JRR Tolkien: Portrait of Artist as Young Hobbit 

By Moina Arcee, Dec 24, 2015, edited August 26 2018

Professor Tolkien

January 3 is the birthday JRR Tolkien, author of the beloved stories “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” Just who was JRR Tolkien, and how did he get such an unusual name?

The “J.R.R.” stands for John Ronald Reuel. Most people, including his wife,  called him  Ronald. At Oxford he was known as “JRRT” for how he signed his paper correspondences. To C.S. Lewis he was known by the nickname “Tollers.”

As for the name ‘Tolkien’, an aunt claimed the original family name was really von Hohenzollern, until 1529 when the Muslims besieged Vienna. During this fateful conflict in European and Christian history, JRR Tolkien’s ancestor, George Hohenzollern, captured the Sultan’s standard during a daring raid, thus earning an enduring nickname: Tollkuhn; which translates to ‘foolhardy.’4

siege of vienna II

Tolkien was well aware of the family legend, referencing it in a rare interview:

“I am neither foolhardy or German, whatever some remote ancestors may have been. They migrated to England more than 200 years ago, and became quickly intensely English (not British), though remaining musical – a talent that unfortunately did not descend to me.”

By the time Arthur Tolkien (Ronald’s father) was an adult the Tolkiens were completely Anglicized, indistinguishable from thousands of other middle class families in suburban Birmingham. Arthur’s career as a banker required he transfer to gold and diamond rich South Africa. He eventually earned enough to win the hand of the girl he left behind, Mabel Suffield. Thirteen years Arthur‘s junior, Mabel‘s father placed her on a steamer to the Cape. She and Arthur Tolkien were reunited, and married in 1891. The following year, on January 3, Mabel gave birth to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

The infant boy fared poorly in the Cape climate, and so did Mabel. Three years later she took Ronald and his one year old brother Hilary back to England for their health. Arthur wrote them often, promising to return. The return was delayed due to his career – and his love of South Africa. The following year, 1894, Arthur Tolkien contracted rheumatic fever, quickly died, and was just as quickly buried. The boat trip from England to the Cape took three weeks, so Mabel and the boys never saw Arthur again.

Ronald’s abiding memory of South Africa is not of his father, but of a painful bite he received from a tarantula spider, and his terrified flight from what must have seemed a minor monster to a three year old boy.5 Later in life J.R.R. Tolkien would ridicule the idea that there was a correlation between an author’s personal life and his writing. It is simply factual, however, to note that two of Tolkien’s most popular books feature giant, treacherous spiders, and in both books the spiders are worsted by boy-sized hobbits.

Back In England

Back in England Mabel tried to make ends meet. She found a cheaper place to live, and in 1896 moved Ronald and Hilary south of Birmingham to the rural hamlet of Sarehole.

Ronald and Hilary Tolkien

The road from their semi-detached brick cottage led to a meadow, through which coursed a modest river. Next to the river stood an old brick building, the Sarehole Mill. Ronald and Hillary spent their summers trespassing on the miller’s property, stealing mushrooms from an old farmer, and learning the rural dialect – words like “gamgee” (a word for cotton wool coined from a Birmingham doctor of the same name who invented a surgical dressing from cotton wool).

Ronald could read by age four, and Mabel began teaching him Latin and French. He much preferred Latin, and tales of dragons. He wrote his first story at age seven. It was about “a green great dragon.“6 Even more than dragons, Ronald was fond of trees. “There was a willow hanging over the mill-pool and I learned to climb it,” he remembered. “One day they cut it down. They didn’t do anything with it: the log just lay there. I never forgot that.”7

The axed tree and a recurring dream about a great wave of water about to engulf him were the only premonitions he had that his life was about to change. Then his mother began taking Ronald and Hilary on long Sunday walks, out of rural Sarehole and into the slums of inner-city Birmingham to the parish of St. Anne – a Roman Catholic Church. Mabel had done a lot of thinking since Arthur died, and she began to receive instruction in the Catholic faith. In June of 1900 she was accepted into the Church.

News that Mabel had become a ‘papist’ rivaled Arthur’s death for the grief it evoked in the Baptist Tolkiens. Mabel’s Unitarian family were equally appalled. So began painful family conflicts that would haunt Mabel for the rest of her life. Much of the money she had been receiving from her family and relatives dried up after her conversion. Undaunted, Mabel began instructing Ronald and Hilary in the faith.

