Christian Encounters, a series of biographies from Thomas Nelson Publishers, highlights important lives from all ages and areas of the Church. Some are familiar faces. Others are unexpected guests. But all, through their relationships, struggles, prayers, and desires, uniquely illuminate our shared experience.
Born in South Africa and growing up in Great Britain, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Ronald as he was known, led a young life filled with uncertainty and instability. His was not a storybook childhood- his father died when Ronald was three years old, and his mother died just before he reached adolescence. Left under the guardianship of his mother's friend and priest, Ronald forged his closest relationships with friends who shared his love for literature and languages.
As Tolkien grew older, married, served as a soldier, and became a well-respected Oxford professor publishing weighty works on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, the Christian faith that his mother had instilled in him continued as an intrinsic element of his creative imagination and his everyday life.
It was through The Hobbit and the three-volume The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien became a literary giant throughout the world. In his fiction, which earned him the informal title of "the father of modern fantasy literature," Tolkien presents readers with a vision of freedom- nothing preachy- that a strong, unequivocal faith can transmit.
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J. R. R. TOLKIEN
By MARK HORNE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Mark Horne
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBETWEEN THE SHIRE AND MORDOR, PART ONE (1892–1909)
The first nightmarishly large spider Tolkien ever encountered was not imaginary, but a real creature of the African wild.
There were many kinds of dangerous creatures, even in the relatively inhabited areas of South Africa—at least when compared to the wildlife around similar houses back in England. As a three-year-old, Ronald was learning to walk and becoming interested in his family's garden. In the 1890s in interior South Africa, Ronald's learning to walk involved a great deal more anxiety for his parents and their servants. It was not uncommon to find poisonous snakes on the property amid the tall grass of Bloemfontein. Outdoors it was much less possible to keep the smaller dangerous wildlife away from homes. Even the pets could be a problem: one time a neighbor's monkey climbed into their yard and chewed up the baby Ronald's pinafores.
Running around in his family's garden, dressed all in white, he looked like a fairy or an elf, his mother said. Somehow he got far enough away from the nurse who was in charge of him that she did not see the furry, dark tarantula before it bit little Ronald. The nurse chased down the panicked, screaming child, grabbed him, and located the bite. It must have been just as traumatic for little Ronald for her to suck the poison out of the bite as receiving the bite had been in the first place. But aside from initial pain, the treatment was effective. Ronald suffered no ill effects from the tarantula's poison.
From this story, many students of Tolkien's works have thought this spider must have been the "mother" of the giant spiders of Mirkwood with whom Bilbo Baggins did battle—and later, Shelob, who nearly killed Frodo. Actually, Tolkien related that his recollections of the event were so dim that they didn't even include the spider. He only remembers the heat of the day and running in fear through the tall, dead grass. Rather, he later wrote that if his portrayal of the monster spider Shelob had anything to do with "my being stung by a tarantula when a small child, people are welcome to the notion (supposing the improbable, that any one is interested). I can only say that I remember nothing about it, should not know it if I had not been told; and I do not dislike spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them. I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath!"
So, while many of Tolkien's creative invention came from his own childhood, the giant spiders of Mirkwood apparently did not. Tolkien said in a 1957 radio interview that "I put in the spiders largely because this was, you remember, primarily written for my children (at least I had them in mind)." His son, Michael, hated spiders. Tolkien said, "I did it to thoroughly frighten him and it did!" The encounter with the tarantula may have been one of the few experiences in Tolkien's life that accidentally matched his stories, rather than influenced them. As we will see, Tolkien's memories of events that affected his creative life came from a little later when he was living in the English countryside, giving names to people that came from fairy tales. He was probably too young in Africa to be greatly influenced by life there. The main effect of his early childhood in the dusty plains of South Africa was probably to give him a great love for the green hills and woods of England when he finally got to experience them a little later.
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J. R. R. Tolkien was born in South Africa on January 3, 1892. His full name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and most of his early life he was known simply as "Ronald." His second middle name came from the middle name of his father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien. His first name was in honor of his paternal grandfather, John Benjamin Tolkien. Arthur wanted to call his son by one of the two names from his side of the family; however, his wife, Mabel née Suffield, preferred to refer to her son as Ronald, and that is what he ended up being called in most of his early life. On February 17, 1894, a second son was born to Arthur and Mabel. They named him Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien.
FROM SOUTH AFRICA TO ENGLAND
Bloemfontein, located in the northern interior of South Africa, is now a modern city with over a half million people in the metro area. But when Tolkien was an infant growing into a toddler, it was much more like a frontier town, where wild animals roamed nearby. The house was on a high plain, windswept and woodless. What shade Tolkien found in his yard came from fir, cypress, and cedar saplings placed there by his father in an attempt to create a kind of oasis in the desert. The town was located in an independent country called the Orange Free State, which was dominated by settlers of Dutch ancestry.
