“A single dream is worth more than a thousand realities.”—J.R.R. Tolkien
The majority of us know J.R.R. Tolkien for creating the world of Middle Earth, but not too much more. Did you know that he fought in World War I, or that he once had a spat with his good friend and fellow writer C.S. Lewis? Considering the amazing creativity the author possessed, it’s no surprise that such a brilliant mind would live such an exciting and interesting life. Here are 42 fantastic facts about J.R.R. Tolkien.
42. An Old Soul
Tolkien learned to read by the time he was four, with his mother allowing him to read as much as he wanted. He has said that he didn’t like Treasure Island or The Pied Piper of Hamelin and that he found Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “amusing but disturbing.”
41. Take a Chance
An employee at the London publishing firm George Allen & Unwin convinced Tolkien to submit The Hobbit for publication. Adults and children alike fell for the story when it was published a year later in 1937, so much so that the publishing company requested a sequel! Tolkien had actually written The Hobbit for his own children many years prior.
40. Three’s a Crowd
The Lord of the Rings would take Tolkien ten years to create and write, and were published in three volumes between 1954 and 1955. He had originally intended them to be one novel and didn’t like that they were turned into a trilogy. Regardless, the books would go on to become some of the most popular works of the 20th century, both in sales and reader surveys.
39. Wait, What’s Going on Here?
Tolkien really had no clear plan when he started the books. He had no idea where the story would be going when he started writing it, leaving many characters underdeveloped and the structure unlike other works of fiction.
38. Seeing Red
Tolkien delayed the publication of The Lord of the Rings because of a dispute over ink colors. He was going to leave his publisher, Allen & Unwin because another publisher would use the red ink he wanted. He had made a plan that whenever the writing on the ring would appear, it would be printed in red. When that deal fell through, he stuck it out with his original publisher.
37. Posthumous Printing
Quite a number of unpublished works and notes written by Tolkien were published after his death by his son Christopher, including The Silmarillion. That work was one of the first things that Tolkien ever wrote.
36. Write What You Know
Fighting in the wars helped shape some of his characters. Sam Gamgee, for example, was based on the ordinary soldiers that he was in command of, who felt no anger or bitterness despite the conditions they were forced into.
35. Can You Hear Me Now?
During the war, Tolkien created his own secret code, which is no surprise, considering how many languages he spoke and created. He communicated with his wife this way, so she knew that he was okay. However, the soldiers weren’t supposed to be communicating with people outside the war, as letting others know their locations was prohibited. We hope he never got in any trouble for it!
34. A Wise and Witty Wordsmith
After World War I, Tolkien had a pretty interesting job for a while. He helped work on the Oxford English Dictionary, which had started in 1879! He mainly worked on Germanic words that began with “W,” discovering their history and etymology.
Sign up to our newsletter.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
33. Pints and Pages at the Pub
He was part of a group of writers who called themselves “The Inklings.” Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield met every Tuesday for lunch at an Oxford pub called the “Eagle and Child,” and read each other pages from their books. Oh, to be a fly on the wall there!
32. High Tea, if You Please!
He was a member of an interesting club while in college called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Perhaps obviously, one of the activities that they would partake in was drinking tea, both by the school and in the library.
31. But Did He Pack on the Freshman 15?
While he was in college, he also developed a fondness for beer, and was known for staying up well into the night, and sometimes maybe morning, just talking. Ah, to have the energy and the capacity to avoid hangovers of a college student. He also felt like he needed to keep up with the richer students, and put himself into a bit of debt while doing so. We’ve all been there, J.R.R.
30. Lasting Legacy
As of 2004, The Lord of the Rings had been translated into at least 25 different languages and had sold 100 million copies worldwide. It’s the third best-selling book of all time, behind The Bible at number one, and Quotations from the Works of Mao Tse-Tung at number two.
