Born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a sick child who moved with his mother Mabel and his brother Hilary to Birmingham, England. His father, Arthur, died before he could join the rest of the family; Tolkien's mother died in 1904. The Tolkien boys were raised at Birmingham Oratory, operated by the Roman Catholic Church; Tolkien would remain a devout Catholic for the rest of his life.
After studying Classics and English Language and Literature at Oxford, Tolkien entered the British army during World War I. In July 1916, his battalion fought a fierce and ultimately futile battle in Ovillers, France. After the war, in 1920, Tolkien became an instructor at the University of Leeds. He assumed the Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford five years later, where he taught philology, the study of word origins. Tolkien had always been fascinated by words and their etymologies; it was this passion that led him to create his own imaginary languages, languages which became the basis of Middle-earth, his virtually life-long mythological creation. Tolkien viewed Middle-earth as his attempt to give England a truly national mythology of its own.
In 1937, Tolkien published The Hobbit. Its critical and commercial success led the public to demand a sequel. Instead of a true sequel, however, Tolkien wrote his epic novel, The Lord of the Rings (published in three volumes, 1954-55). It, too, enjoyed tremendous success, both in Britain and around the world. Tolkien always hoped that the mythology underlying both books would be published, but The Silmarillion-actually the oldest part of Tolkien's work-did not appear in print until after his death. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973.