Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings


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J.R.R. Tolkien's lifelong fascination with medieval texts and languages gave him a unique vision and endless inspiration for his tales, and his broad interests made possible his creation of faery worlds, as well as the cultures and characters that make his books as engaging today as they were more than seventy-five years ago. This clear and thoroughly researched biography of the creator of The Hobbit is accompanied by magical illustrations that recall the mystery of Tolkien’s worlds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544023246
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/28/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.30(d)
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About the Author

Anne E. Neimark is a renowned author whose reader-friendly approach to writing biographies has allowed many young people to learn about the lives of famous and important people. She is the author of DiegoRivera,Artist of the People and Che!.  She lives near Chicago.

Read an Excerpt


The tall grass of the desert farm in Bloemfontein, Africa, almost hid him from view. His nurse screamed his name, her voice chasing him, but he kept running from her — a pale three-year-old child in a white blouse and shorts.

He loved the prickle of wild grass against his face and the bright clusters of flowers. Stopping to bend down, he yanked off his shoes and socks. "Ronald!" his nurse shouted, but she was still far behind him, her dark face wet from the sun.

He ran with bare feet pummeling the dry earth, stalks of grass bending and cracking near their roots. Now he could see the camelthorn tree on the hill! Once, his father had taken him to this nearby farm, lifting him onto a limb of the tree. He'd wrapped his legs around the warm, scratchy bark. "We don't have many trees in South Africa's desert," his father had said. "That's why I like planting them at home."

A fiery pain stabbed through Ronald's foot. Gasping, he toppled sideways onto the ground, his small arms flailing against his shorts. "No!" he blurted out, his eyes filling with tears. Something was darting away over the dirt — a black, furry thing with crooked legs, fearless as the snakes with tongues that slid across his parents' garden.

Before long, his nurse was upon him, dropping to her knees. Scooping him into her lap, she saw the huge spider waiting slyly atop a bush. "Tarantula!" she shrieked, babbling in both English and Afrikaans. "John Ronald Reuel Tolkien! You shouldn't have run off."

The nurse put Ronald on his back under the scorching sun. She lifted his leg upward, grabbed his wounded foot, and pulled it toward the bright red of her mouth. Moaning and cooing, she sucked the spider venom from the swelling beneath his toes. Wincing, Ronald tilted his head so that he could glimpse the base of the camelthorn tree. "Take me to the tree," he said. "I can climb it!"

"I'm taking you home, Master Tolkien! You can rest on the balcony upstairs and look at the trees your father planted."

Carrying him like a large sack of corn, his socks and shoes bulging from her pockets, the woman awkwardly loped away from the farmland and hurried down a road near her native kraal, or village. Ronald's foot stung even more as it touched the starched pleats of her apron; cringing, he imagined spiders crawling out of her hair. At Bloemfontein's market square, not far from his home, he saw houseboys on their daily errands. "May I have an apple?" he asked, his voice trembling, but his nurse bypassed the stalls and ran over the steps of the Raadzaal, Bloemfontein's most important government building.

"Mrs. Tolkien! Mrs. Tolkien!" the nurse called in singsong cadence when, a few moments later, she dashed with Ronald into the Tolkien house. "A tarantula bit your son!"

Mabel Tolkien hurried from the kitchen, her long skirt hoisted above her ankles, her face drawn from the day's excruciating heat. Seeing the crimson welt on the bottom of Ronald's foot, she took him from the nurse's shoulders. "Africa's playground," she whispered sadly to herself, then asked Isaak, the houseboy, for calamine lotion and bandages from the cupboard.

Ronald's foot was swabbed with pink lotion and covered with gauze. "It was a spider as big as a dragon!" he told his mother. He asked to sit on the balcony with his favorite book of fairy tales, the one with pictures of fire-breathing dragons and goblins, but his mother only reluctantly agreed. Always, she fretted over his health, finding him too thin and frail for the relentless sun.

From a balcony chair, Ronald opened the book he could not yet read, caught up by an etching of an armored knight on horseback whose sword menaced a two-headed dragon. Below, in the Tolkien garden, trees planted by Ronald's father — cypresses, firs, and cedars — rustled as if the brave knight had just ridden past them. Ronald stood up, putting his weight squarely on both feet, defiant against the soreness under the gauze. Perhaps, he thought, he was crushing spiders with his feet and might, himself, be a brave knight. He decided he would ask Isaak, the houseboy — not his nurse, who always said "No," or his mother, who often looked sad — to take him back to the desert farm in the morning so that, even with his bandaged tarantula bite, he might finally climb the camelthorn tree.

Ronald had been, from the start, an observant child, quick to mark details around him — the shop signs along Maitland Street; the gray blue of the Indian Ocean, where he once was bathed; the wilting boughs of the eucalyptus tree at his first Christmas. Brought to his father's bank office, he would find pencils and paper and make simple drawings of what he'd seen. He drew the locusts that had descended on the dry grassland and destroyed the harvests. He drew the ox wagons that carried bales of wool into the market square, and the white two-story house where he lived with his parents, Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, and his one-year-old brother, Hilary.

