Tolkien: A Biography

Tolkien: A Biography

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by Michael J. White

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Tolkien: A Biography by Michael White is a comprehensive, in-depth, and entertaining biography of one of the greatest and most influential fantasy authors of modern time, J.R.R. Tolkien.


Tolkien: A Biography by Michael White is a comprehensive, in-depth, and entertaining biography of one of the greatest and most influential fantasy authors of modern time, J.R.R. Tolkien.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)
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18 Years

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Tolkien: A Biography • Copyright 2003 by Michael White • 0-451-21242-8 • NAL Trade

Chapter 1


Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is pedalling fast and he can feel the sweat under his collar. It’s a warm, early summer afternoon soon after the end of college term and the traffic along The High is light. By midday he has seen a post-graduate student and addressed the problems she had interpreting an Anglo-Saxon text, bought fresh ink and paper in a shop on Turl Street, returned a book to the college library and found the copy of a poem he was writing for The Oxford Magazine which he had lost among the papers in his college room a week earlier. He normally makes sure to be home for lunch with the family, but today he had to attend a faculty meeting and this meant he was obliged to lunch in college. Now he is returning home to begin ploughing through a daunting pile of School Certificate exam papers that has been on his desk since the beginning of the week.

As he passes Carfax Tower in the centre of Oxford the clock strikes three and he begins to peddle still faster; at best, he calculates, he may have just two hours in his study before he has to cycle back into town again for another meeting, this time in the Senior Common Room at Merton College over a late tea, and as he rides he calculates that he might at best manage to mark three exam papers.1

Up the Banbury Road he cycles, and turning right and then left, he emerges onto Northmoor Road where at Number 20, the Tolkien family have lived since early that year, 1930. As Tolkien swings his leg over the saddle and balances on one side of the still moving bike, he glides through the side gate and along the path. He greets his wife, Edith, by poking his head around the kitchen door and smiling. But then he sees that his baby daughter, five-month-old Priscilla is awake and gurgling merrily in her mother’s arms. He walks over and pecks his wife on the cheek and tickles Priscilla under the chin before heading back to the door and striding along the corridor to his study at the south side of the house.

Tolkien’s study is a cosy room lined with bookshelves that create a tunnel as you enter the room before they fan out to each side. The professor’s desk is positioned so he has a view southward toward a neighbour’s garden directly ahead of him, and to his right is another large window that faces the road across an expanse of well-manicured lawn. On his desk, Tolkien has a writing pad and a collection of pens in a container, and to each side, papers are piled. On the left are examination papers to be read (a tall pile) and to the right, papers already read (a significantly smaller stack).

Tolkien makes himself comfortable at the desk, pulls his pipe from the pocket of his jacket, stuffs it full with fresh tobacco and lights the pipe with exaggerated care. Sucking on the pipe, he leans over to pluck the top paper from the pile on his left, brings it in front of him and starts to read.

Marking School Certificate exam papers, the work of sixteen-year-olds, is tedious and almost always boring, but it helps pay the bills and with a wife and four children to support, Tolkien needs to augment his professor’s salary. Soulless as the work usually is, Tolkien takes pride in reading each piece of work carefully and pays attention to every detail. And so, for the next half hour he concentrates upon a single manuscript. Occasionally he scribbles a comment in the margin and once in a while he places a small tick at the end of a paragraph. He slowly turns the pages and all around is peace and silence broken only by the visit of a bird to the window ledge and a light breeze brushing leaves upon the study window.

After a while, Tolkien is satisfied he has judged the exam paper fairly and places it on the right-hand pile before plucking another from the pile to his left. For a further few minutes he reads the opening pages of this new paper and then, turning the page, he is surprised to see before him a blank sheet of paper. Pausing just for a moment and feeling as though he had been rewarded for his day’s labours – one fewer page to mark – he leans back in his chair and looks around the room. Suddenly, his eye is drawn to the carpet close to one of the desk legs. He notices a tiny hole in the fabric and stares at it for long moments, day-dreaming. Then, he turns back to the paper in front of him and begins to write: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ ...