29. The Movies Are Never as Good, Anyway
Tolkien sold the rights to his novels for film long before he died, but he never thought they would do well on screen. He just didn’t think they could be successfully translated! We think they did pretty well, despite his son’s criticism of them. Christopher Tolkien believes that the film adaptations were made as they were to appeal to the sword-fight-loving crowd.
28. That Boy Was on to Something
Tolkien was born in Orange Free State, South Africa, and his family moved to England when he was three. When he was a baby, though, he was kidnapped just for one day by a house-boy who was fascinated by him.
27. Orphaned at a Young Age
Sadly, Tolkien’s parents died when he was young. He was only four when his father passed, and 12 when his mom died. He and his brothers would be raised by a Catholic priest, as per his mother’s will. As a convert to Catholicism, she feared her sons would be raised by her Protestant family members otherwise.
26. Hidden in the Pages is Something Quite Divine
Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and found religion so important that he incorporated it into much of his writings.
25. So. Many. Languages.
Tolkien’s mother taught him Latin, French and German, and while in school he either was taught or taught himself Greek, Middle English, Old English (or Anglo Saxon), Old Norse (or Old Icelandic), Gothic, Modern and medieval Welsh, Finnish, Spanish, and Italian. He also had a working knowledge of Serbian, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Lombardic. He must have run out of languages to learn because he then created 14 different languages and alphabets for Middle Earth. Meanwhile, the rest of us spend our days severely neglecting the Duolingo owl.
24. Which Came First: The Language or the Story
As is quite clear from the above fact, Tolkien loved languages and was a philologist or someone who studied the history and culture of languages. He once said, “the invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” Does this mean he created all of those languages before he wrote the books? It’s like the new chicken or the egg debate.
23. Green Thumb
Not only did his mother introduce reading, books, and languages to him at an early age, she also encouraged him to explore botany. She wanted him to enjoy plants, from their look to their feel and everything in between.
22. Renaissance Kid
He seems like he was a creative child. Along with learning all about languages, plants and such, he also enjoyed drawing landscapes and trees.
21. Tolkien the Teacher
Along with attending Oxford University, he also taught there between 1925 and 1959. This was after he taught at the University of Leeds. His contract at Oxford only called for him to teach 36 lectures a year, but he would do between 70 and 136!
20. Famous First Words
The very first line of The Hobbit came to him while he was grading papers. “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit” was scribbled onto a page of blank exam paper. The rest, as they say, is history!
19. Musical Tolkien
1980s British rock band Marillion borrowed their name from The Silmarillion. The band’s original drummer Mick Pointer was a huge Tolkien fan. Another British rock band, Barclay James Harvest, recorded a single record under the pseudonym “Bombadil” in 1972 and recorded the song “Galadriel” a year earlier. Before that, Trekkie Leonard Nimoy had recorded "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" in the 1960s.
18. Not Even Death Can Separate Them
Tolkien passed away two years after his wife, but the pair are buried together in a single grave in the northern suburbs of Oxford. The headstone reads "Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889-1971" and "John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973." For you non-Silmarillion fans out there, Lúthien and Beren are lovers from that novel.
17. Written in the Stars
The life-long couple almost never got together. Tolkien was only 16 when he met a 19-year-old Edith, and his guardian forbade him from seeing her until he was 21. She was even engaged to another man when they did get back together!
16. Where Would You Rank Him?
In 2002, Tolkien was ranked at 92 on the BBC Network’s 100 Greatest Britons. The rankings were based on a poll of viewers. In 2008, he was ranked sixth out of 50 British writers since 1945 by British newspaper The Times. Finally, he was ranked fifth in a Forbes list of top-earning dead celebrities in 2009.
15. Royal Reception
Just one year before he passed, Tolkien was given the Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to literature by the Queen. Well deserved, we think!
14. Stand up Straight!
That wasn’t the first time he was in the presence of royalty. When he was a scholarship student at King Edward’s School, he was a cadet in the school’s Officers Training Corps. Along with the other cadets, he helped line the parade route during King George V’s coronation in 1910. Their post was just outside of Buckingham Palace.