Born and raised in England, his parents had moved to Africa to begin their marriage. At Lloyds Bank in Birmingham, England, his father's salary had been too small to support a family; he'd gone to Bloemfontein when offered a better job by the Bank of Africa. His mother — homesick before she'd even left England's shores — had followed in April 1891, her steamer trunk full of Birmingham mementos.

On an April day four years later, weeks after Ronald was bitten by the tarantula, he climbed onto the family steamer trunk in the parlor, touching its dented corners and polished lid. His mother had been packing the trunk with clothes; she'd told him that he and Hilary would be traveling with her to visit relatives in faraway England. "You'll be much cooler while we're away," his mother said, "and you'll grow fatter. How long I've waited for this trip! If only your father could come with us."

Talk in the household was that Arthur Tolkien was too busy at the bank to be given "home leave." Traders and miners were making new investments from South Africa's gold and diamond strikes and from the railroad that connected the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg. Ronald's father had been promoted to branch manager at the bank, yet he would earn only half-pay if he took leave.

Ronald was soon discovered on top of the trunk. His father, dressed in one of the white suits he wore to work, carried a small jar of paint and a tapered brush into the parlor. "Sit on the rug," his father said gently. "You can watch me label the trunk so it won't be lost on your journey."

Opening the jar, Arthur Tolkien smiled at his son and dipped the brush into the black paint. Carefully, he stooped down and began painting letters across the trunk lid. Ronald stared at the line of shapes he longed to know how to read; they seemed to him as magical as the fairy-tale pictures in his book. His parents could read words, as could the clerks at his father's office. Words and trees — and knights and dragons — were what Ronald wanted. "I've written my name," his father said, straightening up with a pride Ronald would always remember. "A. R. TOLKIEN. Arthur Reuel Tolkien. You also carry the name Reuel."

Six days later, dressed in their finest outfits and having traveled by carriage and railroad car, Ronald, his mother, and Hilary boarded the ship SS Guelph at Cape Town's harbor. The ocean voyage would require three weeks; Jane Suffield, Mabel Tolkien's younger sister, would meet them at the wharf in the city of Southampton, England.

On shipboard, startled by the vastness around him, Ronald watched the blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean. In the distance, the lighter blue of the sky seemed to curve downward on all sides toward the water — like the bell jar he'd seen with Isaak in a Bloemfontein shopwindow. He tried to imagine his bedroom curtains at home and the wicker chair in the garden. He tried, squinting his eyes, to see the trees his father had planted — trees that had been his friends. Why were his room and the garden so far away? If he couldn't see them, were they still real? If he could only imagine the place called England, was it a fairy tale from his book?

Feeling the deck swaying and rocking beneath him, Ronald closed his fingers around the lower ship rail. His mother stood beside him, holding Hilary, the puffed sleeves of her blouse billowing in the wind. Ronald tried as hard as he could to think of his father — to make him appear at the rail. He could almost see the white suit and mustache, even while they slipped away in the wind. Mostly, though, he could see the shiny black letters his father had painted across the trunk lid: A. R. TOLKIEN. The name took shape like one of the signs on Maitland Street, soothing an ache inside Ronald's chest.

He leaned sideways then into the deep folds of his mother's skirt. His father had said that if the bank work grew quieter, he might join the family in England. Or, if not, he would await their return. Ronald didn't understand why missing his father suddenly frightened him — like a goblin's great fangs coming closer. He would send his father a pencil drawing from England that could be tacked onto the bank office wall, and he would ask his father to write back a letter. Then everything would be fine.

But as the wind skittered and howled over the deck and the ship moved on its course away from South Africa, Ronald clung to his memory of the magic letters:A. R. TOLKIEN. The letters, somehow, had become his father, for it seemed to Ronald — in a dark premonition far beyond his years — that he would never see his father again.


In the suffields' small house in the King's Heath suburb of Birmingham, something was always happening. Ronald's grandfather told jokes, making his grandmother and his uncle Willie laugh. His aunt Jane sat for hours on the stairs, listening to the young man, the lodger, play banjo. Summer days in England became autumn, then winter. Ronald's father kept hoping to make the voyage, but work detained him. By December, when Ronald was indeed a bit fatter, he longed to show his father the Christmas tree in the Suffield parlor. The tree, like himself, was not as skinny and frail as the African eucalyptus.

On Sundays, the family walked to an Anglican church. The sight of the hymnal words was far more beautiful to Ronald than the sounds of the organ or the choir. After the sermon, he would wait for his mother in a vestibule among the parishioners, instructed not to let go of Hilary's hand. Outside, in the street, carriages rolled by, buffed and shining. No knights, however — like the ones from his old book of fairy tales — were astride the horses; no dragons breathed fire in the morning light.

"Is Papa too sick to come to us?" Ronald asked.

"For now," his mother told him. "Yet he says he is much improved."

The banjo songs grew somber as winter deepened and letters arrived less frequently from Bloemfontein. Finally, in late January, word came that Arthur was desperately ill. Mabel packed the steamer trunk, her eyes moist with tears. Tracing a finger over the painted lettering on the lid, Ronald said aloud what he still could not read: "A. R. TOLKIEN. A. R. TOLKIEN."

