Ten facts about Professor Tolkien at School (part 1)
by John Pletcher
Our favorite portions of the Professor’s legendarium did not just magically appear. It’s marvelously fascinating to explore (or revisit) Tolkien’s own journey in academia.

Enjoy these five fast facts.

Yes, he was brilliant and writing stories at a very early age.

In a letter to W.H. Auden, the Professor explained his own childhood fascination with fiery dragons: “I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say ‘a great green dragon.’ I wondered why, and still do.”1 At this very early age, Tolkien was turning words in clever ways even as he word-painted with dragons. In his essay On Fairy-stories, the Professor recalled such early fascination: “The dragon had the trade-mark of Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world . . . I desired dragons with a profound desire.”2

We have his mother to thank.

He described his mother, Mabel, as ‘a gifted lady of great beauty and wit . . .’ He said, ‘It is to my mother, who taught me (until I obtained a scholarship) that I owe my tastes for philology, especially of Germanic languages, and for romance.’3 Mabel Tolkien was extremely capable with command of Latin, French, and German as well as painting, sketching, and playing piano.4 She poured these ingredients into the heart and mind of young Ronald. Oh, the influence of a loving mother!

Tolkien’s school locations included . . .

Starting in September of 1900, he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in the center of Birmingham. It was there, along with his close friends of the early fellowship, that he eventually formed the TCBS.
He studied at Exeter College, Oxford, completing his undergraduate from 1911-1915.
Following the war, Tolkien returned to Oxford and worked on a new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Tolkien taught at Leeds University after the Great War.
In 1925, he became Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College.
In 1945, Tolkien became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature where he served until his retirement in 1959.

He was not always an exceptional student.

Tolkien’s early career at Oxford was characterized by late-night social distractions and less-than-stellar scholarship. With his early academic focus on the Classics, he was bored. Humphrey Carpenter recounts: “He tried to cram into six weeks the work that he should have done during the previous four terms, but it was not easy to break the habit of sitting up late talking to friends, and he found it difficult to get up in the morning . . . When Honour Moderations began at the end of February he was still poorly prepared for many papers.”5

With those required examinations, known as ‘Mods,’ Tolkien only achieved a “Second Class” ranking. Carpenter notes that “he knew that he ought to have done better.” Fortunately, Tolkien was performing much better in philology, his real passion area. This progress was due largely to the influence of Professor Joe Wright. Exeter College redirected Tolkien, and he joined the Honour School of English Language and Literature in the summer term of 1913.

Tolkien was never officially Dr. Tolkien.

By today’s standards, we might say that our beloved Professor was actually undereducated. With regard to letters after his name, those so-coveted credentials for academia, he was lacking. While people at times mistakenly referred to him as “Doctor,”6 he never officially earned such a degree. Tolkien studied and taught in an era when brilliance, depth of insight, and creative scholarship were still wisely rewarded over the acquiring of official degrees and titles. Yes, Tolkien’s literary command was astounding and superseded typical expectations.


Watch for Five MORE Facts, coming your way the final week of September!

  1. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 214.
  2. Tolkien On Fairy-stories, 55.
  3. Letters, 218.
  4. Joseph Pearce. Tolkien: Man and Myth, 14-15.
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien: A biography, 70.
  6. Letters, See the introduction to letter 165, p. 217.