Although Tolkien had no idea why he wrote this and even less awareness of how much this outpouring from his subconscious would mean for him, his family, and the future of English literature, he knew that with that single sentence he had written something interesting, so interesting in fact that he was then inspired to, as he later put it, ‘find out what hobbits are like’.

And in that moment, from a single sentence, generated perhaps by boredom, a sentence that maybe had been trying to find expression for a long time, came the impetus that would lead to the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Along with The Silmarillion and a vast collection of miscellaneous notes on the mythology of Middle-earth, his work would, in the fullness of time, become globally famous, give pleasure and offer inspiration to millions and play a crucial role in creating an entire literary genre, that of fantasy fiction. Within a few years of that fateful afternoon, many thousands would know a great deal about hobbits and by the 1960s, hobbits and the world in which they lived would become as familiar as any Hollywood star or Royal figurehead. For many, Middle-earth is considered more than a fantasy realm. From what could have been a mere one-off line scribbled on a scrap of paper in the study of an obscure professor’s study, Tolkien’s writings took on a life of their own, they blossomed into heroic tales, self-contained, self-consistent and utterly absorbing; a mythology for the modern mind.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s family background was, in many ways, completely unremarkable, almost plain. His father, Arthur Tolkien, was a bank clerk who worked at Lloyds bank in Birmingham. Arthur’s father, John had been a piano manufacturer and sheet-music seller, but by the time Arthur Tolkien had come of age, Tolkien pianos had stopped selling, the business was liquidated and John Tolkien was made bankrupt.

Arthur was acutely aware of the dangers of self-employment, which in part accounts for his decision to opt for a safe job with the local bank. But promotion within the Birmingham branch of Lloyds was to prove slow, and in spite of his enthusiasm, Arthur knew the only chance of preferment would come from filling dead men’s shoes. So when, late in 1888, the offer of a position overseas came up, he did not have to think too long or too hard about whether or not to take it.

The job was in the outpost of Bloemfontein in South Africa working for the Bank of Africa. This, Arthur knew, offered huge potential for a young man with ambition. The Orange Free State of which Bloemfontein was the capital was becoming an important mining region with new gold and diamond discoveries encouraging investment from European and American venture capitalists. The only problem for Arthur was that a year before he set sail for the Cape, he had fallen in love and proposed to a rather pretty eighteen-year-old woman named Mabel Suffield, and making this career move would mean leaving her behind.

Mabel’s family, the Suffields, did not entirely approve of young Arthur and hoped for something better for their daughter. However, this was an opinion based upon snobbery rather than anything to do with the character of Arthur Tolkien. The Suffields considered the Tolkiens to be little more than impoverished immigrants (although they could trace back their English ancestry several centuries before looking further still to distant family roots in Saxony), but they had their own social inadequacies. Mabel’s father was the son of a draper who had managed his own shop but his business had crumbled and he was as bankrupt as Tolkien. By the time Arthur and Mabel met, John Suffield was working as a travelling salesman for a disinfectant company called Jeyes.

Little of this influenced Arthur or Mabel, except that Mr Suffield prohibited his daughter from marrying her sweetheart for at least two years after young Tolkien proposed to her, which meant that when Arthur took the posting abroad, Mabel was obliged to wait for news from her fiancé and hope that soon his prospects would allow her to travel out there to join him so they could be wed.

Arthur did not disappoint. By 1890, he had been made manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa and was set for the fast track. Feeling suitably settled, he wrote to Mabel Suffield to ask her to join him so they could marry. Mabel was now twenty-one and the couple had kept their relationship blossoming past the two-year condition Suffield had imposed, so, ignoring any misgivings of her family, in March 1891, Mabel bought herself a ticket for the steamer Roslin Castle and was soon on her way to the Cape.

Today, Bloemfontein, set in the heart of the Orange Free State, is a rather nondescript city, but towards the end of the nineteenth century when Arthur Tolkien first arrived there, it was little more than a ramshackle collection of a few hundred buildings. Strong winds blow in from the desert and sweep through the town. Now, most residents can shelter in air-conditioned malls and homes; in the 1890s there were few creature comforts and life was little better for the white settlers than it is now for the black Africans who live in a shanty town that girdles the modern city centre of Bloemfontein.

