One summer day in the early '30s—he was always fuzzy about the date—John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, a professor of Old English at Oxford University, was grading exams in his study when he came upon a blank page. "I scrawled, 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,' " he later wrote. "I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it for a long time..."

When he finally did something, it would catapult him to unimagined wealth and fame. With a 1937 novel, The Hobbit, followed in the mid-'50s by his epic The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien invented a rich fantasy world that has captivated generations of readers and sold more than 100 million books. By the time he died, at 81, in 1973, the pipe-puffing don was an international cult figure. And now he's Hollywood's hottest writer, living or otherwise, thanks to director Peter Jackson's acclaimed film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The movie, which grossed more than $500 million worldwide in its first four weeks, stars Elijah Wood as hobbit Frodo Baggins—a small denizen of a realm known as Middle-earth, who battles goblins and wizards over a magic ring. "It could be a movie of Star Wars-like importance," says John Anderson, chief critic of the New York daily Newsday. "It could mark a generation."

One can only guess what Professor Tolkien might think of the hoopla, but it's safe to say he wouldn't be chatting with Leno or Letterman. "He hated all cinema and television and was very anti-20th century," says Michael White, author of Critical Lives: J.R.R. Tolkien, a new biography. Tolkien once described himself as "a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands." Still, he was more complex than his fictional creatures. "He could be great fun," says White. "On the other hand, he was this sort of pedantic, irritating character who thought he could do everything right and nobody else could. He didn't fit in the real world."

Tolkien learned early on that the world can be a cruel place. He was born on Jan. 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the older son of British expatriates Alfred, a banker, and his wife, Mabel. After Alfred's death in 1896, the family settled in England, where Mabel died in 1904, leaving her boys to be raised by a Catholic priest. At 17, Tolkien began courting 20-year-old Edith Bratt, who lived in the same Birmingham boarding house. Years later he wrote recalling "our good-nights when sometimes you were in your little white nightgown."

Yet he dutifully obeyed when his guardian banned him from seeing Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien enrolled at Oxford, where he studied Old Norse and Old English—inspirations for Elvish, the language he invented for his hobbit cycle. At midnight on his 21st birthday, he sat up in bed and wrote Edith: "How long will it be before we are joined together?" Her reply bore bad news: She'd become engaged to another. "I began to doubt you," she explained.

They sorted things out and wed in 1916, a union that lasted until Edith's death, at 82, in 1971. Tolkien went off to France to fight in World War I but was shipped home with typhus-like "trench fever." He taught at the University of Leeds, then in 1925 returned to Oxford, remaining until his retirement in 1959. Tolkien had an impish side—at one party he dressed as a Saxon warrior and ran down the street with an axe. He belonged to a beery writer's club called the Inklings, as did colleague C.S. Lewis, later famed as author of the Narnia books for children. The group championed Tolkien's fiction, though at a reading one Inkling was heard to mutter, "Not another [expletive] elf."

Tolkien spun his summer doodle into The Hobbit primarily to amuse his children: Christopher, now 77 and a retired university professor; Priscilla, 72, a social worker; and Michael, a schoolmaster who died at 64 in 1984. The oldest, 84-year-old John, is a Catholic priest and the subject of an ongoing scandal in Britain. An ex-student, Chris Carrie, 56, claims Father Tolkien sexually assaulted him 45 years ago. No charges have been filed, and the allegations, says John's lawyer Steven Maier, "are categorically denied."

Happily, Tolkien missed the lurid headlines. A multimillionaire by the end of his life, he was perplexed by the rabid following he gained in the '60s, when campus readers hailed his celebration of nature and some likened his books to an acid trip. On Sept. 2, 1973, he died of complications from an ulcer and chest infection. He lies beside Edith north of Oxford, his grave a shrine to devotees. "Tolkien did what Dickens and Dostoyevsky did, create an entire universe with believable characters, depth and details," says White. "Very few people manage that."

Richard Jerome
Laura Sanderson Healy and Caris Davis in London and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Sanderson Healy,
  • Caris Davis,
  • Joseph V. Tirella.