When Ronald started school in Birmingham Mabel had to give up their residence in Sarehole and move closer to the city. Although Tolkien later spoke of his childhood as “darkened by (religious) persecution,”8 he described Sarehole in idyllic terms, referring to his four years there as “the longest-seeming and most formative part of my life.“ Sarehole would reappear in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as “the Shire,” a quiet, non-industrialized rural paradise replete with meadows, mills, mushrooms, sleepy streams, and beautiful trees.

Back in the noisy and smoky city everyone’s health deteriorated. Ronald and Hilary contracted pneumonia and whooping cough, and Mabel seemed exhausted most of the time. In April of 1904 she collapsed. Tolkien was convinced his mother’s poor health resulted from the persecution she suffered for converting to Catholicism:

“My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.”9


The hospitals version was that Mabel had diabetes (which also killed Cardinal Wiseman). At the time diabetes patients did not have the benefit of insulin treatment. By summer Mabel was finally able to leave the hospital. She and the boys moved back to the country: to Rednal, a hamlet in Worcestershire, just outside of Birmingham. Here Mabel and the boys rented two rooms in a small cottage near the Birmingham Oratory, founded in 1849 by the world famous English convert John Henry Newman.

Newman received the inspiration for the Oratory during his studies in Rome. There he became acquainted with the life of St. Philip Neri, who founded the original Oratory. Even more important, perhaps, was the counsel Newman received from (then) Father Wiseman, who pointed out that the Oratory was a middle road between religious orders and the diocesan priesthood. Oratorians were also allowed to keep their own property. This appealed to Newman, who admitted that a vow of poverty would be a great strain on his faith.10

Thus was born the Birmingham Oratory, a rather unlikely location for the world famous convert and apologist to spend the last years of his life. He died there of pneumonia on August 11, 1890. In a cemetery behind the Oratory a memorial tablet at Newman’s grave reads “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” – Out of unreality into Reality.11

Father Francis Morgan was an Oratory priest who had known Newman. Morgan was also a friend of Mabel Tolkien. With Father Francis (as he was called) attending to the Tolkien’s spiritual necessities, Mabel, Ronald, and Hilary spent a happy summer together in the country. In the Fall Mabel had a sudden, violent collapse. She lapsed into a diabetic coma. On November 14, she died in the cottage, Father Francis at her bedside.

Mabel Tolkien

“A gifted lady of great beauty and wit, greatly stricken by God with grief and suffering, who died in youth of a disease hastened by persecution of her faith,“ was how J.R.R. Tolkien would describe his mother to his own son.12 Such were the words of a faithful son unable to defend his mother from her critics. For the rest of his days Ronald Tolkien was steadfast in his conviction that his mother was persecuted to death.

Mabel Tolkien’s life, particularly her religious life, left a lasting impression on Ronald. His allegiance to his mother remained as firm as his faith; both seemed intertwined in a mysterious, powerful way. He even attributed his career to her influence:

”My interest in languages was derived solely from my mother, A Suffield (a family coming from Evesham in Worcestershire). She knew German, and gave me my first lessons in it. She was also interested in etymology, and aroused my interest in this; and also in alphabets and handwriting.”13

Elsewhere Tolkien declared, “Though a Tolkien by name, I am a Suffield by tastes, talents, and upbringing, and any corner of that country (Worcestershire) is in an indefinable way ‘home ‘ to me, as no other part of the world is.”14

Father Francis Morgan

The orphaned boys were taken in by Father Francis, whom Mabel had appointed as Ronald and Hilary’s guardian. If Ronald experienced the desperate loneliness of a suddenly orphaned child he also “had the sudden miraculous experience of Fr. Francis’ love and care and humour.”15 Ronald remembered:

“Fr. Francis obtained permission for me to retain my scholarship at KES (King Edward School) and continue there, and so I had the advantage of a first rate school and that of a ‘good Catholic home’ – ‘in excelsis’: virtually a junior inmate of the Oratory house, which contained many learned fathers (largely ‘converts’). Observance of religion was strict. Hilary and I were supposed to, and usually did, serve Mass before getting on our bikes to go to school…”16

In 1965, nearing the end of his life, Tolkien wrote of Father Francis: “I first learned charity and forgiveness from him; and the light of it pierced even the ‘liberal’ darkness out of which I came, knowing more about ‘Bloody Mary’ than the Mother of Jesus – who was never mentioned except as an object of wicked worship by the Romanists.”17


Father Francis’ guardian skills were tested immediately. The Suffields and the Tolkiens were set to contest Mabel’s will, and there was talk of sending the boys to a Protestant boarding school. They needed somewhere to go, and Father Francis sent Ronald and Hilary to live with Mabel’s irreligious sister, Beatrice Suffield. Beatrice’s great advantage over her other relatives was her utter indifference in religion. Unlike the rest of her family, she had no interest in de-Catholicizing her nephews.

