10 Fascinating Facts About JRR Tolkien You Probably Didn’t Know

JRR Tolkien, featured image
Tolkien's portrait, probably in the 1940s
Tolkien, probably in the 1940s

JRR Tolkien or John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3rd January, in 1892, in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa, where his father was the head of the Bloemfontein bank. After his father’s death, Tolkien, his mother, and brother returned to England, where Tolkien became an academic and scholar of archaic English and twice Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford.

Tolkien is best known for his creation of the world of Middle Earth, and specifically as the writer of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. However, there was so much more to JRR Tolkien. Here are 10 things you may not know.

1. Bag End Was a Real Place

Many of the places Tolkien encountered in his life inspired the landscapes of his books. The battlefields of World War I influenced the bleakness of Mordor, while the mountains of Switzerland seeded Rivendell. After his father’s death, Tolkien, his mother Mabel, and his younger brother Hilary moved back to England where the family found themselves forced to live with various relatives. One of those relatives, Tolkien’s Aunt Jane, lived in the Worcestershire countryside, which Tolkien grew to love — and which also found its way into his books. The village of Saredon provided the foundation for Hobbiton. However, one place actually gave its name: that of Tolkien’s Aunt’s farm, Bag End.

2.Tolkien Could Read by the Age of Four

The Worcestershire countryside also became Tolkien’s earliest classroom. Mabel Tolkien home-schooled her sons from an early age, and it was here that she taught Tolkien botany and where he learned to draw. However, Tolkien also excelled at his more regular lessons — especially languages. By the age of four, he could read English fluently and be writing equally well, not long afterward. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien was a prolific — and critical — reader. He disliked Treasure Island but had a love of fantasy, especially fairy tales — although he described Alice in Wonderland as “amusing but disturbing.”

Tolkien's portrait, age 24 in army uniform, 1916
age 24 in army uniform, 1916

3.The Languages of Middle Earth Weren’t the First He Created.

JRR Tolkien aptitude for languages extended beyond English. His mother also taught him Latin, French, and German and while he was at school, he taught himself Greek, Middle English, Anglo-Saxon, and Old Norse amongst many others. Tolkien went on to create 14 different languages of Middle Earth — but these were not the first he invented. During his childhood, he formulated “Nevbosh” or “New Non-Sense” with his cousin Mary Incledon. But Tolkien’s first solo invention came in his teens when he developed “Naffarin.” Based around Latin and Spanish, Naffarin evolved from Nevbosh — and, some believe, formed the foundation of Tolkien’s Elvish tongue.

4.Tolkien’s Greatest Villain Was Inspired by One of These Childhood Books.

Because of its post-Second World War publication, many people believed Sauron was based on Adolf Hitler. However, he was based on a character in one of JRR Tolkien’s favorite boyhood books. Tolkien loved SR Crockett’s historical novel, The Black Douglas. Its villain, Gilles de Retz, was based on the French knight (and associate of Joan of Arc), Gilles de Rais, a convicted child murderer. Crockett’s character was also a devil worshipper, allied with a shapeshifting witch and a pack of wolves — very similar to Sauron’s wargs. It was these evil attributes and associations that seem to have helped shaped Sauron.

Handwritten Christmas card with a colored photo of the Tolkien family, sent by Mabel Tolkien from the Orange Free State to her relatives in Birmingham, on November 15, 1892.
Handwritten Christmas card with a colored photo of the Tolkien family, sent by Mabel Tolkien from the Orange Free State to her relatives in Birmingham, on November 15, 1892.

5. Tolkien Was a Devout Catholic

Mabel Tolkien died in 1904 but before her death converted to Roman Catholicism, a decision which cut her off from her family. She assigned a Catholic priest, Father Morgan, as her sons’ guardian, ensuring both boys were raised in her adopted faith. Tolkien remained a devout Catholic all his life — so much so that he made his son memorize the whole of the mass. He was also very much a traditionalist. When the Vatican decreed that masses should be held in English, Tolkien heartily disapproved. He continued to give his response in Latin so loudly that everyone in the church could hear him.

6. Tolkien Had a Strange Sense of Humor

He may have been an academic, but JRR Tolkien was far from stuffy. He enjoyed a drink — and a laugh. In the 1930s, while teaching at Oxford, Tolkien frequently behaved like a “riotous schoolboy” — on one occasion chasing a neighbor down the road for a joke, dressed as an ax-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior! Tolkien’s tendency for over the top pranks continued into his old age when he used to amuse himself by hiding his false teeth amongst the change he passed to shopkeepers. As Tolkien put it, he had “a very simple sense of humor, which even my most appreciative critics find tiresome.”

Title page of the first American edition of The Hobbit.
Title page of the first American edition of The Hobbit.

7. Tolkien’s Horrific Spiders Were Invented to Play on a Phobia

Tolkien used spiders as agents of horror in The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and the Lord of the Rings. Many people believe this was because Tolkien loathed spiders after he was bitten by one while a toddler in South Africa. While Tolkien admitted he wasn’t a massive fan of spiders, he claimed he “did not dislike them particularly,” and even rescued those he found in the bath. In fact, Tolkien’s awful arachnids were based around the phobia of his son, Michael rather than his own, and were invented to “thoroughly frighten him.”

8. The Nazis Loved Tolkien — but He Loathed Them.

Middle Earth was a world built upon old Norse and Germanic culture — which made Tolkien a natural draw for the Nazis. However, Tolkien had no time for them, regarding Nazi ideals as “ruining, perverting, misapplying and making for ever accursed that noble northern spirit.” He also loathed Hitler, who he referred to as a “ruddy little ignoramus.” So, when Rutten & Loening, the German publishers hoping to print a German edition of The Hobbit, asked Tolkien in 1938 to confirm his Aryan credentials, Tolkien tore them down. He wrote back, explaining that “Aryan” was an Indo-Iranian culture originating from India and the middle east. “If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin,” Tolkien concluded, “ I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

9. Tolkien Trained as a World War II Code Breaker — but He Never Took up the Job

JRR Tolkien’s linguistic skills made him a prime candidate for covert war work. So, when in January 1939 he was asked if he would be willing to work in the cryptographic department of the foreign office in the event of a “national emergency,” Tolkien immediately agreed. That March, he attended a three-day course in codebreaking at the Government Code and Cypher School in London. However, Tolkien never joined the likes of Alan Turing cracking Nazi codes at Bletchley Park. In October 1939, he was informed his services were not required.

J.R.R. Tolkien's protrait, 1970
Tolkien, 1970

10. Tolkien Did Not Write the Lord of the Rings as a Trilogy

Written between 1937 and 1949, the Lord of the Rings was finally published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955. However, the story was never meant to be a trilogy. The decision to split the books was taken by the publishers, to limit the financial risk to them. The sheer size of the book also had some bearing. JRR Tolkien was unhappy with the decision, but despite the publisher’s fears, the new work exceeded the popularity of the Hobbit, becoming one of the bestselling books ever.

Signature of J.R.R. Tolkien


30 Interesting Facts About J.R.R Tolkien
Becoming Tolkien
Carter, H (1977) Tolkien: A Biography New York: Ballantine Books
J.R.R Tolkien — Encyclopaedia Britannica
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biographical Sketch
J.R.R Tolkien Trained as a British Spy

History Hustle