20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings

Tim Flight - December 12, 2018

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
‘Conversation with Smaug’, Tolkien’s illustration for an episode of The Hobbit, Oxford, 1937. Tolkien Gateway

8. He provided many of the illustrations for his books himself

An often overlooked part of Tolkien’s genius is his artistic ability. Perhaps because the writing is so good, surprisingly few people realize that Tolkien actually illustrated his books himself. No less an authority than Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher, has said that the art his father produced is essential to understanding his written work. Tolkien’s art actually predates his writing, and he first began to paint images from Middle Earth during his days at Exeter College. He called these pictures of imaginary realms ‘ishnesses’, and never showed them to anyone beyond his close family and friends.

To back up Christopher’s claim about the links between Tolkien’s art and writing, the original manuscript of The Hobbit was fully illustrated. When it was accepted for publication, Tolkien successfully convinced his publisher to include his illustrations, and the first edition had no fewer than 12 pictures and maps. The Lord of the Rings was only not illustrated because Tolkien’s drawings would have been too expensive to publish. Nonetheless, his illustrations did appear on the dust jackets of the three volumes. Equally adept with both pencil and paintbrush, Tolkien was a far greater artist than he ever realized.

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien in academic dress by the Bridge of Sighs, Oxford, sometime in the mid-20th century. India Today

7. Despite his fame, Tolkien was a lecturer at Oxford University for most of his life

If you’d written something as successful as The Lord of the Rings, were famous around the world, and pretty wealthy, you’d probably retire, right? Not Tolkien. He stuck to his laborious day job of teaching students at Oxford until he retired in 1959, aged 67. Oxford has a reputation for exacting standards amongst both students and staff, and Merton College in particular, where he taught between 1945 and 1959, is renowned even at Oxford for demanding a lot from its members. Merton’s common nickname, ‘where fun goes to die’, is certainly hard-won.

Tolkien was a much-loved lecturer. According to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, his lectures on Beowulf were legendary. ‘He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon, commencing with a great cry of Hwæt! (the first word)’. Alas, though, even amongst his entranced students, his extracurricular activities were not forgotten. W.H. Auden once described to Tolkien ‘what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.’

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
The Ambarkanta Map by Tolkien, exhibiting some of his invented dialects, published posthumously in 1986. Tolkien Gateway

6. He was able to invent so many languages because he was an expert philologist

One of the many strings to Tolkien’s bow as a specialist in medieval literature was his expertise in philology. Philology is the study of the history of languages, and involves years of research into the very meanings of individual words. He knew 13 existing languages, and a bewildering number of extinct dialects such as Old English, Latin, Old Norse, and Medieval Welsh. Before becoming a professor, he produced A Middle English Vocabulary, an essential reference guide for people learning the language. In fact, he was so good at languages, that he made them up for fun in his free time.

Tolkien invented his first language cipher, Nevbosh, when he was just 13, and first language, Naffarin, shortly thereafter. This hobby, which he called glossopoeia, proved to be unexpectedly useful in later life. Tolkien developed a way of writing coded letters to Edith from the muddy trenches of Belgium to stop them being censored, and when he came to write his fiction, his ability to invent languages for the characters of Middle Earth made the stories irresistibly immersive. About a dozen are included in The Lord of the Rings, two of which are complete. Tolkien also invented 9 scripts for writing.

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien aged 19, photographed in 1911, probably at Oxford. The National

5. He was orphaned at a young age

Tolkien’s parents, Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield, were both dead by the time he was only 12. Arthur worked as a bank clerk and lived with his family in South Africa, but tragedy struck in 1896 while Mabel and the children were visiting family in England. Arthur died of a hemorrhage, leaving the family so poor that they had to stay where they were. Mabel was so hard-up, in fact, that she had to tutor the children herself at home. Mabel herself died in 1904, leaving Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary orphaned and near-destitute.

But these tragic and straightened circumstances proved the making of the man. For Mabel was a talented linguist, whose language lessons gave Tolkien a lifelong interest in languages, determining both his academic career and, in turn, the tales of Middle Earth. Mabel’s grief at Arthur’s death also saw her convert to Catholicism (see above), which remained a crucial part of Tolkien’s life and way of seeing the world. The boys’ appointed guardian, Francis Xavier Morgan, was a studious Catholic priest who ensured that education was paramount, and it was at his insistence that Tolkien took the entrance exam for Oxford.

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
The Tolkien family at Bloemfontein, including the young writer as a baby, on a Christmas Card of 1892. Wikimedia Commons

4. Tolkien was actually born in South Africa

This will no doubt come as a shock. The man with a lifelong love of all things medieval, whose set his fantasy fiction in what is clearly the chilly climate of northern Europe, spent the first few years of his life in the heat of Bloemfontein, South Africa. This fact is so little-known that even modern residents of the town are shocked when intrepid Tolkien fans ask them where the family lived. He left shortly after his fourth birthday, but the disastrous move his family made led to the straightened circumstances discussed above that determined the course of his life.

