Merely mentioning the name J.R.R. Tolkien conjures up fantasies. Though his trilogy The Lord of the Rings is well known, not much else is known about the man who was a scholar before anything else. It is, in fact, the cult scale popularity of the trilogy that obscures the many accomplishments that marked his life. He won an exhibition, or a middle class merit scholarship, to Oxford University in 1911. By the time he attained his bachelor’s degree, he was conversant in seven languages and had created another. His definitive translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still used in colleges today. In the end, though, it will be the popularity of the trilogy for which Professor Tolkien will be remembered.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa to a rather well to do banker. His early life was comfortable if middle class, but it lasted only a few years. His father died before he was five, and Tolkien spent the majority of his remaining life in what he called "genteel poverty." His linguistic genius emerged around the age of eight while his mother was tutoring him in Greek and Latin. It was around this time that Tolkien began devising a language of his own which would later develop into Elvish--a language complete with poetry and history, but not yet a people. In 1904, his mother died, leaving him and his brother orphaned and in the charge of a Catholic priest in Birmingham. Through this priest, the direction of his life would emerge. He met his future wife in the boarding house where the priest had him and his younger brother lodged. Also while in the boarding house he merited a scholarship to King Edward VI High School with the recommendation of the same priest. In high school, he made a few life long friendships as well as began in earnest his linguistic training. Before graduating he would speak 5 languages including Welsh and Anglo-Saxon. Upon graduation he entered Exeter College of Oxford University and continued his philology training. With his BA in philology in hand, Tolkien received a commission and went to war with the rest of his generation. Lt. Tolkien was one of the few men to survive the great Somme offensive, and the experience would affect the remainder of his life. Immediately after the war he returned to academia where he would spend the bulk of his time in a few very distinguished positions in the English department of Oxford University. It is during this time that Professor Tolkien began to write. Much later on he would retire comfortably on the earnings from his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings.
One common reading of this trilogy is that it is a Christian allegory. Tolkien was, indeed, a devout Catholic. It is possible, like his life long friend C.S. Lewis, that Tolkien passed into his work the values of his religious views. It has been suggested (though not by the professor himself) that Tolkien recreated God’s world as it was supposed to be before the fall....