13. Friends Until the End, Despite it All
Tolkien was great friends with fellow author C.S. Lewis, so much so that his wife felt jealous by how close they were. Tolkien had convinced Lewis to return to Christianity, but things took a bit of a turn. Tolkien was under the belief that his friend was becoming anti-Christian, and didn’t approve of his lifestyle (Lewis was seeing an American divorcée). After Lewis’ death, Tolkien wrote a letter to his daughter, regretting the distance between the two old pals, saying “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”
12. Rebel With a Cause
Devoted to Catholicism, Tolkien took much offense at new rules that the Vatican was imposing. Masses were starting to be performed in English instead of Latin as a result of one of the changes, and he wasn’t happy. While others around him responded in English, he continued to speak Latin, and he spoke loud enough so everyone would hear him.
11. Devoted to Religion
Tolkien was so immersed in his religion that he made his son learn and memorize the entire Mass, among many other prayers. He believed in praying often and receiving communion, and could often be found at a church mass. Tolkien told of a time when he was praying and God came to him, showing him his guardian angel.
10. Politics Schmolitics
Not only was he outspoken about religion, but he also didn’t think too highly of certain politicians or parties. In fact, he said that he leaned towards anarchy, and was critical about not just Hitler, but Joseph Stalin as well.
9. His Autograph is Like Polkaroo
It was a rarity if you had a signed copy of one of Tolkien’s books, as he hardly ever signed them. He just didn’t like to! There are a number of forgeries out there, but some genuine copies do exist. In fact, a 1937 first edition hard copy of The Hobbit that was signed was offered for sale for $85,000.
8. Fans That Read Together
We can all celebrate Tolkien on March 25. This day was designated by The Tolkien Society as Tolkien Reading Day in 2003. Get your books ready! Who’s joining us on a read-a-long?
7. Freedom Fighter
Tolkien was a veteran of WWI, fighting in the Battle of the Somme. He served in the Lancashire Fusiliers until he was discharged in 1917 because of “trench fever.” All but one of his friends died fighting in the war.
6. Officer and a Magic Maker
In World War I, Tolkien was a signal officer and almost returned to help during World War II, where he had been earmarked as a codebreaker. One of his sons would also join the army, and when applying, wrote his father’s occupation as “wizard.”
4. A Bitingly Good Time
Tolkien had no memory of it, but he was bitten by a baboon spider, a type of tarantula, in a garden when he was a child. I don’t want to look up a picture of this creature, simply because I’m terrified of spiders, but it sounds horrifying! The author wasn’t afraid of spiders as he grew older though, and he the incident was likely an inspiration for some of the monsters in his writings, à la Shelob.
3. He Likely Caused a lot of Road Rage…and Fear
Although we can’t imagine a time without cars, Tolkien’s generation could. He wasn’t exactly known for being a great driver either when he was behind the wheel. There was one instance when he was driving Old Jo, the family car, on two flat tires and ended up, well, smashing it into a wall. It’s reported that he would drive straight through crowds yelling “Charge them and they scatter!” Tolkien eventually gave up driving, believing cars to be bad for the environment. That was probably a good decision all around.
2. No Nazis? No Problem.
He had a bit of a quarrel with the Nazis when The Lord of the Rings was getting ready to be published in Germany. The Nazis would only publish the books if Tolkien proved his lineage was pure. The writer penned many letters to send back to them in response, with one such letter reading that he: “should regret giving any color to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine,” and also that he had “many Jewish friends.”
1. Hating on Hitler
He wasn’t a fan of Adolf Hitler in general, either. He once called the dictator a “ruddy little ignoramus,” and expressed his wish that he had Jewish ancestry. The Tolkien family had left Germany in the 1800s, with the name Tolkien originating from the German word tollkühn, which translated meant “foolhardy.”