For most people the name John Ronald Reuel Tolkien immediately brings to mind the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is likely that most of Tolkien's more casual readers, as well as those who are only familiar with the six Peter Jackson movies, know very little else about the man. But as Raymond Edwards' biography makes clear, there is much more than that to Tolkien. Long before he scribbled "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit . . ." J.R.R. Tolkien was already a well known scholar and philologist, fascinated by the origins and developments of words and languages.
Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 but spent most of his childhood and youth in and around Birmingham in England. Having lost his father as a small child and his mother at age 12, he led a straitened existence on the edge of poverty. Fortunately he had as guardian a priest who saw to it that he attended an excellent school where his intellectual gifts flourished. Encouraged by a group of like-minded friends, he began constructing imaginary languages and delved deeply into ancient Norse and Germanic tongues and the legends associated with them. He continued these hobbies when he entered Oxford University in 1911, where they became the chief focus of his academic career. After receiving his degree in 1915 Tolkien entered the British Army, training for a year and arriving in France just in time to be involved in the bloodbath of the Somme in the summer of 1916. After several months in action he became seriously ill and was invalided back to England, where he spent the rest of the war recuperating. It was during those months of illness that he began writing what he eventually called his "mythology for England," the tales of the peoples who spoke the languages he had invented. Eventually those tales became the foundation for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
After World War I Tolkien, who had married shortly before leaving for France and who now had a growing family,worked for a time on the Oxford English Dictionary, became a professor at the University of Leeds, and then returned to Oxford. There he was a strong advocate for and an architect of a syllabus revision that was to emphasize philology over literature and focus on Old English poems like Beowulf rather than more recent literature. He was one of the leaders of a group of academic friends known as the Inklings, including C.S. Lewis, who met weekly to socialize and encourage each others' writings and research. With four children and a wife who was frequently ill Tolkien found it necessary to undertake a demanding academic load, but on holidays and in spare moments he always turned back to the expanding stories in his mythology, writing and revising it many times over several decades. To entertain his children he wrote stories to read aloud in the evenings. One of those tales about a small being with furry feet eventually turned into The Hobbit, the success of which led him to write what became the much longer and more complex The Lord of the Rings. Both of these enormously successful books grew out of elements of Tolkien's mythology and encouraged him to keep working to complete it.
That completion had to be left to Tolkien's son Christopher, because as Edwards well describes Tolkien was well known for his "nigglings," constantly rewriting and revising and spending large amounts of time attempting, for example, to accomodate his flat-world cosmology with the real Earth. That careful attention to every detail is part of what makes Tolkien's writings so appealings, but as Edwards points out it also meant that much of the professional writing Tolkien might have done as part of his academic career at Oxford simply never got done, As a result Tolkien's academic reputation suffered even as his books became massive bestsellers, and the study of philology itself at Oxford and elsewhere has
Raymond Edwards has written a good companion to Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography published in 1977. Occasionally he corrects or clarifies Carpenter, but in most cases the two books are complementary, with Edwards' focus on Tolkien's academic career filling some gaps. Edwards also had the advantage of being able to read and consult the large amount of material published since Tolkien's death, beginning with The Silmarillion in 1977, continuing through the twelve volume History of Middle-earth, and then assorted other works like Tolkien's own translation of Beowulf. In the end Edwards' portrait of Tolkien is of an academic beset with worries about his work on the one hand and financial and family woes on the other, but always remaining dedicated to the completion and perfection of his life long dream: "a mythology for England."