When I was perhaps five or six years old, I first encountered J.R.R. Tolkien through his book The Hobbit. At the time, my older brother was reading The Hobbit, possibly for a school assignment or maybe just for pleasure. Over several evenings, he recited summaries of the parts he had finished reading, regaling me with incredible adventures of Middle Earth. Like so many before and after me, I took tremendous delight in the setbacks and successes of Tolkien’s unlikely and humble hero, Bilbo Baggins, as he contended with grumpy dwarves, nasty trolls, and a fierce dragon. I am thankful for my older brother, who engaged me with snippets of this marvellous tale like a bard-of-old.
A few years later, when I was browsing the shelves of my middle school library, I saw The Hobbit again. Although I immediately recognized the title, the cover of that particular edition was unusual: Bilbo—the hero—was a portly individual with a wig-like mop of curls and a stubby, little sword. Bilbo looked nothing like the archetypal heroes of 1980s film and television shows that I had watched as a kid. In stark contrast to strapping stars like Burt Reynolds, Harrison Ford, and Tom Selleck, this portrait of Bilbo seemed out-of-place. He looked more like a curly-haired version of the comedian Dom DeLuise, who often played comical sidekicks in farcical films like Cannonball Run (1981). This is hardly the sort of hero who face-off with trolls, spiders, and a dragon. The illustration was further marred by a demonic-looking Gollum, who resembled a hairless version of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. The cover of this mass market edition—now considered one of the worst covers of Tolkien’s numberless re-printed books—nearly dissuaded me from discovering for myself the wonders of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Fortunately, I trusted my brother, and I knew not to “judge a book by its cover.” So, I borrowed The Hobbit from the school library and found myself enraptured by Tolkien’s account of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Wizard, and thirteen dwarves.
Since I discovered The Hobbit, I have read The Lord of the Rings numerous times, along with many of Tolkien’s other works. I have devoured books and biographies about Tolkien and his remarkable friendship with C.S. Lewis. In particular, I read Humphrey Carpenter’s seminal biography J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. This ground-breaking work on the life of Tolkien gave me a deeper appreciation and love for the man behind the epic myth. Since Carpenter’s authorized biography appeared in 1977, several books were published about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. There are also many books of collected literary criticism, illustrations, and letters by Tolkien, as well as numerous posthumously published versions of his creative writing and translation work. There now exists numerous blogs, podcasts, societies, clubs, journals, documentaries, films, paintings, graphic novels, songs, etc., that are inspired by and about Tolkien and his Legendarium.
In August 2020, H&E Publishing commissioned me to write a short, accessible, spiritual biography of the Maker of Middle Earth. This is a daunting task but also an incredible honour. Since August, I have been immersing myself in all things Tolkien. I have also been writing as often as I can spare the time. In a Tolkien-saturated literary landscape, some have asked me why I’m writing another biography on J.R.R. Tolkien. My aim for the book is to explore his life through the lens of his Christian faith. All of Tolkien’s biographies touch on his Christian faith—some to a lesser degree and some to a greater degree. Many writers and scholars have also examined his Christian worldview through his books; however, no single biographer (that I am aware of) seeks to consider his spirituality as the central focus of his life. In some cases, Tolkien’s spirituality is downplayed or ignored entirely, as is the case with the recent biopic film Tolkien (2019), a beautifully filmed but patchy portrayal of J.R.R. Tolkien. The biography that I hope to write is intended to show readers that Tolkien’s faith was central to his personal and familial life, as well as his professional pursuits and creative imagination.
So far, researching and writing about Tolkien has been a labour of love. When my biography is published, I trust that this love and appreciation for the Maker of Middle Earth and his writings will pour off the pages into the hearts of those who read and enjoy my book. Those who are new to Tolkien will be in for a treat. Much like his books, Tolkien’s life is full of tragedy and triumph. Those old veterans of Middle Earth—especially those who have read Tolkien for more years than I have been alive—I suspect they have not yet grown weary of hearing retellings of the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
 Ballantine released this mass-market paperback edition of The Hobbit in the 1980s. It seemed to populate school libraries and book fairs across North America, probably dissuading a whole generation of readers from ever picking up the book.
 My brother, it should also be noted, introduced me to the world of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia by giving me my own set of Narnia books. He recommended that I read the books in the order Lewis wrote them (i.e., starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) as opposed to in chronological order (i.e., beginning with The Magician’s Nephew), a habit I still follow when revisiting Narnia.
 I also read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the informal literary group of which Tolkien and Lewis were founding members (The Inklings, 1978). Carpenter also collected and published a volume of select Tolkien letters (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981).
 Over forty years after Tolkien’s death, dozens and dozens of previously unpublished works were brought to print by the Tolkien Estate; among the most prominent of these posthumous publications are works such as The Silmarillion (1977), The History of Middle Earth (12 volumes published between 1983 and 1996), Roverandum (1998), The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beowulf (2014).
Sunday, January 3, 1892
Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, Africa
J.R.R. Tolkien was born 129 years ago on a warm Sunday morning in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, in what is today known as South Africa. He was named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien by his father Arthur and his mother Mabel (née Suffield). In a letter home to the baby’s grandmother back in England, Arthur described his firstborn as a “beautiful little son” who arrived earlier than expected, although both the mother and the baby were healthy and well. Arthur goes on to say that the baby “has beautiful hands and ears (very long fingers), very light hair, ‘Tolkien’ eyes and a very distinctly ‘Suffield’ mouth.” Two of Tolkien’s names were family names. “John” is the first name of both maternal and paternal grandfathers, John Suffield and John Tolkien. The name “Reuel” was taken from Arthur’s middle name, and derives from a Hebrew word meaning “friend of God.” Tolkien’s second name, “Ronald,” was the name given specifically to him by his parents, and this is the name they used when addressing him.
