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Our Catholic Heritage: The Hobbit's Catholic Roots

By Bill Dodds
His religion made author J.R.R. Tolkien a misfit at Oxford.

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J.R.R. Tolkien is considered by many to be the champion of the fantasy epic in the twentieth century, joining a long list of world famous authors from England. Bill Dodds looks at Tolkien’s life, and explains how this literary giant was unusual in his own country for another reason beyond his remarkable writing ability and talent with languages.

Before there was Harry, there was the Hobbit.

Librarians and teachers say the real magic of author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is helping countless children worldwide discover the joy of reading. Some six decades earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit—and later, his The Lord of the Rings—did the same thing.

What many Tolkien fans don’t know is that John Ronald Reuel—J.R.R.—was a Roman Catholic, a rarity among Oxford University professors.

To Africa

Tolkien’s mother, Mabel Suffield, was the daughter of an English businessman. The high-spirited Mabel was engaged at 19, but her fiancé’s piano-manufacturing firm went belly up, and he was forced to sell it.

Tolkien’s father, Arthur, headed for South Africa and found work in a bank. Three years later Mabel joined him, and they married. The couple had two sons: Ronald (J.R.R.), born in 1892; and Hilary, born in 1894.

The South African climate was hard on Mabel and Ronald, so the parents decided to spend a year back in Mother England. Work at the office kept Arthur in South Africa, so the plan was for him to join the others as soon as possible.

That never happened. Arthur became sick with rheumatic fever and died.

Starting over

The Tolkiens settled in Sarehole, England, where Mabel and her sister joined the Roman Catholic Church. The boys became members a short time later.

Then Mabel rented a house next door to the Birmingham Oratory, an English congregation founded by the prominent convert Cardinal John Henry Newman. The lads started attending classes at the Catholic Grammar School of St. Philip, but that wasn’t challenging enough for the extremely bright Ronald. He returned to King Edward’s School.

Both boys had a series of health problems and taking care of them taxed Mabel. Exhausted, she went to the doctor and discovered she had diabetes. She was dead within a year. Ronald was 12; Hilary was 10.

A language all his own

Mabel had named a local priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, as their guardian. He spent his own money to help them and gave them access to his library.

That was a treasure for Ronald, who was highly talented when it came to languages. His education wasn’t limited to the classics, but included Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Welsh, and Finnish.

The adolescent began to invent his own language: Elvish. (As in elves, not Elvis.)

Later, the boys were sent to stay with another aunt and then to a foster home. There, Ronald met a young woman, Edith, three years older than he was, and fell in love. Edith became a Roman Catholic, and they married in 1916.

For his children

Ronald graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, and with World War I raging, left to fight in France. After the Armistice he took a job on the staff of the New English Dictionary (later known as the Oxford English Dictionary), then a position in the English language department at Leeds University, and then on to Oxford.

It was there he wrote his famous novels, based on stories he told his four children.

Edith died in 1971 and Ronald two years later, but his tales—his world—live on. Today there are Tolkien groups around the globe, computer games based on his work, and seemingly endless Internet sites.

The film version of The Lord of the Rings is scheduled to be released at Christmas 2001.

Copyright © 2000 Bill Dodds

Like to hear a little Elvish? Check out:

For the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day, go to:

And for some quotes from Cardinal John Henry Newman, visit:

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