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J. R. R. Tolkien

Born: Bloemfontein, South Africa

J. R. R. Tolkien was a professor at England's Oxford University and a respected scholar of medieval literature. But he is best known as the author of the fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. At the age of three he moved with his mother to Sarehole, a village outside Birmingham, England. It was there that Tolkien developed the deep love for English country life that is reflected in his stories.

Tolkien had a skill for languages; he even made up his own private words and alphabet in a language he called Naffarin. While a student at King Edward's School in Birmingham, he excelled in Latin, Greek, German, and Middle English. His skill with words earned him a scholarship to Oxford. There he majored in philology, the study of language. He studied the great medieval literatures that would provide the background for his own writings, in which he created a world with its own languages.

Tolkien graduated in June, 1915. As World War I had begun, he enlisted in the army. Before going to France as a signal officer, he married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt. During the war, Tolkien contracted trench fever. He remained ill for nearly a year. During that time he began The Book of Lost Tales (later renamed The Silmarillion). After the war, Tolkien returned to Oxford, becoming professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1925.

Tolkien was outwardly a popular lecturer and scholar. He also had an inner life filled with fanciful stories. Borrowing material from the unfinished manuscript of The Silmarillion, he began telling his children tales about a funny little creature named Bilbo Baggins. Baggins found a magic ring that made its wearer invisible. These stories became The Hobbit (1937). Later he invented the evil Sauron. Sauron's efforts to obtain the ring are dramatically told in three novels, together called The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). The three are The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.

Tolkien retired from Oxford in 1959, devoting his last years to work on The Silmarillion. He was unable to finish that task before his death on September 2, 1973. The novel was edited by his son Christopher. It was published in 1977 as the final offering of one of the most beloved and widely read authors in the world.

— biography from The New Book of Knowledge