His father had relocated to South Africa initially for economic reasons since he belonged to a family of flagging fortunes. Arthur's father, John Benjamin, had been a seller of pianos and music before he had gone bankrupt in 1877. Arthur became a bank manager and found that moving to South Africa held much more promise for financial advancement than remaining in England. After he relocated to South Africa, his fiancée, Mabel, followed him there and married him in Cape Town before moving inland to their new home.
From the beginning of Arthur's move, it was an open question as to whether it would be a lifelong situation or a temporary residency. Mabel, once she arrived and experienced life in Africa, began to strongly hope that their stay would only be temporary. She did not like the climate and longed for the cooler weather she remembered back in England. She also believed the heat was damaging her older son's health. Arthur, on the other hand, began to feel that he had found a new home and might never live in England again. He hoped that Ronald would adapt to the climate as he grew older. In the meantime, his mother took him and his younger brother on a long train trip to the coast to get them to moister, cooler air.
In time, the family turned their attention to a long-planned return visit to England. Mabel and her children disembarked on April 1895 without Arthur since business and financial pressures prevented him from leaving at the same time. Watching his father paint A. R. Tolkien on the family's trunk became one of Tolkien's few clear recollections of the man.
Mabel and the boys stayed with her father in his home in Birmingham, the second-largest populated center in England. The plan for Arthur to travel from South Africa to join them was delayed because he developed rheumatic fever and was too sick to make the voyage. They needed to wait until he was healthy again.
Yet Arthur never became healthy again. By January 1896, Mabel was planning to return to South Africa in order to care for her husband. But, before she could do so, the disease caused a brain hemorrhage. Arthur Tolkien was already buried five thousand miles away by the time Mabel learned that he was dead. No one in the family could even afford to visit the grave site.
The most obvious and earliest tribulation Tolkien faced that had a direct impact on him was losing his father at such a young age. Many biographers simply mention that it happened and move on to other steps in Tolkien's development as an author. But Tolkien's religious imagination and faith would have almost certainly been very different if his father had lived.
Also, the fact that Tolkien lost his father at a young age seems to have significance not only to him as a person but also as a creative writer. Interesting studies show that people who have lost one or both parents are highly represented among creative people. The list of writers who lost one or both parents during childhood includes Dante, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edward Gibbon, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats, Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. A researcher once took a standard textbook selection of English and French poets and found that 30 percent of them had lost their fathers to death or abandonment very early in life. Other research by a doctoral student took a common textbook on French literature and found that seventeen out of thirty-five writers had, through death or divorce, lost one or both parents.
Many children without fathers suffer in overwhelmingly negative ways, but others have the internal resources so that they rise to the occasion. It may well be that being without a father was a factor in Tolkien's artistic accomplishment.
ENGLAND AND THE WORLD OF A YOUNG BOY'S IMAGINATION
Tolkien remembered very little of his life in South Africa. However, it is clear that the contrasting climate and geography of England made a big impression on him—one that worked its way into his fiction. On a limited budget, his mother managed to find a place to rent in a small town called Sarehole. There, a mile outside Birmingham, Tolkien discovered the beauty of the English countryside—his first "Shire." Here, as a small boy, with his younger brother, Tolkien spent a great deal of time playing and exploring. One can see his later fiction getting its start even here in a youngster's imagination.
The ogres that attacked and harassed the two boys (as they would describe it) are one example of a childhood incident showing up in later fiction. The best way to understand how seriously the boys took "the ogres" is to read a letter that younger brother Hilary later wrote. One day Mabel decided to take lunch to her boys. She had allowed them to go out and "blackberry" in a place locals called "the Dell." So she made the lunches and went in search of the boys. Their house in Sarehole Mill stood with a few others, but the surrounding countryside made it easy to overlook how near they were to Birmingham. They rarely saw much traffic on the road other than a farmer's cart or the wagon of a tradesman. So Mabel walked across the road and crossed a meadow to the River Cole. There stood the Sarehole Mill, an old brick building that had been used for grinding corn for three hundred years but was now used for grinding bone to produce phosphates to add to manure.
There was a narrow path here, leading through land owned by the miller and on to the Dell. While Mabel stayed on the path as she was supposed to, her boys had not been so respectful of the property of the landowner. Hilary Tolkien wrote that the miller was not very appreciative of the boys because they "traipsed off after corncockles and other pretty things." As Mabel came to the Dell, she called out to her boys, who had not seen their mother approach. The results were immediate and dramatic: both boys began running away from her through the brush without even looking up. Mabel's voice when she yelled was, in the perception of the young Tolkien boys, deep enough to be a man's voice. They thought she was the "White Ogre" come to harass them for straying on his land rather than keeping to the narrow path. The "White Ogre" was the local mill worker who earned his name because he was constantly covered in white bone dust from the inside of the mill. He was relatively mild, since he merely yelled at them to get off his land or away from the mill.
