Article Title

The ancestors of J.R.R. Tolkien: piano-making and music composition in Birmingham and London


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This paper was presented at the Tolkien Symposium held virtually during the May 2021 Kalamazoo meeting


This paper will provide the surviving early to mid-nineteenth century evidence related to Henry, Alfred, and John Benjamin Tolkien, who had piano-making and music businesses in London and Birmingham, and are ancestors of the famous author J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) J.R.R. Tolkien spent his early childhood growing up in Birmingham, where his grandfather John Benjamin (1807-96) had a thriving music business at 70 and 87 New Street. His great uncles Henry and Alfred Tolkien were known as piano-makers in London in the early Victorian period as well. Tolkien & Tolkien pianos still survive to the present day, and many owners of these instruments have pieced together some of the history of their pianos. The presenter has an actual invoice of John Benjamin’s among his extensive Tolkien collection, along with a published song by one of Tolkien’s great uncles, which will be shown as part of the presentation. Various music advertisements of the Tolkiens’ music businesses that appeared in London and Birmingham newspapers will also be shown. This presentation will be a fascinating exploration of the genealogy of the best-selling author of the 20 th century who said “I have no talent in music whatsoever” but whose well-known mythology features a cosmology which is based on the medieval “music of the spheres” concept.