tolkienOn this day in 1892, Legendary author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is born in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Though Tolkien’s parents, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, a bank clerk, and Mabel Suffield, were both English, the family moved to South Africa in the early 1890s in an effort to better Arthur’s career prospects. When Arthur died in 1896, the family returned to the West Midlands section of England, where Tolkien was primarily raised. Tolkien’s mother died in 1904, leaving him and his younger brother orphans. From then on, a Roman Catholic priest became the major influence in their lives, though they lived with others. Tolkien was introduced to Catholicism with the conversion of his mother in 1900; he would remain a devout Roman Catholic for the rest of his life.

Tolkien’s childhood was remarkable in other ways as well: he mastered Latin and Greek at a fairly young age, as well as achieving competency in various other languages and making up original languages for his own amusement. Accepted at Oxford, he studied a number of languages and graduated with a first-class degree in English Language and Literature in 1915. Soon after the outbreak of World War I, he joined the Lancashire Fusiliers and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith, before being shipped off to the front in France. Tolkien participated in the Battle of the Somme, but eventually came down with trench fever and was sent back to England. He worked on his writing, furthering the development of “Qenya” and “Goldogrin,” two original languages, while recuperating. John Francis Reuel, his first son, was born in late 1917.

When World War I ended in 1918, Tolkien found employment as a lexicographer for a dictionary before winning a position at the University of Leeds. During this time, he worked on refining his Book of Lost Tales and his original languages. In 1925, he returned to Oxford as a professor, where he would work until his retirement in 1959. At Oxford, his main work was teaching undergraduates; his scholarly work, though rare, was notable. Edith gave birth to three more children: Michael, Christopher and Priscilla, their last, who was born in 1929. It was also during this time that Tolkien began meeting somewhat regularly with “the Inklings,” a group of similarly literary-minded friends, most notably C.S. Lewis, to exchange ideas, socialize and read from works-in-progress.

As the legend goes, Tolkien found a blank page in a student’s examination book one day while grading papers and wrote on it: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This idea grew into a bedtime story for his children and eventually into the classic, beloved and eminently successful children’s bookThe Hobbit, which was published in 1937. The tale’s success did little to convince publishers that some of Tolkien’s other long-time labors, includingSilmarillion, was saleable, and Tolkien was convinced to create a sequel to The Hobbit for publication. The now-famous three-part trilogy The Lord of the Rings was finally published in 1954 and 1955.

Though they have been largely overshadowed by the amazing commercial success of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien did publish a number of other works in his lifetime, in addition to those like Silmarillionthat were published posthumously, including various scholarly essays, translations of Middle English works and The Adventures of Tom BombadilFarmer Giles of Ham,Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major.

Dogged by fans, Tolkien and his wife moved to Bournemouth in southern England after his 1959 retirement, where they lived until her death in 1971. Afterwards, he moved back to Oxford, where he died on September 2, 1973. They are buried together north of Oxford.

Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings has been adapted to film three times, most recently in 2001-3. Those three film installments, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Elijah Wood as Frodo, were developed by Miramax Films and were nominated for a record 30 Academy Awards®, of which they won 17.

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