The couple were married in Cape Town Cathedral on 16 April 1891 and they spent a brief honeymoon at a hotel in nearby Sea Point. But when the excitement and the novelty had passed, Mabel quickly realised that life in this place was not going to be easy.

She was soon desperately lonely and found it hard to make friends amongst the other settlers in the town. Most of the population were Afrikaans, descendants of Dutch settlers and they did not mix readily with the English population. The Tolkiens met other ex-pats from Britain, Mabel played hostess, but she found the town lacking in almost every respect. There was a tennis court, a few shops and a small park; it was a far cry from the bustle of Birmingham and the constant excitement of big city life. She also hated the climate, the scorching hot and humid summers and the freezing winters.

But she had no choice but to try to adapt. Arthur was working flat-out to make his mark in the Bank of Africa and was rarely at home. He seemed to be enjoying himself, which only exacerbated the situation. Arthur had his friends at work and was constantly busy, so there was not much time for him to ponder the less attractive aspects of life in Bloemfontein. He appears to have spared little thought on Mabel’s unhappiness and saw it as a passing depression she would get over soon enough.

Mabel did try to make the most of things and was clearly devoted to her husband. Sometimes she managed to drag him away from the bank and they would go off on long walks together or play tennis at the town’s single club. At other times the two of them simply sat and read to each other at home.

And if Mabel was merely bored then all that soon changed when she discovered she was pregnant with their first child. They were both delighted, but Mabel was also concerned that the town could not provide adequate health care for her and a new-born baby. She hinted that it might be best for them to take a break and return to England to have the baby, but Arthur constantly argued that he could not afford the time, and so Mabel decided that, on balance, she would rather stay and take her chances in Bloemfontein than face the long journey home and childbirth without a husband there to support her.

Their son was born on 3 January 1892. They called him John, but there was some debate over the boy’s full name. Arthur insisted they keep up the tradition of ‘Reuel’, a middle name that had been given to several of the Tolkien boys over the generations, whereas Mabel preferred Ronald. Eventually they agreed upon both, so the baby was christened in Bloemfontein Cathedral on 31 January 1892 with the names John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. However, he was never called John by anyone. His parents, and later his wife, called him Ronald. At school he was often referred to by his friends as John Ronald, and at university he was called ‘Tollers’, a rather gauche epithet typical of the time. To his colleagues, he was called J.R.R.T. or more formally Professor Tolkien. To the world, he became known as J.R.R. Tolkien, or most usually just plain Tolkien.

His earliest days, the start of his childhood in South Africa, was every bit as exotic as one would expect and a world away from what he would have experienced if those years had been spent in Birmingham. A few family tales have survived and were remembered into adulthood by Tolkien then related to his own children. There was the time the neighbour’s monkey escaped and leapt the fence to enter the family’s garden where it proceeded to rip asunder three of the boy’s pinafores hanging on the washing line. On another occasion, one of the servants, a house-boy named Isaak decided to take baby Ronald to show him off to his family who were living on the outskirts of the town. Amazingly, the Tolkiens did not sack him on the spot.

It was certainly a dangerous environment in which to raise a child. The weather went from extreme to extreme and the baby’s first South African summer was a trial for Mabel. The flies were incessant, the heat unrelenting. The garden harboured deadly snakes and dangerous insects aplenty and when the baby was little over a year old he was bitten by a tarantula. His life was saved only by the quick wits and skill of his nanny who located the bite and sucked out the venom.2

Life improved greatly for Mabel soon after the baby was born. Arthur was still deeply entrenched at the bank, but in the spring of 1892, Mabel’s sister and brother-in-law, May and Walter Incledon, arrived in Bloemfontein. Walter had business interests in South Africa and decided to spend some time surveying the gold mines of the area. Mabel now had plenty of company and some help with the baby, but even so, she was becoming homesick and more and more resentful of Arthur spending his entire time away from the family. Things were further complicated when she discovered she was pregnant again.

