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.