Their other enemy was worse, and they called him the "Black Ogre." The boys loved to explore a sandpit they found lined with trees but had to deal with his opposition to their trespassing. One day eight-year-old Ronald discovered an area with some mushrooms growing and picked them. The property owner chased off Tolkien, earning a nickname in the process. The property owner would take their shoes and socks when they went into the river to play and would spank the boys when they were forced to approach him to get their footwear back.
As a frightening guardian of the mushrooms, the Black Ogre was moved to Hobbiton, not as a monster, but as a wise and kind, though fearsome, hobbit:
"I know these fields and this gate!" he [Pippin] said. "This is Bamfurlong, old Farmer Maggot's land. That's his farm away there in the trees."
"One trouble after another!" said Frodo, looking nearly as much alarmed as if Pippin had declared the lane was the slot leading to a dragon's den. The others looked at him in surprise.
"What's wrong with old Maggot?" asked Pippin. "He 's a good friend to all the Brandybucks. Of course, he 's a terror to trespassers, and keeps ferocious dogs—but after all, folk down here are near the border and have to be more on their guard."
"I know," said Frodo. "But all the same," he added with a shamefaced laugh, "I am terrified of him and his dogs. I have avoided his farm for years and years. He caught me several times trespassing after mushrooms, when I was a youngster in Brandy Hall. On the last occasion he beat me, and then took me and showed me to his dogs. 'See, lads,' he said, 'next time this young varmint sets foot on my land, you can eat him. Now see him off!' They chased me all the way to the Ferry. I have never got over the fright—though I daresay the beasts knew their business and would not really have touched me."
Tolkien's childhood involved several moves based on financial necessity and educational needs. According to his own recollections, the desirability of these homes was based on whether they were in the English countryside, which he loved, or if they were in places of suburban or urban development, which he strongly disliked. The basis of Tolkien's love for trees and nature over his dislike for machinery was set early in his life. The reader finds virtually all mention of "machinery" in The Lord of the Rings is associated with villains like Saruman and Sauron in the pursuit of power and the enslavement of others.
In these early years, Tolkien's mother homeschooled both boys. She began teaching Tolkien Latin and he loved it, so she started French lessons as well, and while he didn't find French as lovely sounding as Latin and English,15 he clearly showed an aptitude with languages that would later become his academic career. It is noteworthy that Tolkien studied these subjects under his mother's tutelage when he was around seven years old.
Tolkien also remembered the influence of certain stories in his young years. He loved the children's novels by George Macdonald, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. He would later come to judge much of the Victorian author's writings as far too allegorical and moralistic, but at a young age he found them quite enjoyable. They influenced his imagination much as they did for the child who would grow up to be his friend—C. S. Lewis. One can't help but wonder how much the Mines of Moria would have figured into The Fellowship of the Ring without these stories of an underground goblin kingdom threatening human miners.
Though Tolkien had fond memories of his childhood, this time period involved another change in fortunes for his mother, his brother, and himself. Only a few years after the death of his father, Tolkien experienced separation from much of his extended family.
A MOVE OF FAITH
Though the reports of her faith journey lack detail, it is known that regular worship and participation in church became much more important to Mabel in the years following her husband's death. As a single mother responsible for the raising of two young boys, she would, by the grace of God, find herself more aware of her need to live by faith. As Mabel became more involved in the Anglican Church, she found herself most nourished in the Anglo-Catholic portion of that national denomination. The Anglican Church could be classified in three main categories, "low church," "high church," and "broad church." Broad church was and is simply those who see themselves between the other two groups—though it can also refer to theological "modernism" or "liberalism." The "low church" Anglicans are the typical Evangelicals who see their heritage as distinctively Protestant, tend toward simpler prayer book worship, and emphasize the doctrine of justification by faith. "High church" refers to those who emphasize the identity of the Anglican Church in continuity with the early church and the succession of bishops and who would typically use a more elaborate liturgy.
Excerpted from J. R. R. TOLKIEN by MARK HORNE Copyright © 2011 by Mark Horne. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Between the Shire and Mordor, Part One (1892–1909)....................1
2. Between the Shire and Mordor, Part Two (1892–1909)....................14
3. Coming of Age (1910–1911)....................26
4. Growing Up in Oxford (1911–1914)....................35
5. The Coming of the Shadow (1915–1918)....................51
6. Language and Legend, Part One (1918–1925)....................70
7. Language and Legend, Part Two (1926–1937)....................83
8. Hobbits and Epic Heroism (1938–1948)....................95
9. The Worldwide Best Seller (1948–1973)....................104
Appendix: Bibliographical Note....................142
About the Author....................145