Hilary Tolkien was born on 17 February 1894, and not a moment too soon for Mabel who had had to endure a particularly brutal summer heavily pregnant. Not surprisingly, soon after the birth she hit a new low. Her sister and brother-in-law had returned to Europe and she had to face the prospect of raising two very young children in this hostile environment and with little help from her husband. She was lucky that Hilary turned out to be a healthy child, but Ronald was constantly ill with childhood complaints – a bad chest that was made worse by the heat and dust in the summer and the chill wind in winter, and later, a succession of skin complaints and eye infections. By November 1894, Mabel was desperate for a change of scene and some fresher air and took the boys to Cape Town for a much needed holiday. Arthur, who (if he could only have admitted it) also needed a break, was adamant he could not allow himself time off for even a short vacation. He stayed in Bloemfontein for yet another punishing summer.

Upon their return, it was clear Mabel had now set her heart on the family having an extended break away from the dust and the wind. She tried hard to persuade Arthur to take time to visit his family in England. He had been away from home for almost six years, he deserved a sabbatical at least. But he would hear none of it, claiming that an extended leave could endanger his position within the bank. Instead, it was agreed that Mabel and the boys would return to England without him and spend the South African summer there. If all went well he could join them later.

So, in April 1895, Mabel, Ronald and Hilary sailed from Cape Town aboard the SS Guelph. Three weeks later, they docked at Southampton where they were met by Mabel’s youngest sister, Emily Jane who was introduced to the boys as Aunt Jane. They travelled to Birmingham by train and a room was found for them in the tiny Suffield home in the King’s Heath district of the city.

It was extremely cramped. Mabel and the boys shared a bed, and five other adults lived in the house; Mabel’s parents, her sister, their younger brother, William, and a lodger, a young, blond insurance clerk named Edwin Neave who, when he wasn’t flirting with Jane, entertained Ronald by playing the banjo and singing music-hall songs. But compared with the Orange Free State, life was comfortable; the weather was mild, the wind did not howl through the rafters so hard it seemed the house would fall down, there were no tarantulas in the garden nor snakes in the grass. Mabel missed her husband, but then he had chosen not to join them. For Mabel, the welfare of the boys came first.

As one would expect, Arthur missed his family. He wrote frequently and expressed his sadness at their separation but still he maintained he could not leave his position, even for a few months, and he seems to have been quite obsessed with the notion that others might usurp him, damaging his career irreparably.

Meanwhile the whole region of South Africa was facing political chaos. Led by Paul Kruger, the Boers were threatening rebellion against the British, and from their base in the Transvaal the Boers had set themselves up as a formidable guerrilla force. By 1895, as Arthur Tolkien was managing the finances of wealthy Europeans in Bloemfontein, Kruger’s fighters formed a military alliance between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State that would, within a few short years, push the British into all-out war in South Africa. It was not a comfortable time for British citizens living in new commercial centres like Bloemfontein and in some respects Arthur was relieved his family were far away, safe in Britain.

But then suddenly, in November 1895, there was more bad news. Arthur wrote to Mabel to say he was ill with rheumatic fever. This was a very serious disease and Mabel pleaded with Arthur to take time off work and to join the family in England. But he refused steadfastly, now claiming he could not face the cold of the English winter.

Summer came to Bloemfontein and with it Arthur Tolkien’s condition degenerated rapidly. Hearing this news, Mabel decided she must return with the boys to South Africa. So, late in January 1896, arrangements were made for her return voyage; the liner was booked and the date set. On 14 February 1896, Ronald, then just turned four dictated a letter to his father that was then written out for him. In it he told his father how much he was missing him and how he was looking forward to seeing him again after so long away.

The letter was never sent, for the next day news arrived at the Suffield home that Arthur had died after a severe haemorrhage. Mabel, grief-stricken, packed immediately, placed the boys in the care of her parents and caught the first liner to the Cape. By the time she reached Bloemfontein, her husband of under five years had been buried in the local cemetery.

And so, at the age of four, Tolkien’s life was to enter a new stage. Gone was the wilderness of Bloemfontein to be replaced by the industrial sprawl of Birmingham, England’s second city, one of the powerhouses of the British Empire. Gone was the distant horizon, the red sun low over the distant hills; gone were games under a shade in the sweltering dusty heat of a January afternoon. Instead, young Ronald’s new world was dominated by terraced houses and brick chimneys, concrete backyards and the smoke of the local factories.

