J.R.R. Tolkien was born on January 3rd, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His parents, Mabel and Arthur Tolkien, were British but worked in a bank in South Africa. He was a sickly child, so he and his mother and brother (Hilary, born 1894) went back to England for a change of climate in 1895. His father stayed behind, but died suddenly in February 1896.
They settled in the village of Sarehole, near Birmingham. This rustic village later became the inspiration for The Shire in LotR. In 1900, the family converted to Catholicism, a move that angered many relatives and stopped the flow of financial aid. Tolkien was accepted to the prestigious King Edward VI school that year but had to drop out due to lack of funds. However, in 1903 he won a scholarship and was able to re-enroll.
In 1904, tragedy struck again when Tolkien's mother died of diabetes. Prior to her death, Mabel Tolkien entrusted the boys with a priest, Father Francis Morgan, so that they would remain Catholic. Father Morgan found the boys lodging first at an aunt's home and then at a boarding house. At the boarding house, he met and fell and love with Edith Mary Bratt. However, she was of a different faith and was three years older than him, so the relationship was secretive. When they were discovered, Edith was sent to an uncle's house and the two were forbidden to communicate.
Tolkien entered Oxford University in 1911, at Exeter College. He studied Anglo-Saxon and other languages, and began work on Elvish and the histories that later became The Silmarillion. After completing four years at Oxford, Tolkien enlisted in the army for World War I. Before leaving for the trenches, he married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Mary. During the war, he acquired a severe case of "trench fever" and had to be sent to hospital. It was in this hospital that Tolkien completely worked out his Silmarillion histories. In 1918, his first son, John Francis Reuel Tolkien, was born.
After the war he moved his family back to Oxford, where he became a professor. His accomplishments there included contributing to the Oxford English Dictionary, translating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and interpreting Old English works such as Beowulf. Three more children arrived, Michael, Christopher and Priscilla. In 1928, while grading papers, he came across a page left blank. He wrote on it, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." The Hobbit was written based on this sentence. It was first published in 1937 on the advice of ten-year-old Raynor Unwin, son of the owner of a publishing firm.
When asked by the publisher for another hobbit-story, he submitted The Silmarillion, but it was rejected as unpublishable. He then started work on what later became The Lord of the Rings. He regularly read portions of it to the Inklings, an informal Oxford club that included C.S. Lewis. The first draft was finally completed in 1947, and and the final draft was completed in 1949. Tolkien estimated that it had taken him 14 years to write. When he finally submitted it to the publisher in 1950, it was rejected, much to his embarrassment. However, Raynor Unwin learned about it a year or two later, and wanted it published although he thought it would mean a loss for the publishing company.
Unwin split LotR into three parts: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King and staggered their publication. The final volume was published earlier than initially intended, in late 1955, due to popular demand. It quickly became a bestseller. In 1965, it was re-published, complete with an index and appendices. He was asked to write another book in the series, and so he started working on The Silmarillion once more. This would take the rest of his life.
Lord of the Rings gained a huge fan following. He received thousands of letters from all over the world. However, he didn't like fame, and tried to stay away from the public eye as much as possible. It has been said that it was easier for a reporter to get an interview with the British prime minister than with Tolkien. In 1971, his wife died, a loss which depressed him greatly. In early 1973, he receieved an award from Queen Elizabeth, the Order of the British Empire, which is one rank below knighthood. Had Tolkien lived longer, he would probably have been knighted. But later that year, on September 2, 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien died at the age of eighty-one.
The Silmarillion was far from completed, and Tolkien's son Christopher took it upon himself to finish it. In 1977, it was finally published. Demand for it was huge, and before the end of the year, one million copies had been printed. Tolkien's works continue to be popular today. LotR was recently voted "Book of the Century" in England. An animated version of LotR came out in the late 1970's. However, it was widely considered to be disappointing. Currently, Peter Jackson is filming a live-action version of LotR in New Zealand, with the first installment out in December 2001. Tolkien's legacy continues on.