J.R.R. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein. in what is now South Africa, in January of 1892. His family was of Prussian descent and had migrated from Kreuzburg around 1620. Tolkien was born with the full name, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in the Orange Free State, an area now known as Free State Province. His parents were Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, who also had another son named Hilary. The elder Tolkien worked as a bank manager and had left England with his wife when he was promoted to head the office in Bloemfontein.
When Tolkien was three years old he went to England alongside his mother and brother. This trip was intended as a family vacation, but Arthur Tolkien died before he could join them there. After his death the Tolkien family was without a steady income. The family remained in England, living first with Mabel’s parents, then in Sarehole and a village of Worcestershire. As a young boy he took great pleasure in the exploration of the surrounding towns and villages. He also spent a great deal of time in the forests, experiences which would serve to inspire his later works. One such location was his aunt Jane’s farm, Bag End.
The children were educated at home by their mother and Tolkien was a very focused student. He quickly took on his mother’s love for botany as well as an inclination to draw landscapes. Tolkien was also taught Latin from a young age. Languages would later become a steady passion. The boy could read and write by the age of five, a fact which allowed him to explore books such as Treasure Island and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
When Tolkien was twelve his mother died of diabetes. She was only thirty-four. Tolkien and his brother were sent to live with a family friend, Francis Xavier Morgan with the request to bring the boys up Catholic. He attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham and then later St. Philip’s School. He won a scholarship during these years which allowed him to continue his studies at King Edward’s. These years also saw him become a part of the Officers Training Corps.
In 1911 he enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford where he began staying classics and then English language. He graduated in 1915. At the age of 16 he met Edith Mary Bratt but was banned from speaking with her after he failed some of his exams. Once he was twenty-one he wrote to Edith and asked her to marry him. After a brief interlude she agreed and converted to Catholicism. They were married in March of 1916.
First World War
At the beginning of WWI J.R.R. Tolkien entered a program which allowed him to finish his degree before enlisting in the army. When he finished, he was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was summoned to France in June and assigned as a signals officer. This position did not put him in the danger he had feared. His time in the army was fairly steady until he came down with trench fever. He was sent back to England in November. Tolkien spent the remainder of the war between hospitals and was deemed unfit for further duty. It was during his recovery that he began to write The Fall of Gondolin. It was the first mythological text he had crafted.
In November of 1920 Tolkien officially left the army. His first job was at the Oxford English dictionary where he worked on the history of Germanic words. He went on to work as a tutor. It was during this time period that he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of Lord of the Rings. The home in which he worked is now marked by a blue plaque.
With the second world war looming, J.R.R. Tolkien was given the assignment of code breaker but his services were never requested. In 1945 he became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford. He completed The Lord of the Rings three years later.
These years also saw him translate the “Book of Jonah” and “Beowulf.” In 1961 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and his books were selling incredibly well. Tolkien was not happy about his growing popularity and disliked his new status as a “cult-figure.” He eventually had to take his phone number out of the public directory and move to Bournemouth.
It was in 1971 that Edith Tolkien died, she was eighty-two. Tolkien died two years later in September of 1973 from the combination of a bleeding ulcer and chest infection. He was buried alongside his wife at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.
You can read more about J.R.R. Tolkien here at Britannica.