In spite of the fact that Arthur had worked long hours, ruined his health through his labours and died convinced he was unable to spare time for his family, he left his wife and two young sons with precious little with which to build a new life without him. His capital had been invested in Bonanza Mines but the dividend provided Mabel the sum of only thirty shillings a week, which in 1896 was barely sufficient to eke out a modest existence for the three of them. Mabel’s brother-in-law, Walter Incledon, provided the boys with a small allowance, but neither the Suffields nor Arthur’s parents had the resources to help financially. By the time of Arthur’s death, Mabel and the young brothers had been living in the tiny Suffield home for over nine months and the cramped conditions were to nobody’s liking; a cheap rented place would have to be found as soon as possible.

By the summer Mabel had found the family a tiny semi-detached cottage, Number 5 Gracewell, in the hamlet of Sarehole, a mile and a half outside the city, to the south. Today, Sarehole is a suburb of Birmingham, concreted over and densely populated, but when the Tolkiens set up home there it was still a peaceful and tranquil spot far from the hubbub and noise of the city, surrounded by fields and woods. The cottage was a pretty, brick building at the end of a small terrace, and Ronald felt at home there immediately.

As an old man he could still recall in some detail his memories of his time living with his brother and mother in this country idyll. The house was small but comfortable and the elderly neighbours were friendly and supportive. Hilary was only two and a half at the time of the move, but before too long he was playing with his older brother in the fields around the house and the pair went on long, adventurous walks. Sometimes they would trek to the nearest village, Hall Green, and gradually they made friends with the children who lived there.

The boys shared an unusually strong bond. Without a father figure the only male company they had was each other and not surprisingly, both of them also became exceptionally close to their mother. Those pre-school days were filled with invented games and flights of the imagination. The boys fantasised that a local farmer was an evil wizard, and they turned the conservative and peaceful English countryside into a theme park of the mind in which good and evil wizards struggled for control of the land. Throughout the long summer days they went on crusades and journeys into strange lands (the local woods) to protect the innocent against the baddies. At other times, they picked blackberries in a place they christened the Dell. Most interesting as a later reference point in Tolkien’s work, there was a mill close to Gracewell. It was run by a father and son, both of whom seemed to have been particularly unsociable. The older miller had a long black beard but was relatively passive whilst his son, whom the boys christened the White Ogre (because he was always covered in flour) appears to have been genuinely frightening and extremely unfriendly. Almost half a century later, these childhood figures were to take on new life as the unctuous miller, Sandyman and his unpleasant son, Ted.

For Ronald, fantasies about ogres and dragons became better defined when he began to read. His mother encouraged him and introduced him to many of the great childrens’ books of the day, evocative tales such as the newly published Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland and traditional stories such as The Pied Piper. But most important to the seven-year-old Ronald was a book called the Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. Lang, a Scottish academic who collected, adapted and wrote his own fairy tales became very successful with his anthologies. Ronald adored them and read with relish story after story just so long as it mentioned dragons and sea serpents, mythical adventures and the deeds of noble knights.

Tolkien quickly became an avid reader and before long Mabel became aware of his enthusiasm and what seemed a natural ability with language. She had undertaken the preliminary education of both boys and when Ronald was seven she began to teach him French and the rudiments of Latin which he took to immediately. Around this time, Mabel, who was a capable, self-taught pianist, also tried to interest the boys in music. Hilary was keen, but Ronald showed little aptitude for playing the piano.

It is a strange fact that although Tolkien wrote a great deal of poetry and what could be called lyrics, words he placed in the mouths of his elves and hobbit characters, throughout his life, he had almost no interest in music. He rarely attended concerts; his future wife, Edith, was an accomplished pianist, but he listened to her play only occasionally, and he found jazz, jive, and later, pop music, offensive and irritating. Music seems to have been a blank area in his artistic tastes.3

For Tolkien, this was a happy time. He loved Sarehole and his imagination had been fired up by the discovery of books. It was a period he would cherish in memory and savour for the rest of his life. As a man, this all-too-brief interlude shone out as the most peaceful and dreamlike time. Almost nothing remained in memory of his time in South Africa; his father, a man whom he had known only fleetingly, now became a mere shadow and then faded still further. For Tolkien, his childhood was this time in Sarehole with his brother and beloved mother; it seemed nothing of any significance had preceded it.

