John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) of Hobbit fame remarks in his
autobiography that he and his younger brother Hilary wore dresses and long hair until about 6 years of
age. At about this age they moved to a rural area and were exposed to village children. The
village children, who apparently were not used to seeing boys their age in dresses and curls,
referred to them as "wrenches", a term they were unfamilar with. I don't think they were allowed
to play with these village children, however.
Tolkien was a major scholar of the English language, specialising in Old and Middle English. Twice Professor of
Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford, he also wrote a number
of stories, including most famously The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the
Rings (1954-1955), which are set in a pre-historic era in an invented version of
the world which he called by the Middle English name of Middle-earth. This
was peopled by Men (and women), Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs (or Goblins)
and of course Hobbits. He has regularly been condemned by the English Literature
establishment, with honourable exceptions, but loved by literally millions of
The name "Tolkien" (pronounced: Tol-keen; equal stress on both
believed to be of German origin; Toll-kühn: foolishly brave, or stupidly
hence the pseudonym "Oxymore" which he occasionally used. His father's
side of the family appears to have migrated from Saxony in the 18th century,
but over the century and a half before his birth had become thoroughly
Anglicised. Certainly his father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, considered himself
nothing if not English. Arthur was a bank clerk, and went to South Africa in the
1890s for better prospects of promotion. There he was joined by his bride,
Mabel Suffield, whose family were not only English through and through, but
West Midlands since time immemorial.
John Ronald ("Ronald" to family
and early friends) was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892. His
memories of Africa were slight but vivid, including a scary encounter with a
large hairy spider, and influenced his later writing to some extent; slight,
because on 15 February 1896 his father died, and he, his mother and his
younger brother Hilary returned to England--the West
The West Midlands in Tolkien's childhood were a complex mixture of the
grimly industrial Birmingham conurbation, and the quintessentially rural
stereotype of England, Worcester and surrounding areas: Severn country, the
land of the composers Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Gurney, and more distantly
the poet A. E. Housman; it is also just across the border from Wales).
Tolkien's life was split between these two: the then very rural hamlet of
Sarehole, with its mill, just south of Birmingham; and darkly urban Birmingham
itself, where he was eventually sent to King Edward's School. By then the
family had moved to King's Heath, where the house backed onto a railway line- young Ronald's developing linguistic imagination was engaged by the sight of coal trucks going to and from South Wales bearing destinations like "Nantyglo", "Penrhiwceiber" and "Senghenydd".
Then they moved to the somewhat more pleasant Birmingham suburb of
Edgbaston. However, in the meantime, something of profound significance had occurred, which estranged Mabel and her children from both sides of the family: in 1900, together with her sister May, she was received into the Roman Catholic Church. From then on, both Ronald and Hilary were brought up in
the faith of Pio Nono, and remained devout Catholics throughout their lives.
The parish priest who visited the family regularly was the half-Spanish
half-Welsh Father Francis Morgan.
Tolkien family life was generally lived on the genteel side of poverty.
However, the situation worsened in 1904, when Mabel Tolkien was diagnosed
as having diabetes, incurable at that time. She died on 15 October of that
year leaving the two orphaned boys effectively destitute. At this point Father
Francis took over, and made sure of the boys' physical as well as spiritual
welfare, although in the short term they were boarded with an unsympathetic
aunt-by-marriage, Beatrice Suffield, and then with a Mrs Faulkner.
By this time Ronald was already showing remarkable linguistic gifts. He
had mastered the Latin and Greek which was the staple fare of an arts
education at that time, and was becoming more than competent in a number of
other languages, both modern and ancient, notably Gothic, and later Finnish.
He was already busy making up his own languages, purely for fun. He had
also made a number of close friends at King Edward's; in his later years at
school they met regularly after hours as the Tea Club, Barrow Stores, the "T.
C. B. S.", and they continued to correspond closely and exchange and criticise
each other's literary work until 1916.
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