While he’s remembered today as one of the leading writers of the high fantasy genre, his literary accomplishments were far more sweeping and important.
J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa
Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, in the Republic of South Africa. The area is now known as Free State Province. His father was a bank manager. The couple left England when Arthur Tolkien was promoted to the head office of the bank he worked for. One of the best-known events from his childhood was an accident in which he was bitten by a baboon spider. He admitted to having no recollection of the event but many fans, and some scholars, have suggested that it might’ve influenced his later writings.
Tolkien felt that many of his fans were “lunatics”
In his own eyes, Tolkien was a writer and a scholar. He was an academic and spent a great deal of time imbuing his literary works with meaning. This meant that he was skeptical of his more passionate fans who he thought did not understand the depth of the books Tolkien wrote. He is noted as having once described his fans as “my deplorable cultus” and said that “many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I’m not.”
He considered his work as a linguist and translator his most important job
While he is best remembered for his fantasy novels today, it was his translation of Old, Middle English, and Old Norse texts, as well as his more general work with the languages, that he felt, was his most important contribution to the literary world. He specialized in English philology and Old Norse at university and worked on the Oxford English Dictionary starting in 1918. He taught courses in Old English and Middle English texts, Old Icelandic, and Medieval Welsh, among others. Some of his best-known translations are of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War.
He entered the First World War in 1914 after delaying enlistment for a period of time. He was committed as a temporary second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers in mid-1915 and trained in Staffordshire. He boarded a troop transport in mid-1916 to Calais where he was sent to the British Expeditionary force’s base. He was assigned the role of a signal officer. During this time period, he wrote poetry to stave off boredom. He later participated in the assaults at the Somme and Regina Trench. At the latter, Tolkien contracted trench foot and he was sent back to England in November 1916.
Tolkien had a long-lasting friendship with fellow author C.S. Lewis.
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis famously had a friendship and rivalry as the primary fantasy writers of their time. They first met at a Merton College English Faculty meeting after which Lewis described Tolkien as a “smooth, pale, fluent little chap” who “only needs a smack or so” but with “no harm in him.” The two soon discovered they shared several interests, including mythology and poetry. They often served one another as the “first readers” of new literary works. The two also shared past tragedies, such as the death of their parents and experiences in the First World War.
Interestingly enough, Tolkien’s wife, Edith, was apparently jealous of their friendship. Their relationship started to come to an end when Tolkien became bothered by Lewis’s anti-Catholic sentiments and troubles in his personal life.
He enjoyed inventing languages
The invention of languages, what Tolkien called glossopoeia, was something that he started doing when he was a teenager. One of his earliest projects included reconstructing an unrecorded language that might’ve been used by the people of the German Heroic Age. Later in life, he created Elvish languages, such as that which he later called Quenya, and he worked on it while at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. This was a pursuit he enjoyed until his death in 1973.
He created at least fifteen different languages in the Elvish language family, divided up into three periods. They were Early, which included Quenya and Goldogrin, Mid: including Telerin and Avarin, and Late: including the transition of Noldorin to Sindarin. In addition to the Elvish languages and dialects, he also created languages for the Ents, Orcs, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits, and more.
Tolkien spoke dozens of languages
In addition to his prolific creation of languages, Tolkien was also skilled at learning languages. He is thought to have learned Danish, Dutch, French, German, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Latin, Lombardic, Middle and Old English, Old Norse, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh. The more ancient of these languages were part of his scholarly work with texts such as The Prose Edda and Beowulf.
Tolkien married and had four children
When he was sixteen years old, Tolkien met Edith Mary Bratt, a woman three years his senior. They courted for a period of time before his guardian, Father Morgan, forbid him from seeing her until he was 21, thinking that she was a distraction from his studies. He obeyed, only writing to her on the eve of his 21st birthday when he asked her to marry him. She had already accepted another’s proposal but was relieved to know that Tolkien still loved her. They got married on March 22nd, 1916 at St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church, Warwick. The two had four children together, John Francis, Michael Hilary, Christopher Joh, and Priscilla Anne.
Almost half of his works were published after his death
After his death, Tolkien’s son Christopher, who was appointed literary executor, helped gather some of his father’s works. He organized the material that was later published as The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, The Fellowship of the Ring, and more.