And then it all changed again. The wonder years of Sarehole could not last forever, and by the end of 1900, just as Ronald was approaching his ninth birthday, Mabel was forced to move them all back to Birmingham.

There were many reasons for the move. Mabel wanted the boys to attend a school in the city rather than the country. In 1899, Ronald had taken the entrance examination for the prestigious King Edward’s, his father’s old school. He had failed on his first attempt, but upon retaking the exam the following year, he had passed and was subsequently offered a place to begin there in September 1900. However, the school was four miles from Sarehole and Mabel could not afford the train fare, so each day Ronald had to walk most of the eight-mile round-trip. Clearly, it was impractical for the family to stay in the country no matter how much a move would pain the boys.

But there was another reason for the move and one that was perhaps even more compelling for Mabel. In 1899, she had discovered Catholicism and had begun the process of converting to Rome, and the nearest Catholic church was in central Birmingham.

Until the untimely death of her husband, Mabel seems to have been completely orthodox in her religious leanings, but it is easy to see why she found solace within the Roman Church. After all, Ronald and Hilary had each other, but Mabel had few friends, and although she had remained close to her family, especially her sister Jane, she had not known her husband’s family well. John Tolkien, Ronald’s paternal grandfather, had died within six months of his son’s death and Mabel had little in common with her mother-in-law, Mary Tolkien.

Beyond this, Mabel Tolkien appears to have shown absolutely no interest in remarrying. The opportunity to find romance was, of course, slim. Living in the countryside with her two young sons, almost penniless and approaching thirty, she was not the most eligible of women. There was also the fact that she wanted to bring her boys up as she saw fit, and being an independent, strong-minded character, she would not have found it easy to simply take on a new relationship in order to provide a father-figure for her sons.

Yet, even Mabel could not have realised the full consequences of her decision, for her conversion meant facing the utter rejection of her family. Mabel’s father, John Suffield, had been brought up a strict Methodist and had in later years become a Unitarian. He loathed the Catholic Church with all his being and Mabel’s adoption of Rome infuriated him so much he refused to have anything more to do with her. Things were then made worse when Mabel’s brother-in-law, Walter Incledon, who had spent some time with the Tolkiens in Bloemfontein, decided he too could not accept Mabel’s decision.

Walter had grown relatively wealthy from a succession of wise investments and had risen to become a pillar of the Anglican community in Birmingham. Mabel’s news not only offended him personally, far worse, it had the potential to embarrass him socially, and as a consequence, the small allowance he had been providing his sister-in-law and nephews since Arthur’s death was abruptly withdrawn. From just about managing, Mabel was now facing financial disaster.

Of course, such antipathy only drove her further into Papal arms. From 1900, she rarely spoke to her father or her brother-in-law and her relationship with Mary Tolkien (another anti-papist) went from being nondescript to almost non-existent. Now her only contact with either family came via her sister and brother.

Personal relationships could be dealt with, but what was to be done about money? Mabel could not work because she could rely on no one to look after Ronald and Hilary, so she simply had to try to make ends meet, to find a cheaper home and to survive on the dividends and interest from Arthur’s meagre investments. Their new home in the Mosley district of Birmingham remained in Tolkien’s memory long into adulthood, a place he described as ‘dreadful’. It was poky and dark, its small windows covered in dirty lace curtains.

Within months, they had moved again because the property turned out to be on the condemned list, ready for demolition. The next house lay close to King’s Heath Station, only a few short streets from the Suffields’. But of course, Mabel was unwelcome there and the boys could visit their grandparents only when escorted by Aunt Jane. For the boys, this place came with the attraction of a railway line at the foot of the garden where the locomotives made their last stop at King’s Heath before reaching Birmingham’s main station, New Street. For Mabel it was a better home because it was situated close to St Dunstan’s, a Catholic church she and the boys began attending toward the end of 1901.

