Biography – The Tolkien Estate


the signs

at oxford tolkien met c.s. Lewis, a colleague in the English department. they soon discovered a shared love of northern myths and legends and would chat late into the night, ‘of the gods & giants & asgard’. they were invited to attend the meetings of a club of university students called the inklings and when the club later failed, they added the name to a group of their own friends who met in pubs or university halls to read aloud their papers in progress, to drink, talk and debate. the indications, and c.s. Lewis in particular would be crucial in encouraging Tolkien to finish his great work.

the hobbit

in his spare time he continued to work on his legendarium; sketching thousands of years of history, inventing languages, writing stories, drawing maps and painting landscapes. He also made up stories for his four children: John (born 1917), Michael (born 1920), Christopher (born 1924), and Priscilla (born 1929). Some of these stories were written and illustrated, and one of them, The Hobbit, found its way to an editor’s assistant, who convinced Tolkien to submit it for publication. was published by george allen & unwin in 1937 with illustrations, maps and dust jacket design by tolkien himself. the first print run sold out in three months and became a perennial children’s classic.

lord of the rings

the success of the hobbit led its publisher, stanley unwin, to ask for more information on hobbits. Tolkien submitted some of the unfinished tales in prose and verse of “The Silmarillion” instead, but when these were roundly rejected, he sat down to write a sequel to Hobbit. the story quickly outgrew its original form as a children’s story and became an epic fantasy tale for adults. it took twelve years to complete, at the end of which Tolkien reflected, somewhat ruefully, that he had produced a “monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter and very frightening romance, utterly unsuitable for children.” the work, the lord of the rings, was as much a sequel to the hobbit as it was to its unpublished legendarium, ‘the silmarillion’. In fact, the works were so closely related in Tolkien’s mind that he decided that The Lord of the Rings could only be published together with the still unfinished ‘Silmarillion’. His publisher balked at the idea, and lengthy negotiations with a rival publisher, Collins, also stalled. three years later, tolkien wrote a chastened letter to george allen & unwin, declaring, ‘better something than nothing’. the enormous size of the work and doubts as to its potential readership were the main concerns, but rayner unwin (son of sir stanley) was convinced of its merits and decided to publish it even if the company suffered a financial loss. It appeared in three volumes between 1954 and 1955. Literary critics were divided on its merits, but sales far exceeded the publisher’s and author’s expectations and it has continued to sell in staggering numbers and to be translated into an increasing number of languages.

later career

in 1945, while still struggling to finish lord of the rings, tolkien was elected merton professor of english language and literature at oxford. His academic focus now shifted from Old English to Middle English and he had to prepare a whole new set of lectures and seminars for texts he had not taught since 1925. In the same year he published a short allegorical story, Leaf, by Niggle, which reflected some from his own concerns that the lord of the rings would never be completed. A few years later he published another short story, The Comic Tale of Farmer Ham Giles, illustrated by Pauline Baynes. He retired in 1959 after having worked as a professor at Oxford for thirty-four years.


on retiring, tolkien hoped to complete ‘the silmarillion’, which he had been working on for over forty years, and which his publisher (and his readers) were now clamoring for. however, the success of Lord of the Rings created its own workload for him and he was constantly called upon to answer fan mail, give interviews and make appearances. He too had academic work to complete and his long-awaited edition of Ancrene Wisse, a work of medieval prose, was finally published in 1962. That same year he published a volume of Middle-earth poetry, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. A short fairy tale, Smith of Wootton Major, was published in 1967, which Tolkien described as “a book for old men already fraught with the foreshadowing of ‘mourning'”, and in 1968 he collaborated with composer Donald Swann to produce a songbook, the path continues.

He and Edith moved from Oxford to Bournemouth in 1968, hoping that in relative seclusion he could complete his life’s work. However, Edith’s health was already failing and she died in November 1971, leaving Tolkien deprived after fifty-five years of marriage. He returned to Oxford to live in a flat owned by Merton College, but completing “The Silmarillion” proved too big a task for him. he died on 2 september 1973, at the age of eighty-one, while visiting friends in bournemouth and is buried in oxford next to his loving wife edith. his tombstone is marked with the additional names, beren and lĂșthien, whose love defeated the dark lord and vanquished death itself in the first age of middle-earth.

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