Tuesday would have been J.R.R Tolkien’s 131st birthday. He’s one of the most popular writers of all time, with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit” having both sold over 150 million copies. The books have been adapted into Oscar-winning films, and his writing about the world of Middle Earth recently launched a successful Amazon Prime series and has been cited as an inspiration by many writers of the fantasy genre.

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To celebrate his birthday, here are facts about J.R.R. Tolkien’s life that even a hobbit may not know.

Childhood and family life

  • John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on Jan. 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein in the former Orange Free State of Southern Africa, the oldest of two sons born to Arthur Reuel and Mabel Suffield Tolkien. He was called Ronald by his family.
  • The family moved to Birmingham, England, when Tolkien was 3 years old.
  • Tolkien was introduced to languages by his mother, teaching him the basics of Latin at a very young age. In addition to English, he would learn over 35 other languages including Middle English, Old English, Greek, French, Spanish, Finnish, German, Gothic, Old Norse, Welsh and Medieval Welsh.
  • Tolkien and his mother were not the only language lovers in the family. His cousins Mary and Marjorie Incledon invented a language called “Animalic” and taught it to Tolkien when he was around 10 years old. This was probably Tolkien’s first introduction to a made-up language, and he would go on to construct the many languages and dialects spoken in Middle Earth.
  • By the age of 12, Tolkien was orphaned, losing his father to rheumatic fever and his mother to diabetes. A Catholic priest became Tolkien’s legal guardian.
  • While his mother was sick, young Tolkien would often stay at the home of his maternal aunt, Jane Neave, at a farm in Worcestershire called Bag End.

Marriage and life as a soldier

  • Tolkien married Edith Bratt in 1916. Edith would inspire the characters of Lúthien Tinúviel from “The Silmarillion” and Arwen Undómiel from “The Lord of the Rings.” The name Lúthien is engraved on Edith’s gravestone.
  • He studied at Exeter College, Oxford, graduating in 1915 with first-class honors in English language and literature, with Old Norse as his special subject.
  • Tolkien served in the British Army during World War I. He reached the rank of lieutenant, serving as Battalion Signals officer and frequently worked close to the front lines. He fought in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Two of Tolkien’s two close friends died during the battle. During the battle he contracted trench fever and was sent home to England. In the spring of 1918, while still in the hospital, Tolkien received word that all of his battalion still serving had been killed or taken prisoner during the Battle of Chemin des Dames. While Tolkien was very clear about his dislike of allegory, in the foreword to “The Lord of the Rings” he compares the Dead Marshes to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.
  • While serving, Tolkien developed a secret code to get around army censorship and communicate his whereabouts to Edith.

Writing career

  • The first story that Tolkien wrote was “The Fall of Gondolin” in 1917 on the back of military marching sheet music in the army barracks.
  • His first civilian job was with the Oxford English Dictionary, working on the origin and history of words beginning with W.
  • In 1920, he took a post at the University of Leeds, teaching English literature and language. He taught classes on Old English heroic verse, Germanic philology, Middle and Old English philology, Gothic, Old Icelandic, Medieval Welsh, and various Middle and Old English texts. He spent most of his academic career teaching at Oxford University.
  • In addition to his own writing, Tolkien also translated older works. His translations of “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” are particularly significant. A 1936 lecture given by Tolkien on “Beowulf,” which was later published as “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” has influenced generations of scholars, with literary critic Alvin A. Lee writing, “Tolkien’s manifesto and interpretation have had more influence on readers than any other single study, even though it has been challenged on just about every one of its major points.”
  • The inspiration for “The Hobbit” came to Tolkien one day as he was grading papers and he began to tell stories of Middle Earth to his young children as bedtime stories. Tolkien would often contradict small details in the stories and his children’s complaints led him to write them down. The stories were never intended to be published. They were unintentionally passed into the hands of a staff member of the publisher George Allen & Unwin by a family friend. Publisher Stanley Unwin’s 10-year-old son, Rayner, gave the book a good review and it was published in 1937.
  • At the behest of his publishers, he began to write a sequel to “The Hobbit” soon after. It was not completed until 1949 and the original manuscript totaled 9,250 pages. Intended as one novel, “The Lord of the Rings” was published in three volumes — “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” — between 1954 and 1955. It received mixed reviews, but proved popular on college campuses, especially in the 1960s and ’70s. “Frodo Lives” and “Gandalf for President” were common graffiti slogans during the hippie movement.

Other facts and trivia

  • Tolkien was a great friend of another member of the English Literature Department at Oxford — C.S. Lewis. They would meet as part of the writing group the Inklings at the Oxford pub, The Eagle and Child. A frequently told story is that Lewis put the lamppost into “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” simply because Tolkien said a good fantasy story would never have one, according to Bustle.
  • Tolkien was a horrible driver, and only held a driver’s license for a short period of time.
  • He was so against Hitler and the Nazi party that he considered forbidding a German translation of “The Hobbit” in 1937. Later writing in a letter, “I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler. ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
  • Tolkien hated The Beatles, and complained in letters about how loud his neighbors played their music, according to the Chicago Tribune.
  • March 25 is Tolkien Reading Day.
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