It had been a monumental year both for the Tolkiens and for the world at large. The Boer War that had begun two years earlier seemed no nearer resolution and England was still getting used to Queen Victoria’s death the previous January and the succession of her ageing playboy son, Edward VII. Understandably, Mabel felt exhausted by all that had happened to her since leaving Bloemfontein and she needed to find some form of stability, some source of inner peace.

Unfortunately the Church of St Dunstan’s provided neither. But then, early in 1902, Mabel stumbled upon the Birmingham Oratory in the suburb of Edgbaston, where a community of priests had lived for more than fifty years. The establishment had been founded in 1849 by the most famous churchman of his day, John Henry Newman, who had been a Church of England Minister before converting to Catholicism in 1844. He had stayed for a while in Rome, where he had been received into the Church and had based his own church in Birmingham upon the model of the Congregation of the Oratory in the Vatican. What attracted Mabel was that the resident fathers conducted the sort of services she liked. There was also the great bonus of a nearby Catholic school, St Philip’s, and best of all, a small house at a manageable rent had become vacant next door to the school and very close to the church. This house was 26 Oliver Road, and in January 1902, it became Tolkien’s fifth Birmingham home.

In many ways this was a very positive move for the Tolkiens and, for a time at least, Mabel was happier than she had been for years. At the Oratorian house she found a little of the support she needed and she made a particularly important friend in one of the priests, a man named Father Francis Xavier Morgan.

Father Francis began to visit Mabel soon after the family moved to Oliver Road and he became their family priest and a close friend of the Tolkiens. He was half-Welsh and half-Anglo-Spanish on his mother’s side. Stocky and dark-haired, he was a veritable bundle of energy. His voice boomed and invariably his laugh could be heard resonating throughout the house within minutes of his arrival at the front door. Hilary and Ronald soon grew to love and respect Father Francis and Mabel trusted him implicitly.

But although he could offer Mabel spiritual guidance, Father Francis could do little to alleviate the practical difficulties she faced. Money problems were constant and Oliver Road was in a deprived district. The nearby streets were unsafe after dark and so the boys were usually confined to the house during the long winter months when it grew dark by five.

St Philip’s School also turned out to be less than desirable. It was a typical state-run school in a poor district of a British city at the turn of the century. Fifty or more children were crammed into a classroom where they were taught basic grammar and mathematics by uninterested teachers with inadequate training. Academic standards were very low at St Philip’s and pupils attending the school were expected to pass through the system having gained little before being packed off to local factories, shops and warehouses.

Fortunately for Ronald and Hilary, Mabel did not let her attachment to the Roman Church blind her to the academic needs of her sons. Within a few months of starting them at St Philip’s, she removed them again and began to teach them at home while simultaneously re-establishing contact with King Edward’s with a view to getting both boys back there with scholarships.

In 1903, they heard that Ronald had been accepted back at King Edward’s School and that his fees would be paid by a scholarship; but Hilary had failed at the same sitting of the entrance exam. Mabel abrogated responsibility for both Ronald’s success and Hilary’s failure. Ronald, she realised, had much academic promise and a disciplined mind, but his younger sibling was far too dreamy and other-worldly and would therefore have to continue his tuition at home in the hope that he might yet pass at a second attempt.

So, in the autumn, Ronald, now aged eleven, returned to his old school having missed almost two academic years. Fortunately, his mother had taught him well during his absence and he found he could cope readily with the work expected of him. By this time his interest in languages was blossoming and, for his age, he was becoming a very capable linguist. King Edward’s provided the best encouragement for him. As well as the standard curriculum languages, French and German, by the age of eleven, Ronald had begun Greek, and through a lively teacher and enthusiast of medieval literature named George Brewerton, he was soon introduced to Chaucer and the well-spring of Middle English.4 By the end of the year, Mabel could report in a letter to her mother-in-law, Mary Tolkien, that Ronald, recently Confirmed at the Oratory, was doing well and that he was reading books usually given to fifteen-year-olds.

