. When Tolkien is 21, Father Francis says, he will be no longer under Francis’ authority, and Ronald can do as he wishes.
We see what Father Francis does not: he is only giving the romantic Tolkien a cause to fight for. This stern forbidding will have the opposite effect.
1910 continues. Tolkien fails his first exam for Oxford and does not receive a scholarship. He must now try again in December 1910 – his last chance, as he will be nearly 19. The year passes quickly, with Tolkien one of the Librarians at King Edward’s, an active member of the debate club, and a not-untalented rugby player. A member of many clubs and societies, most of the literary in nature, he begins to experiment with poetry, though most of it is rubbish. He also devotes a fair portion of his time to developing his own languages, something he has already done for years. There are many seeds being planted in these years – seeds which have only just begun to stir.
In December 1910, Tolkien wins what amounts to a partial scholarship to Oxford.
1914, late summer. Ronald Tolkien’s heart is full – he is engaged to Edith Bratt after three years of separation. Having recently come across two short lines in an old Anglo-Saxon collection, he spends part of his summer holiday composing a short poem, incorporating a certain name from the old poem but with entirely original features. It is entitled Earendil the Evening Star.
With this poem, a certain seed of imagination springs, and a new world begins to unfold.
England vanishes entirely. Around us now lie dead men, staring at Tolkien as he passes them. He is marching, with many others, though perhaps marching isn’t the right word. They stumble and ooze their way along communication trenches and deep-cut paths, flowing into the trenches at the very front of the war. After miles of marching, confused orders, and the constant presence of the dead, they go over the top. It is the 14th day of the Battle of Somme. Ronald, who is becoming known to his friends as John Ronald, survives yet another botched attack on the German lines. His battalion, bloodied and defeated, moves to the rear. Another comes forward, and the pattern repeats. The battle will last until November.
By that time, we see Tolkien losing a different battle. His health collapses, a victim of the “trench fever” which afflicted many. He is unable to recover, and we soon see him back aboard a boat for England, convalescence, and his new wife Edith.
Tolkien has three good friends from King Edward’s. They encourage his languages, criticise his poetry, push his stories. They form a tight-knit circle that feeds his artistry and his scholarship, from King Edward’s school through Oxford.
Two are remaining behind Tolkien in the fields of France. They are never leaving. In a last letter from one of them, Tolkien reads these words: “May you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot” (Carpenter, 86).
Author’s note: The above re-telling of Tolkien’s life is heavily indebted to two of the chief biographies of Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography,” and “J.R.R. Tolkien,” by Tom Shippey.