The main incident of note in Tolkien’s Bloemfontein childhood was the attack of the baboon spider (above), but another adventure saw him briefly kidnapped. A young servant at the Tolkien residence thought him such a beautiful child that he took him back to his kraal (a large farm) to show him off to his family. The servant returned Tolkien to his relieved family the next morning. Looking for Tolkien in Bloemfontein is only for the superfans, however, as Tolkien’s house was mostly destroyed by floods in the 1920s, and only a small plaque remains… in the wrong location.

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
3 Vistas like this in the Swiss Alps certainly look familiar… Alpen Wild

3. As well as the landscapes of medieval literature, Tolkien was also influenced by his time in Switzerland

We’ve covered all but one of Tolkien’s key influences, and here’s the final one. In 1911, the 19-year-old Tolkien took a rare walking holiday in the Swiss Alps. In a group of 12, Tolkien hiked from Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, enjoying the glorious scenery of snow-capped peaks, thick forest, and vast lakes which has inspired so many writers over the years. But where he left something of a breadcrumb-trail for his literary and Warwickshire influences, Tolkien actually acknowledged the importance of the Swiss Alps in a letter to his son, Michael, in 1967.

In the letter, Tolkien expressed delight that his son had visited a place so dear to him, and so important for Middle Earth. ‘From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains, the journey…including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods…is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911′. The Silberhorn peak was also ‘the Silvertine [peak above the dwarven city of Moria] of my dreams’. Tolkien’s holiday in Switzerland was a rare treat in an impoverished, if studious, childhood, and so it is little wonder that it had such an effect on him.

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
The Fall of Gondolin, which Tolkien started as he recovered from the Somme in 1917, was finally published in 2018. Big W

2. Despite dying in 1973, new Tolkien work continues to be published

Though he is still most famous for The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien wrote many other poems, short stories, and novels based in Middle Earth. Some of these were published in his lifetime, but when he died in 1973 he left behind a vast collection of unpublished work of which his son, Christopher Tolkien, was left in charge. In the intervening 45 years, Christopher has dedicated his life to the mammoth task of publishing these scribblings for the first time. Many Tolkien fans however grumble that he is like Smaug sitting jealously on a pile of treasure.

In Christopher’s defense, many of the manuscripts are in note form or incomplete, and require a lot of work to meet his father’s exacting standards. For example, Tolkien’s handwritten translation of Beowulf was completed in the 1920s, but he never made any plans to publish it, and went back to correct certain parts over the next half-century. Christopher thus had the difficult task of deciding which corrections to include, and whether his father would have wanted it to see the light of day at all. Having 10 new things published after your death isn’t bad going at all, either.

20 Facts about J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Lord of the Rings
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, where Tolkien lived with his family from 1930 to 1947. Oxfordshire Blue Plaques

1. Oxford is still a mecca for Tolkien fans

Given that Tolkien spent most of his life in Oxford, a city dominated by an ancient university which is not keen on change, it is unsurprising that so many sites dear to Tolkien remain. If you’re a Tolkien fan, visiting the city thus must be top of your bucket list. His undergraduate college, Exeter, is over 700 years old, and has a monument to him in its chapel. You can also visit the colleges that he taught at – Pembroke (once home to Dr Johnson, and where Tolkien wrote The Hobbit), and Merton (the oldest college at nearly 800 years old).

Tolkien’s homes at 20 Northmoor Road and 76 Sandfield Road have commemorative plaques, but can only be viewed from the street. The Bodleian Library, where he conducted his phenomenal research and formulated ideas for Middle Earth, is however open to the public. Most appealingly, The Eagle and Child pub is still open for business, and you can sit in The Rabbit Room where The Inklings used to meet and view some relics. But moreover, the city was a place so dear to Tolkien that he chose to be buried there, and his grave is frequented by Middle Earth-pilgrims.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.

Duriez, Colin, and David Porter. The Inklings Handbook: The Lives, Thought and Writings of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Their Friends. London: Azure, 2001.

“The Somme and the ‘animal horror’ that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien” The One Ring, October 5th, 2013.

MacEacheran, Mike. “In Alpine villages, Hobbits lurk”. BBC Travel.

Moynihan, Michael, and Didrik Soderlind. Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. WA: Feral House, 1997.

Scull, Christina, and Wayne G. Hammond. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995.

Tolkien, Christopher, and Humphrey Carpenter, eds. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1999.

Tolkien, Christopher. The Complete History of Middle-Earth. London: Harper Collins, 2002.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, ed. Christopher Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again. Thorndike Press, 2003.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 3 vols. London: Harper Collins, 2003.