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Before we see the end of the research Richard “Galadhorn” Derdzinski has been doing on the subject (with the results already presented on our news site as Part I and Part II), I have decided to express my view and what I have managed to learn about the origin of the Tolkien family.
For reasons of legibility, I will not quote the sources of information here, but generally speaking my text is based on J.R.R. Tolkien. Companion and Guide as well as online genealogical records, which especially refers to what I have found on the FamilySearch website and in discussion topics on TheOneRing forum. The second part of this article contains information on Tolkien’s direct male ancestors; I have compiled this part from various sources.
The analysis of many of the existing fragments of information shows that the Tolkien family’s legend is (contrary to what I wrote last time) not very credible, yet the German origin of the family itself – more than probable. For Tolkien (along with all of its alternations) is a very common surname in Germany whereas it is relatively rare in England. Two Tolkiens are mentioned in the known records; both were born in Germany, and lived in England, although neither of them was a close relative of the English ancestors of J.R.R. Tolkien (George Henry Tolkien or Tolkin, b. in 1817 in Bremen, and Daniel Tolkien, b. in 1746 in Danzig). It follows that the Tolkien families migrated to England several times in the past.
New data indicate that the German spelling of the name Tolkien could be the original one, and the form Tollkuehn (Tollkühn) appeared later. We also know that the name used to appear (and still appears) in many forms: Tolkien, Tolkin, Tolkyn, Tollkien, Tollkiehn, Tolkuehn etc. Actually, it is obvious that on the one hand, such alternations came into existence as a result of lack of one well-established convention of putting local pronunciation differences in writing, and on the other hand – as a consequence of mistakes made while copying original manuscripts. But we will never get to know how these names were pronounced in East Prussia in the 15th, 17th or even 19th centuries, or whether any of the above-mentioned word forms may have come from a typographical error. It would be worth finding out about changes that have recently taken place in German spelling (all the more so because the ‘official’ German spelling is based on High German, which differs markedly from Low German), since the alternations Tolkien/Tolkin/Tolkyn seem to have come from the changes in the notation system, and not in the pronunciation of words (cf. the Polish forms: ojciec/oyciec/oiciec ‚father’ or Maria/Marja/Marya ‚Mary’). And similarly, words that we may treat as different forms of the same notation system are: Tolkemtt, Tolmitt, Tolcomith, Tolkemit, Tolkemythe, Tolkemite.
Such alternations can be said to have taken place not only in German-speaking countries, but also in England. In the ninetieth-century census records we can find the following forms: Tolkien, Tolkins, Tolkin or even Tonkien (as was the case in 1901 with the surname of Mabel Tolkien and her sons, whose first names were written down as John and Hilaiy). There is, however, no doubt that the name Tolkien comes from East Prussia (though not necessarily from Warmia/Ermeland). To the premisses I have already mentioned I will add one more: 24 people named Tolkien and born (or baptized) between 1684 and 1874 in Schönwalde (in present-day Yaroslavskoye, northeast of Kaliningrad) and 25 more living at a similar time in different villages and towns of Prussia (not including the ones with the root tolk). That doesn’t mean, however, that the ancestors of J.R.R. Tolkien lived in East Prussia before they moved to England; they might as well live in Leipzig, Stralsund, or Berlin.
What could the origin and original meaning of the name/surname Tolk(ien/iny) be? I find the hypothesis about its connection with the Prussian word *tulki (‘interpreter’) bold, all the more so because the word itself cannot be proved to have come from Prussian (as indicated by an asterisk), and we know very little about this language. Even if such a word had existed (although I cannot imagine how Vasmer would come to provide a historical justification for the presence of a Russian borrowing in Dutch, and in Old Norse in particular), this is no proof that any names preserved a few centuries later can be derived from it. This is – and will always be – a mere hypothesis.
The earliest known male ancestor of J.R.R. Tolkien was his great-grandfather, George William Tolkien (1784-1840). That he might have been born in the Parish of St Bartholomew in London is just a guess, yet he did live and die in Islington, a district in London. His date of birth is also doubtful – it seems to have been based on the information about his age at the moment of death. We don’t know whether it was George William or his father that came from Germany. As far as further inquiries are concerned, an important clue is that the Tolkien family members were connected with music for generations – they were upright and grand piano manufacturers; they busied themselves with the tuning of the instruments and with the printing and teaching of music etc. We can therefore guess that it was their occupation in Germany (so they were townsmen) and that the then growing interest of the English middle class in performing music at home resulted in their moving to London.
In 1805, G.W. Tolkien married Elisa Lydia Murell, who bore him at least seven children (or maybe even more, judging by the fact that their sixth child was named Septimus, i.e. the Seventh). His first child, born in 1805, was named George William. His son was born in 1832 and was also named George William Lowe. This recurrence of names of (by the way) typically German origin is a significant fact – if we managed to find a Tolkien with these names, living in the first half of the 18th century in Germany, there’s a real chance that he also was the ancestor of “our” Tolkiens.
The second son of G.W. Tolkien was John Benjamin Tolkien, the grandfather of J.R.R. Tolkien. His fourth son was Henry Tolkien (1816-1885), a well-known piano manufacturer, who probably continued to run the family business, as he lived in Islington. His company’s upright and grand pianos are of average quality, but they have come up for auction to this day, and seem to be highly valued. (By the way, in the middle of the 19th century there were around 600 piano manufacturers in England.)
John Benjamin Tolkien (1807-1896) was twice married. In 1836, he married Jane Holmwood, and they had four children, including John Benjamin Jr. (1845-1853), who may have been buried in the Bunhill Fields Cemetery, in Islington. We don’t know when Jane Tolkien died, nor when J.B. Tolkien moved with his daughters to Birmingham. In 1856, he married Mary Jane Stowe; the couple had eight or nine children. The oldest of them was Arthur Reuel Tolkien.
At that time there lived in Birmingham another John Benjamin Tolkien (1846-1883). He was a journalist and lived there with his wife Agnes and daughter Beatrice. The British census records of the time contain two more J.B. Tolkiens, who lived between 1753 and 1819, and between 1788 and 1859. The recurrence of the names shows that the two men were related: could the latter of them have been G.W. Tolkien’s brother, and the former – their father or paternal uncle? This, however, cannot even be thought to be a hypothesis; it is a mere guess.
There arises an interesting question about the origin of the name Reuel, which appears in the Tolkien family. It is never found in the earlier records; J.R.R. Tolkien’s father was the first to have received this name. It is a biblical name and means “friend of God”. J.B. Tolkien was a Nonconformist (possibly a Baptist), one of the group of people who often named their children after biblical figures, including some unpopular names. We can only guess why the name Reuel was chosen by Arthur Tolkien’s father. Maybe following the death of his first-born he wanted for God to provide special care for his next son (similarly, there is a tradition in Poland of giving the second or third name Maria to males). By giving this name to both of his sons, Arthur Reuel Tolkien made it function as a nickname.
Warsaw, January 2010
Tadeusz A. Olszański
Translated by Jarosław „Noatar” Schramel