John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born of English parents in January 1892 in Blomfontein, South Africa, where his father, Arthur, was working as a bank manager. The Tolkiens decided that the climate was bad for their children's health and, so, Mabel returned to England with Ronald (as J R R was called by his family) and his brother Hilary. Before Arthur could join them, he contracted rheumatic fever and died.
The family settled near Birmingham where Mabel converted to Catholicism. This greatly upset her family who refused to give any help to the Tolkiens. In 1904, Mabel died from diabetes, leaving the orphan boys effectively destitute and in the care of a priest, Father Francis Morgan.
At 16, Tolkien fell in love with a fellow orphan, Edith Bratt, but, since Edith was three years older and not a Catholic, Father Morgan forbade him to see her until he was 21. When he turned 21, Tolkien contacted Edith and they became engaged. They married in 1916.
In 1915, Tolkien graduated from Oxford with first class honours in English. He had also studied Welsh and Finnish, having taught himself Gothic, as well as learning Latin and Greek, while at school and being taught French and German by his mother. In addition to these, he had invented his own languages, including "Elvish".
Following his graduation, he joined the Lancashire Fusiliers and was posted to France. He fought at the Somme where he contracted "trench fever" (typhus) and returned home. While convalescing, he began developing stories of elves and gnomes. Many of these stories were published in 1983 and 1984 as The Lost Tales.
During the 'twenties, Tolkien established a reputation as a scholar of Middle English. His lectures were notable because he gave them in the manner of an Anglo-Saxon bard. W H Auden described it as like being lectured by Gandalf.
The Tolkiens had four children to whom J R R told bedtime stories. Some of these were developed into a book, The Hobbit, which was published in 1937. Some others, including Mr Bliss and Roverandum, were later collected and published long after Tolkien's death. Tolkien also wrote letters from Father Christmas to his children each year. These were also published much later (in 1976).
Tolkien began to write a sequel to The Hobbit but became fascinated with idea of developing a grand linguistic and mythological background for the Hobbits' world. As a result, the sequel, The Lord of the Rings, took fourteen years to complete - only to be rejected by Tolkien's publisher, George Allen and Unwin. When Raynor Unwin learnt of its rejection, he ordered his company to publish the book despite the expected losses.
The Lord of the Rings received great critical acclaim and quickly became a bestseller. Despite doing his best to avoid the public eye, Tolkien developed a huge cult following, particularly among the "flower children" of the 'sixties. It even inspired Leonard Nimoy (of Star Trek fame) to release a recording of The Song of Bilbo Baggins.
Tolkien continued to work on the background mythology and linguistics of The Lord of the Rings for the rest of his life.
"One Ring to Rule them all,
one Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them."
Edith Tolkien died in 1971. J R R Tolkien died in 1973, aged 81.
His son, Christopher, collected and completed Tolkiens work on the background of The Lord of the Rings and it was published in 1977 as The Silmarillion. He followed this with a collection of Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth. These were so successful that Christopher Tolkien embarked on the publication of a huge 12-volume collection of his father's writings, The History of Middle-earth, which was completed only in 1996.