But after the joy of Ronald’s Confirmation and First Communion, the beginning of 1904 brought the first hint of further upset. Mabel was feeling exhausted, and it was quickly realised that her fatigue was not simply a result of trying to look after Ronald and Hilary, nor was it solely due to the stress of living in little better than a slum; she had diabetes.

In 1904, there was no effective treatment for diabetes and medical science was then ignorant of the role of insulin. Mabel grew steadily worse and was taken to hospital in April.

At first, no one was sure what to do with the boys. The house in Oliver Road was emptied and the tenancy terminated. Mabel was kept in hospital, but the doctors could do nothing for her but hope that she would recover a little strength. Nobody in the family was able to look after both Tolkien brothers, so they were split up for a while. Hilary was packed off to his grandparents’ house a few streets away and Ronald was taken in by Aunt Jane who had married the Suffields’ lodger, the banjo-playing insurance clerk, Edwin Neave. They now lived in Hove near Brighton on the south coast, so Ronald had to leave King Edward’s early that academic year and do his best to keep up with his studies by reading recommended texts and practising his language work in notebooks.

By June, against the odds, Mabel had improved enough for her to leave hospital, and with the help of Father Francis the boys were reunited with their mother while she convalesced. The priest had managed to find the family two rooms (a bedroom and a sitting-room) in a tiny cottage owned by the Oratory and rented to the local postman. The cottage lay in the grounds of the Oratory House which was used by ill and elderly members of the Birmingham church, bought for this purpose by the founder, John Henry Newman, half a century earlier. For a small fee, the local postman’s wife, Mrs Till, took care of the family and cooked meals for them.

The summer of 1904 was to shine out in Tolkien’s memory as perhaps the most idyllic time of his entire childhood, an unsullied image of life in the English countryside, which almost certainly provided the inspiration for the fictional Shire of Middle-earth. He was not really aware how ill his mother was and if he thought about it at all he would have assumed she was on the mend. Ronald had pined for Sarehole since the day they had been forced to leave their cosy little cottage almost four years earlier and their new temporary home in the tiny village of Rednal in the heart of the Worcestershire countryside, far from the smoke and grime of Birmingham, felt like a return to a lost paradise. Each sunny day, and there were many that long summer, Ronald and Hilary went off on long walks in the woods, where they forded the nearby streams, climbed trees, sketched and flew kites.

That summer, the boys grew much closer to Father Francis. He visited them often and joined them on many a long ramble. During those visits he would smoke a pipe, and as an adult, Tolkien claimed that it was from watching the Father so evidently enjoying drawing on a long cherrywood pipe on the veranda of the Oratory House at Rednal that had inspired him to start smoking a pipe himself.

Sadly, the idyll could not last. In September, Ronald had to return to school (while Hilary continued to be taught at home). The walk to the station took half an hour each morning and each evening, and as the autumn closed in, Ronald was met at the station by Hilary bearing a lamp to help them pick their way back to Rednal through the descending grey of evening.

Neither of the boys had realised how ill their mother had become. Mabel’s diabetes continued to worsen, and on 14 November she collapsed in front of Ronald and Hilary in the sitting-room of the cottage at Rednal. Shocked and terrified, the boys watched, powerless to help, as their mother slid rapidly into a coma. Six days later, with the boys downstairs comforted by the kindly Mrs Till, Mabel Tolkien died, aged thirty-four. Only Father Francis and Mabel’s sister, May Incledon, stood beside her bed as she slipped away.

Meet the Author

Michael White is a former science editor of British GQ. In a previous incarnation he was a member of the Thompson Twins pop group, and then a science lecturer in Oxford. He is the author of twenty books including the international best-seller, Stephen Hawking: A Life In Science (with John Gribbin). Since then he has written an alternative biography of Isaac Newton, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, which was nominated by four British newspapers as "biography of the year" in 1997 and awarded "Book of the Year" in the science category by Bookman Associates in the United States.

His latest books are the international best-seller Leonardo: The First Scientist and Michael White's personal account of the '80s and his time in the music industry, titled: Thompson Twin: An '80s Memoir. His latest is Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers-a study of scientific rivalry from Newton to Gates published in 2001. He lives in Kent, England with his wife and three children.

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