Her indifference extended to the boys in all other areas, however, and in 1908 Father Francis moved Ronald and Hilary again, to lodge in a nearby house owned by friends of the Oratory, the Faulkners. It was here that Tolkien met a fellow lodger, Edith Bratt.

Edith Bratt

Nineteen year old Edith was three years older than Ronald: “remarkably pretty, small and slim with grey eyes, firm clear features and short dark hair.“18 She too was an orphan. Like Ronald, Edith never knew her father (later Ronald discovered this was because Edith was illegitimate).

There was an immediate, perhaps inevitable, attraction between two lonely teenaged orphans. Within a year they declared their love for each other. Ronald and Edith were not an obvious couple. Ronald was tall, with a long Tolkien face and fair hair and complexion; Edith was short, compact, and dark haired. Their asymmetry extended to their interests. Ronald was Catholic, Edith Protestant. She was an accomplished pianist with little formal education, and preferred music and sewing to reading. Ronald was an intellectual aspiring to an Oxford scholarship. His music was language. In addition to mastering Latin and Greek, Tolkien had begun inventing his own languages, a hobby that would continue throughout his life. “I often long to work at it and don‘t let myself,” Ronald confided to Edith, admitting that “it does seem such a mad hobby.”19

Although Edith was willing to overlook Ronald’s quirks, Father Francis, who had proved an unwitting matchmaker, now proved himself an unwilling one besides. When he discovered that Ronald and Edith were meeting clandestinely outside the house, he moved both Tolkien boys out of the Faulkner residence, and forbade Ronald from seeing Edith until he was twenty-one. Edith also moved out, all the way to Cheltenham. Would the two young lovers ever see each other again?

Concluded  next month


Ivor and Deborah Rogers, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Critical Biography, New York, Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1980, p. 126.

2. According to Ivor and Deborah Rogers, “Comparing Tolkien with Shakespeare is not presumptuous. Both men as they wrote were considered less significant than some of their contemporaries. Both wrote from a strong literary tradition, not apparently straining to innovate, yet opening new territory. And both have been imitated since, with partial to poor success. Tolkien, though not the first writer of modern fantasy, is its first widely recognized master.” (Ibid., p. 127).

3. Thomas A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, p. 309. Dr. Shippey is Tolkien’s successor at Oxford.

4. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, p. 26. Tolkien referred to this family legend when he told an interviewer: “I am neither foolhardy or German, whatever some remote ancestors may have been. They migrated to England more than 200 years ago, and became quickly intensely English (not British), though remaining musical – a talent that unfortunately did not descend to me.”

5His other memory of South Africa was the heat: “My first Christmas memory is of blazing sun, drawn curtains, and a drooping eucalyptus.”

6. His explanation of what mother said, etc.. in letters or bio.

7. Ibid., p. 30.

8. Humphrey Carpenter Editor, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 354.(Hereinafter cited as “Letters”).

9. Carpenter, op,. cit., p. 39.

10. Ian Ker, John Henry Newman, A Biography, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988, p. 328.

11. Ibid., p. 745.

12. Letters, op. cit, p. 54.

13. Letters, p. 377. This was a letter he wrote correcting a draft of an interview done with him that later was published in the Daily Telegraph, March 22, 1968). The interviewer mistakenly – but logically – attributed Tolkien’s love for Germanic languages to his German heritage.

14. Letters, op. cit., p. 54.

15Letters, p. 417.

 16Letters, p. 395. Mass was celebrated in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was connected to the Oratory.

a church connected to the Oratory,

17 Letters, p. 354, quotation marks in the original. Tolkien’s preface to his conclusion was: “I have met stuffy, stupid, undutiful, conceited, ignorant, hypocritical, lazy, tipsy, hardhearted, cynical, mean, grasping, vulgar, snobbish and even (at a guess) immoral priests ‘in the course of my peregrinations’; but for me one Fr. Francis outweighs them all, and he was an upper-class Welsh-Spaniard Tory, and seemed to some just a pottering old snob and gossip. He was – and he was not.” This was part of a letter to his son Michael.

18Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, op. cit., p. 46.

19Letters, p. 8.


  1. Nice essay.

    I met Tolkien’s son at a dinner party once. He was rather nice and lived in Alton, Staffordshire.

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