“They say it is the first step that costs the effort. I do not find it so. I am sure I could write unlimited 'first chapters'. I have indeed written many.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an English writer, poet and university professor, best known of course for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But had he not written these precursors to much high fantasy as we know it today, he probably would have gained equal fame for his scholarly work and teaching, including his definitive studies of the epic poem Beowulf. His translation of Beowulf, completed in 1926, was not published until 2015, but his 1920s lectures, particularly “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” had a lasting impact on Beowulf research and criticism.
Born in South Africa on this day in 1892, Tolkien was the son of an influential banker but grew up an impoverished orphan. He lost his father at age 3, then his mother at age 12, but by then both had instilled in him a lifetime love of books, the understanding and use of language, and a spirit of adventure that was to permeate his writing.
“Ronald” was a keen pupil who learned to read and write by age 4 and the rudiments of Latin by age 6. His mother also taught him about botany – the look and “feel” of plants – and helped develop his eye for art and drawing landscapes. As he roamed through the bogs and farms of Worcestershire and read the fantasy works of George MacDonald and the fairy books of Andrew Lang his imagination about things that would form the basis for his epic books was born.
A decorated soldier in World War I, he developed a writing code and became a code-breaker for the English army. His academic career began by working on the Oxford Dictionary, then teaching at Leeds and Oxford. The youngest professor at Leeds, he published A Middle English Vocabulary and a scholarly work on Sir Gawain the Green Knight. At Oxford’s Pembroke College he wrote The Hobbit, which sat unpublished for many years. Once it was out before the public eye, he was encouraged to write a sequel and produced Lord of the Rings.
He and C.S. Lewis belonged to a writing group known as The Inklings and bounced ideas off one-another as their writing progressed. In defining his drive to succeed he once said it is like the words he wrote for one of his characters: “You have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart as you have.”