Best known for his fantasy novels The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien is probably better known by members of his family for his profound example of true fatherhood.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His life growing up there and then later in England would prove to be one of the most tragic parts of his life as both his father and mother died before he was 12 years old. Before her death, Tolkien’s mother assigned Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory to be his guardian. Father Morgan would be Tolkien’s closest father figure and proved to be a worthy mentor and friend as well.
Tolkien would marry Edith Bratt on March 22,1916 and they would bring forth into the world four children: three boys and one girl. As many can attest, one of the greatest legacies he left was his devotion and love of his children.
Father Before Professor
A constant struggle for Tolkien was the balance of work and family. After being retired for many years Tolkien came to regret the times when he failed to love his children properly. Yet, he strove to make time for his children and would do all he could to ensure that they knew he loved them.
One feature of Tolkien’s affection for his children proved to be embarrassing when they were older: he would always kiss them, even his boys when they were adults. He never shied away from showing his affection for his children.
Another example of his closeness to his children resides in a typical day in the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. It started off bright and early by biking to a nearby church service with his sons Michael and Christopher. Afterwards, they biked home to eat the breakfast Edith had prepared.
The morning would pass by after meeting with various pupils and lecturing at Oxford, then he would return home to have lunch with his family. Tolkien would be keenly interested in the activities of his children and made use of the time to have genuine conversations with them.
After lunch, Tolkien’s time was caught up in various meetings with dinner being short and the day ending in his study working on his latest adventure in Middle-Earth. In fact, the majority of his stories were written well into the early hours of the morning when the rest of the family members were fast asleep. Thus, he tried not to invade family time with his writing. However, much of the inspiration behind his stories began with his children.
Tolkien the Storyteller
In the early years when his children were still young, Tolkien would be found telling his children exciting stories when they had trouble falling asleep. Tolkien was a great storyteller and took this opportunity to tell his sons grand adventures about elves, dragons, and even hobbits. His boys loved the stories so much that Tolkien wrote them down and even made elaborate illustrations.
These stories became more complicated over time and eventually Tolkien was inspired to send a few of his manuscripts to a local publisher. The rest is history.
After the commercial success of The Hobbit, a request for a sequel was inevitable. As Tolkien composed the next volume, he would continually collaborate with his children, who were now young adults. In a certain sense they knew the story as well as he did.
A Master Letter Writer
One last example of Tolkien’s legacy of fatherhood was his dedication to staying in touch with his children even after they left home.
Tolkien was a master at the art of letter writing and wrote a large number of letters with only 354 being published posthumously in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. The majority of those letters were written to his children. He loved writing so much that when he lost the use of his right arm for a few weeks toward the end of his life, he remarked, “I found not being able to use a pen or pencil as defeating as the loss of her beak would be to a hen.”
Through his letters Tolkien would continually encourage his children in their trials of life as well as give his sons advice on how to be a man in the modern world.
In the end, Tolkien’s greatest legacy was not his multi-million dollar estate, but his devotion and care of his children. All he accomplished in life was for them and it was through his call to fatherhood that he became the greatest fantasy writer the world has ever known.
This post was written by Philip Kosloski, and it originally appeared in Crisis Magazine. It is reprinted with permission.