The tall grass of the desert farm in Bloemfontein, Africa, almost hid him from view. His nurse screamed his name, her voice chasing him, but he kept running from her—a pale three-year-old child in a white blouse and shorts.
He loved the prickle of wild grass against his face and the bright clusters of flowers. Stopping to bend down, he yanked off his shoes and socks. “Ronald!” his nurse shouted, but she was still far behind him, her dark face wet from the sun.
He ran with bare feet pummeling the dry earth, stalks of grass bending and cracking near their roots. Now he could see the camelthorn tree on the hill! Once, his father had taken him to this nearby farm, lifting him onto a limb of the tree. He’d wrapped his legs around the warm, scratchy bark. “We don’t have many trees in South Africa’s desert,” his father had said. “That’s why I like planting them at home.”
A fiery pain stabbed through Ronald’s foot. Gasping, he toppled sideways onto the ground, his small arms flailing against his shorts. “No!” he blurted out, his eyes filling with tears. Something was darting away over the dirt—a black, furry thing with crooked legs, fearless as the snakes with tongues that slid across his parents’ garden.
Before long, his nurse was upon him, dropping to her knees. Scooping him into her lap, she saw the huge spider waiting slyly atop a bush. “Tarantula!” she shrieked, babbling in both English and Afrikaans. “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien! You shouldn’t have run off.”
The nurse put Ronald on his back under the scorching sun. She lifted his leg upward, grabbed his wounded foot and pulled toward the bright red of her mouth. Moaning and cooing, she sucked the spider venom from the swelling beneath his toes. Wincing, Ronald tilted his head so that he could glimpse the base of the camelthorn tree. “Take me to the tree,” he said. “I can climb it!”
“I’m taking you home, Master Tolkien! You can rest on the balcony upstairs and look at the trees your father planted.”
Carrying him like a large sack of corn, his socks and shoes bulging from her pockets, the woman awkwardly loped away from the farmland and hurried down a road near her native kraal, or village. Ronald’s foot stung even more as it touched the starched pleats of her apron; cringing, he imagined spiders crawling out of her hair. At Bloemfontein’s market square, not far from his home, he saw houseboys on their daily errands. “May I have an apple?” he asked, his voice trembling, but his nurse bypassed the stalls and ran over the steps of the Raadzaal, Bloemfontein’s most important government building.
“Mrs. Tolkien! Mrs. Tolkien!” the nurse called in singsong cadence when, a few moments later, she dashed with Ronald into the Tolkien house. “A tarantula bit your son!”
Mabel Tolkien hurried from the kitchen, her long skirt hoisted above her ankles, her face drawn from the day’s excruciating heat. Seeing the crimson welt on the bottom of Ronald’s foot, she took him from the nurse’s shoulders. “Africa’s playground,” she whispered sadly to herself, then asked Isaak, the houseboy, for calamine lotion and bandages from the cupboard.
Ronald’s foot was swabbed with pink lotion and covered with gauze. “It was a spider as big as a dragon!” he told his mother. He asked to sit on the balcony with his favorite book of fairy tales, the one with pictures of fire-breathing dragons and goblins, but his mother only reluctantly agreed. Always, she fretted over his health, finding him too thin and frail for the relentless sun.
From a balcony chair, Ronald opened the book he could not yet read, caught up by an etching of an armored knight on horseback whose sword menaced a two-headed dragon. Below, in the Tolkien garden, trees planted by Ronald’s father—cypresses, firs, and cedars—rustled as if the brave knight had just ridden past them. Ronald stood up, putting his weight squarely on both feet, defiant against the soreness under the gauze. Perhaps, he thought, he was crushing spiders with his feet and might, himself, be a brave knight. He decided he would ask Isaak, the houseboy—not his nurse, who always said “No,” or his mother, who often looked sad—to take him back to the desert farm in the morning so that, even with his bandaged tarantula bite, he might finally climb the camelthorn tree.
Ronald had been, from the start, an observant child, quick to mark details around him—the shop signs along Maitland Street; the gray blue of the Indian Ocean, where he once was bathed; the wilting boughs of the eucalyptus tree at his first Christmas. Brought to his father’s bank office, he would find pencils and paper and make simple drawings of what he’d seen. He drew the locusts that had descended on the dry grassland and destroyed the harvests. He drew the ox wagons that carried bales of wool into the market square, and the white two-story house where he lived with his parents, Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, and his one-year-old brother, Hilary.
Born and raised in England, his parents had moved to Africa to begin their marriage. At Lloyds Bank in Birmingham, England, his father’s salary had been too small to support a family; he’d gone to Bloemfontein when offered a better job by the Bank of Africa. His mother—homesick before she’d even left England’s shores—had followed in April 1891, her steamer trunk full of Birmingham mementos.
On an April day, four years later, weeks after Ronald was bitten by the tarantula, he climbed onto the family steamer trunk in the parlor, touching its dented corners and polished lid. His mother had been packing the trunk with clothes; she’d told him that he and Hilary would be traveling with her to visit relatives in faraway England. “You’ll be much cooler while we’re away,” his mother said, “and you’ll grow fatter. How long I’ve waited for this trip! If only your father could come with us.”
Talk in the household was that Arthur Tolkien was too busy at the bank to be given “home leave.” Traders and miners were making new investments from South Africa’s gold and diamond strikes and from the railroad that connected the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg. Ronald’s father had been promoted to branch manager at the bank, yet he would earn only half-pay if he took leave.
Ronald was soon discovered on top of the trunk. His father, dressed in one of the white suits he wore to work, carried a small jar of paint and a tapered brush into the parlor. “Sit on the rug,” his father said gently. “You can watch me label the trunk so it won’t be lost on your journey.”
Opening the jar, Arthur Tolkien smiled at his son and dipped the brush into the black paint. Carefully, he stooped down and began painting letters across the trunk lid. Ronald stared at the line of shapes he longed to know how to read; they seemed to him as magical as the fairy-tale pictures in his book. His parents could read words, as could the clerks at his father’s office. Words and trees—and knights and dragons—were what Ronald wanted. “I’ve written my name,” his father said, straightening up with a pride Ronald would always remember. “A. R. Tolkien. Arthur Reuel Tolkien. You also carry the name Reuel.”
Six days later, dressed in their finest outfits and having traveled by carriage and railroad car, Ronald, his mother, and Hilary boarded the ship SS Guelph at Cape Town’s harbo...