He was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and today is his birthday. J. R. R. Tolkien is revered as the grandfather of sword and sorcery fiction, and the true master and lord of Middle Earth. On this day, January 3, in the year 1892, Tolkien was born to Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Tolkein (neé Suffield).
Today, fan clubs the world over will be doing a special commemoration in honor of the beloved author’s birthday: a toast made to The Professor by anyone with any drink, at the top of the hour of 9 pm, wherever in the world you happen to be.
Tolkien is more than a great author. His work is the foundation of much of western modern culture. Even if you are not a fan yourself, knowledge of this man’s most famous works has somehow made it into your consciousness. While there had been other fantasy authors prior, it was the popularity of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that established him as the father of high fantasy.
Tolkien’s most famous works were actually almost side projects. He wrote them while serving as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor and fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. He published The Hobbit in 1937, and it took another twelve years to write and finish the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was not published in full until 1955, by which time Tolkein was 63 years old.
If you’ve ever wondered where the fascinating languages of Middle Earth came from, the foundations of them came from Tolkein’s childhood. His first experience with invented languages came in his teens, when his cousins, Mary and Marjorie Incledon, were toying with a language they’d invented called Animalic. While their interest in the language waned, Tolkein went on to invent other languages, his first solo work being a language called Naffarin. Appendix F in the back of The Return of the King, the third book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, details some of the work that went into the creation of the various dialects and writing systems of Middle Earth. Alas, these may be the most substantial notes on the languages of Middle Earth that we may ever see.
Tolkien himself lead quite the extraordinary life. After a rather rough and sad early childhood, Tolkien happened upon a bit of good luck in that a dear family friend and priest was willing to support Tolkien in his education. Around this time, Tolkien met and fell in love with Edith Mary Bratt. Their courtship was a bit taboo and took place in villages far from prying eyes. The two biggest objections to Tolkien and Bratt’s relationship was that Edith was older than Tolkien by three years as well as being Protestant while Tolkien himself was Catholic.
Eventually, Tolkien was forbidden from seeing Edith. The two did ultimately come together, for, when Tolkien was of age (21 years old), he was no longer under threat of losing his support of livelihood. He sought his old flame out. She was engaged to someone else, but confessed to him that the only reason she’d said yes was that she’d felt put on a shelf, uncertain that Tolkein cared for her anymore. Tolkien’s letter to her changed everything. The two were married. They had four children together; John Francis Reuel Tolkien, Michael Hilary Reuel Tolkien, Christopher John Reuel Tolkien, and daughter Priscilla Mary Anne Reuel Tolkien.
Tolkien’s second adventure in life was not a matter of love but a matter of war. Tolkien fought in the trenches against the Germans in World War I and suffered greatly from it, though frequent illnesses kept him out of combat frequently enough to possibly have saved his life over all.
Many of his friends did not survive the war. One man very close to him inspired him to chase his dreams of creating his mythical world. His dear friend encouraged him in a letter, telling him to write his story. It was soon after this man’s death that the world that had only lived in Tolkien’s head was poured out into words on paper.
After Tolkien’s death on September 2, 1973, his son Christopher published further writings by his father. And though the Tolkien family renounces the six films made from the four book series, fans of the genre remember where it all came from.
This evening, if you will, at 9 pm, raise your glass, to The Professor. Old traditions are best, especially when you have a part in making them.