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Each one of us is uniquely who we are because of the places we have lived, the people we have known, and the experiences that have involved us. What were the major life events that helped to form Tolkien? What were the joys and tragedies that shaped his soul and the world he created? Join us, as we begin our exploration of the life of JRR Tolkien.
This episode is executive produced by Kaitlyn of Tea With Tolkien!
On episode 219, we began an exploration of Tolkien’s life story, focusing on the years of 1892 – 1918, which encompass his youth, his marriage, and his participation in World War I.
EARLY YEARS & FAMILY
BORN – January 3, 1892 in what is now known as South Africa. Parents Arthur Tolkien and Mabel Suffield Tolkien. Arthur Tolkien was an English banker, and his job was their reason for being in South Africa.
SIBLINGS – one brother, Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien, born in 1894, died in 1976. Just a side note, Hilary eventually became a farmer in Evesham, England, was married, and had 3 children. I found this funny: they also had a dog, whom they named Bilbo when obedient, and Baggins when not. (H/T to LOTR Wiki for that)
FATHER’S DEATH – Tolkien’s father died of rheumatic fever in early 1896, when he was only 4 years old. This left Mabel and her 2 boys without any financial support.
BIRMINGHAM – they settled near Birmingham. As a young boy, Tolkien apparently loved to explore the countryside, and many of the locations he explored inspired his later works.
HOMESCHOOLED – He was also apparently a very bright student, learning to read at 4 years old. Mabel taught both boys herself.
BECOMING CATHOLIC – In 1900, Mabel became Roman Catholic, much to the chagrin of her Baptist family. This effectively severed her and the boys from any financial assistance.
MABEL’S DEATH – In 1904, Mabel died of acute diabetes, at only 34 years old. Of his mother, Tolkien wrote: “My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.” Tolkien was only 12 years old when she died, leaving him and Hilary orphaned.
FATHER FRANCIS – Mabel assigned guardianship of the boys to Father Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory, a Catholic religious community founded in 1849 by John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican clergyman who had converted to Catholicism. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_Oratory) Of him, Tolkien said “He was an upper-class Welsh-Spaniard Tory, and seemed to some just a pottering old gossip. He was—and he was not. I first learned charity and forgiveness from him…”
KING EDWARD’S SCHOOL – Tolkien attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham from 1900 – 1911 (interrupted briefly in 1903). Seems to be a pretty prestigious place, founded by King Edward in the 16th century. During his adolescent school years, he began to develop a fascination with languages, and began constructing his own. He also apparently did well enough in school to earn a spot at Exeter College, Oxford.
TCBS – In 1911, he formed The Tea Club and Barrovian Society with 3 friends: Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith, and Christopher Wiseman. After graduation, the members stayed in touch. (Fondness for fellowship » probably a great topic for a future deep dive)
EDITH – He met Edith Bratt in 1908 at the age of 16 when he moved into the Boarding House where she also lived. Being orphans, they quickly bonded, and it wasn’t long until things became romantic. But Father Francis did not approve of the relationship, and so things were rocky for many years.
MARRIAGE PROPOSAL – Though they had previously broken up, Tolkien wrote to Edith in 1913 and proposed. Edith was at that time engaged to be married to George Field. However, when Tolkien’s proposal came, she broke of her engagement with Field and accepted Tolkien’s proposal. At the time, Edith’s family friend CH Jessop wrote of the situation: “I have nothing to say against Tolkien, he is a cultured gentleman, but his prospects are poor in the extreme, and when he will be in a position to marry I cannot imagine. Had he adopted a profession it would have been different.”
OXFORD – Tolkien began attending Exeter College, Oxford in 1913, and studied English literature.
WORLD WAR I – When war broke out in 1914, Tolkien was able to delay enlistment until 1915 because of his academic studies. After marrying Edith in March of 1916, he left for combat duty that June, and served in France until that November. At some point, we will probably conduct a deep dive on his World War I experiences, but it is probably enough right now to say this: 1) his war experience affected him deeply and 2) he survived in one piece.
NEXT EPISODE – On the next episode, we will begin to explore Tolkien’s post-war life and career, as well as the origins of Middle-earth.
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Thank you for making this episode. I learned much about Tolkien’s biography. He seems to have been very familiar with death from a young age. I appreciated John’s deep thoughts towards the end about what the young people who died in wars throughout history could have contributed to humanity if they had lived a full life. It made me think deeply. My interpretation of Leaf By Niggle is that Tolkien enters the afterlife (either heaven or the new creation from Christian eschatology) and discovers a perfect version of his life work. This seems to be Tolkien’s personal theological pondering rather than something foundational or universal to Christian eschatology. I wonder what sort of answer you can produce on the following based on Tolkien’s writings: Did he think that everyone in the new creation will have a perfect version of their life work? Did he think that people who died before they could produce their life works in this creation will contribute something to humanity in the new creation?
The exact meaning of the perfect version of one’s life work is also open for discussion. Mikhail Kalashnikov (1919-2013), most famous for inventing the AK-47, said many times later in life that he would rather have invented the lawnmower or other agricultural machinery. He said that he created the weapon to defend the Motherland from Nazi Germany and was sad to see the weapon later be used for offensive purposes, especially by terrorists. Kalashnikov told the Russian Orthodox Church that he experienced spiritual pain over the issue of his potential or partial culpability in the deaths of people killed by AK-47s. It must be sad to regret the accomplishment that you are best known for. I suppose this much is clear… Kalashnikov’s engineering skills would be put to a completely different use in a perfect world.