A hurried message, dictated by Ronald in his most grownup voice, was to be dispatched to his father, saying that the family was sailing home — that Ronald hadgrown to be "such a big man." Before the note could be posted, however, a telegram was delivered: Arthur Tolkien, thirty-nine years old, had suffered a hemorrhage. By the next day, February 15, 1896, Mabel learned that her husband was dead.

The grief that struck the Suffields in King's Heath descended, also, on the Tolkien family in Birmingham. John Benjamin Tolkien, Arthur's father, was so devastated by his son's death that within six months he, too, would die. Ronald had visited his grandfather Tolkien and his aunt Grace Tolkien during his stay in England, but the Suffields were more familiar to him. Now, in the wake of tragedy, his aunt Grace told him tales about Tolkien ancestors, of how they'd settled in London in the early 1800s, skilled at piano making and at manufacturing clocks.

Arthur Tolkien was buried before his family could sail for Africa, making the trip unnecessary. He had left little money. Mabel, planning never again to leave England, would have only thirty shillings a week for herself and the children, not enough for even meager quarters. Her parents urged her to stay on with them, but she wanted to make her own way. At last, when a Suffield relative provided extra funds, she searched newspaper ads for cheap but decent rentals in the country, away from the smokestacks and soot of Birmingham. In summer, she found a tiny brick cottage in the hamlet of Sarehole, several miles from her parents' home.

Sarehole, with its quiet meadows and streams, its cascade of trees and flowers, would be a haven for Ronald. As much as he loved the Suffields, he'd been anxious and fearful since his father's death. The dragons he'd once loved to think about had become threatening to him. Somehow, he felt safe in Sarehole. With Hilary in hand, he would dart through the gate of the rented cottage, up a hill, and over a road to where tall willows ribboned the River Cole. Leaning against a tree trunk or climbing onto broad, tangled limbs, he would call to Hilary, who hunted in the dirt for corn-cockle weeds. "Don't go near the water," he'd warn his brother, alert now to possible dangers.

By the spring of 1897, when Ronald was five, his mother — fluent in Latin, French, and German as well as English — taught him to read in all four languages. Encouraging his love for plants and trees, she introduced him to the science of botany. He experimented with drawing leaves, stems, and blossoms, giving shape on paper to what he'd seen in the meadows. As he and Hilary traipsed through the fields, he would name aloud the various flowers and plants, explaining their parts and functions to his younger brother.

Near the River Cole stood Sarehole's old mill, where corn had been ground until 1698, when the steam engine was invented. Now the mill was used for grinding bones to make fertilizer. Transfixed, Ronald and Hilary would watch the huge waterwheel turn in its dark pit, or they would sneak past the mill gate where, through an open doorway, they could stare at webs of leather belts on heavy pulleys and shafts. A mill worker, covered from head to foot with white bone dust, always yelled at the boys to get away from the doorway. Ronald called him the White Ogre — choosing the name Black Ogre for the mean-faced farmer on the hill, who chased him for picking mushrooms and who was said to whip country boys.

One afternoon, while Hilary napped in the cottage, Ronald took off alone. At a narrow sandpit, he rolled pebbles down the slopes; at a mossy pool, he beckoned to the swans. A farm cart was rattling by when he found a tantalizing patch of brown mushrooms. His heart pounding, he remembered the word his mother had taught him for mushrooms that could be eaten: Agaricus. Turning slowly in a circle, he saw no one near him. Though he wasn't hungry, he wanted to pick the mushrooms, even if — or especially if — the Black Ogre caught him. The mushrooms would be his treasure; without armor, horse, or sword, he would escape with them!

Plucking the stalks, careful not to rip the caplike tops, Ronald stuffed mushrooms into his pockets and down the front of his shirt. He would, he thought, offer them to his mother. They might make her smile, something rare and wondrous since his father had died. Busy at his task, he didn't notice another farm cart on the hill — or the tall, gangly figure in stained overalls who lurched awkwardly toward him. Only when a gruff voice cut the air, startling him, did he drop a handful of mushrooms. "Caught ya! Stealing food again, you little snot! I'll throttle you black and blue!"

Ronald ran, a delicious kind of terror rising in him. He raced over Sarehole's flowered fields, past the swans in the pond, beside the pebbled sandpit. Gasping for breath, glancing over his shoulder as the Black Ogre shook a fist at him, he ran as fast as he could — faster than he'd run from his nurse in Bloemfontein. He was headed for the road to the rented cottage when he veered sideways. The Black Ogre, he warned himself, would follow him home. His mother would be upset. She wouldn't want mushrooms.

At a grove of trees, Ronald dove between trunks and dipping branches, looking for shelter. Zigzagging as he ran, his shoes slapped against moist, moss-covered earth, and he saw a tree limb reach out like an arm. Grabbing it with both hands, he pulled himself upward, scrambled along the bark on his stomach, then climbed a higher limb, and then one even higher. Leaves brushed silkily against his face, calming him. The tree seemed to take him in, hide him from danger.


Excerpted from "Mythmaker"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Anne Neimark.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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