J.R.R. Tolkien by Mark Horne
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2011
This new biography of Tolkien takes the form of a brief chronological summary of Tolkien’s life. Three chapters are devoted to his childhood in and around Birmingham, culminating in his childhood romance with the girl he would eventually marry. Chapter 4 deals with his time as an undergraduate in Oxford, while Chapter 5 outlines his experiences in the First World War and his marriage to Edith. Chapters 6 and 7 summarize his academic career between 1918 and 1937, first in Leeds and later back in Oxford. Chapter 8 focuses on the decade following the publication of The Hobbit during which time he wrote much of The Lord of the Rings, while Chapter 9 deals with the public reception of LOTR and Tolkien’s later years. A final brief chapter entitled ‘Legacy’ explores Tolkien’s influence on modern fantasy literature and attempts to say something about Tolkien’s Christian vision.
My initial reaction to the volume was one of disappointment. The account of Tolkien’s life appears to be reasonably accurate (at various points I checked it against Humphrey Carpenter’s biography), but the book is too short to deal adequately with the important relationships in his life. In particular, there is surprisingly little about his relationship with C.S. Lewis and the rest of the Inklings. More importantly, it fails to live up to the series promise that you will learn ‘how Tolkien’s faith was an intrinsic element of his creative imagination, one that played out in the pages of his writings and his life’. Scattered references to his Roman Catholicism and a brief attempt in the final chapter to address the Christian underpinning of his writing do not amount to a demonstration that his faith was integral to his creativity. For example, more could have been made of his understanding of fantasy as sub-creation; stronger connections could have been made between his penchant for anarchism and his faith; and it would have been good to see something about his concept of eucatastrophe (a concept that embraces both the cross of Christ and the destruction of the ruling ring). To add insult to injury, the book is simply not particularly well written; the text is grammatically correct, but it is dull and lifeless. Tolkien deserves better.
NB I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.