Sometime around 1890, opportunities for promotion led Arthur Reuel Tolkien to South Africa, where the bank clerk became manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa. Tolkein’s fiancée Mabel joined him in the Orange Free State in 1891, and the couple was married that April. The first of two boys arrived the following year. They called him John Ronald Reuel.
Mabel returned to England shortly after the birth of their second son, believing the climate to be healthier than that of the African continent. She may have been right. Arthur died unexpectedly in South Africa, when the older boy was four. The family’s departure left John Ronald with only “slight but vivid” memories of Africa. One of them involved an encounter with an enormous, hairy, spider.
The family lived for a time next to a rail line, south of Birmingham. John always had an interest in languages, even…
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