It is not commonly known that Tolkien, the famous English writer who gave the world hobbits, was actually born in Africa. Many biographers and inquisitors into the life of J.R.R. Tolkien have pondered the degree to which his life in South Africa shaped his writing and his outlook on life. Tolkien only lived in South Africa for only three years, however, so he retained only a handful of vivid memories from his time in Bloemfontein. One such memory was of his an African Christmas, with “blazing sun, drawn curtains and a drooping eucalyptus.” Another half-remembered recollection was when Tolkien, as a toddler, stumbled upon a tarantula in the garden. The venomous spider bit Tolkien, and although he doesn’t remember the spider itself, he recalls running in terror to his nanny who sensibly sucked out the potentially lethal poison from the boy’s wound. Later in life, Tolkien states that he had no negative feelings toward spiders as a result of this partially forgotten event; however, in his writing, Tolkien paints terrifying portraits of numerous villainous spiders in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and elsewhere in his legendarium. Certainly one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in The Two Towers—the second volume in The Lord of the Rings series—is the battle between Frodo and Samwise and the monstrous spider Shelob!
Tolkien himself notes that one of the most powerful memories of his time in Africa was actually his departure from Bloemfontein. Bloemfontein was his first home, so the climate, terrain, and the flora and fauna of South Africa were the only aspects of the world that he knew during his early formative years. In a letter to his son Christopher many years later, he writes about the impact of leaving his first, known world: “My own rather sharp memory is probably due to the dislocation of all my childhood ‘pictures’ between 3 and 4 by leaving Africa.” This feeling of dislocation and dislodgement from home is certainly a major theme in much of Tolkien’s later writing. Tolkien goes on to say that he sought to cope with the many setbacks in life by transforming these experiences “into another form and symbol with Morgoth and Orcs and the Eldalie (representing beauty and grace of life and artefact) and so on; and it has stood me in good stead in many hard years…” Although Tolkien wasn’t fond of biographical investigation as a means to identify the “source” of his literary works, he admits to his son how this own life experiences provided the groundwork for the imaginative world of Middle Earth. For example, Tolkien’s early experiences of displacement from Africa to England—where his left both his home and his father—can be seen in The Lord of the Rings. The theme of dislocation is prominent in the lives of Tolkien’s major characters, such as Frodo and the hobbits displaced from the Shire, as well as Théoden and the Rohirrim who were forced to flee Meduseld, and Aragorn as a wandering ranger dislocated from Gondor. But, feelings of dislocation are also evident in the lives of minor characters like the Gondorians, as well as the elves mournfully leaving Middle Earth.
The idea of dislocation goes beyond Tolkien’s early childhood experiences, however. Tolkien became a devout Christian at a young age, and he kept the faith “by the mercy of God”—as he told his son Michael—remaining a devout follower of Christ for the rest of his life. His Christian and biblical worldview permeates all of his writing. In a letter to the English poet W.H. Auden, Tolkien writes that he wrote The Lord of the Rings “to be consonant with Christian thought and belief,” and in another letter he states that it is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” As is evident from Tolkien’s life and writing, his own faith in Christ was no mere addendum to his life; it was central. So it is no surprise that in Tolkien’s writing, the notion of dislocation is viewed through a deeper theological and Christian lens. Dislocation is a central biblical theme beginning in Genesis with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden and humanity’s ensuing separation from the Creator. The Bible shows that the ultimate antidote to humanity’s deep-seated sense of dislocation is faith in Christ—“a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). Belief in Christ ultimately provided Tolkien with a fixed refuge from the many uncertainties he had experienced in these early chapters of his life. These hardships were of no small consequence: moving from his home in Africa, losing both his father and mother by the age of 12, and experiencing the death of dear friends in the Great War by his mid-twenties. Reflecting on the turmoil of his early life, Tolkien writes in a letter to his son Michael about his fixed belief in Christ and who he claims to be:
“It takes a fantastic will of unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really ‘happened’, and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded of him—so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am’ (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life’. We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences.”
Again, during Second World War, Tolkien writes of his faith sustaining him while separated from his son Christopher while the world was at war. Tolkien states
“there is still some hope that things may be better for us, even on the temporal plane, in the mercy of God. And though we need all our natural human courage and guts […] and all our religious faith to face evil that may befall us (as it befalls others, if God wills) still we may pray and hope. I do.”
So as we face uncertain days in the New Year ahead, may we—like Tolkien—seek comfort and hope in Christ, who “will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge” (Isaiah 33:6 NIV).
 Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1977), 25.
 Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1977), 26
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “163. To W.H. Auden, 7 June 1955,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 213.
 Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1977), 27.
 In The Hobbit, for example, Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves battle giant spiders in Mirkwood; in The Silmarillion, Tolkien gives us a gigantic and hideous spider-like creature called Ungoliant.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “73. To Christopher Tolkien, 10 June 1944,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 85.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “73. To Christopher Tolkien, 10 June 1944,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 85.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “250. To Michael Tolkien, 1 November 1963,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 340.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “269. To W.H. Auden, 12 May 1965” and “142. To Robert Murray, 2 December, 1952” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 355, 172.
 See Genesis 3:23–24.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “250. To Michael Tolkien, 1 November 1963,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 338.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “64. To Christopher Tolkien, 30 April 1944,” in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen Unwin, 1981), 76.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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