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Book review: ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’ by Mark Horne

I must have been tired, busy, distracted or just cranky when I started reading the biography J.R.R. Tolkien last year. I just couldn’t get into it. And when I picked it up a few weeks ago to try again, it still seemed dry and uninteresting.

But I had to finish it, because I had agreed to review it (more on that below). And I’m happy to say that, in the end, I liked this book.

Part of my interest in this fantasy writer and poet stems from the fact that my husband reads Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy about once a year; and my brother, who usually is too busy living life to read much, read The Hobbit once upon a time – one of the few books he has ever read – and loved it.

Also, when I heard that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (my favorite author) were friends (wow!), that sealed it for me. I had planned to read the Hobbit books for years (even before the movies of the early 2000s) but never had gotten around to it. And when I ordered the biography last year, I debated about whether to read it first or read the fantasy novels first. Will the biography help me enjoy the novels more, or will starting with the novels help me appreciate the bio more? The debate lasted so long, it took me months to get around to reading the bio (I finally decided to read it first, and I think I chose correctly).

So here we are at long last: I’m ready to share my thoughts on the biography.

The prosaically titled (and, at times, prosaically written) volume, written by Mark Horne as part of Thomas Nelson’s “Christian Encounters” series, begins with a tale of a 3-year-old John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (or, simply, Ronald), a tarantula bite and a quick-thinking nanny to the rescue. Giant scary spiders would figure into stories he wrote for his children, and longtime Tolkien fans will recall their presence in the Hobbit stories. But not because he remembered the tarantula – this was not a case of art imitating life. He later said he didn’t recall the tarantula bite as part of the incident – he simply remembered the heat of the day and running in fear through the tall, dead grass.

In other ways, though, the difficulties of his life did inform his writing. While he was still a child, he endured the deaths of both parents, and several resulting moves because of financial necessity and educational needs. His mother’s family ostracized her because of her Catholic faith – a factor that contributed to her death, in her older son’s opinion, and which may have strengthened his resolve to remain true to the faith.

Tolkien was born in South Africa, where his parents had relocated from England for financial reasons. When he was 3, his mother took him and his younger brother to England for a visit. The plan was for the boys’ father to join them later, but it was not to be; he developed a brain hemorrhage and was buried before his wife even received word that he had died.

Ronald’s diabetic mother died when he was 12. She made arrangements in her will for her friend and spiritual helper, Father Francis Morgan, to be her two boys’ legal guardian. Tolkien’s faith played an important role in his writing, even though he at one time said he preferred not to write overtly Christian stories but “to let readers make their own choices.” Still, his faith in God was communicated throughout his works of fiction. “Having written an epic of good versus evil, Tolkien left readers free to make up their own minds how to apply his fiction,” Horne writes.

Although his works portray the battle of good vs. evil, they also portray a world in which there is much beauty “and where there was true courage to do what is right even at great cost.” Even though I haven’t delved into his books yet, I’ve seen the first two movies in the LOTR trilogy and can attest to that point. “Tolkien portrayed a fantasy world that could not only entertain us but could also challenge and inspire us.”

Entertaining and inspiring stories aside, the area where I most identified with Tolkien – besides his love of languages and linguistics – was his perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering” perfectionist, but, oh, how I understood his extreme difficulty in letting go of a manuscript. He kept revising, changing, modifying and tweaking his stories. He never thought one was good enough to be published and was surprised at his novels’ success. (Similarly, it takes me forever to write a blog post, and once I’ve published it, I’m still not finished with it!) One theory for his procrastination problem was that Tolkien avoided completing a project “because doing so would mean that he was no longer being creative.” Maybe. But as a fellow sufferer of the disease of perfectionism, I doubt that was the main reason.

And then there was his obsession with The Silmarillion, which gives background and history to some of the people, places and things in his Hobbit books. The Sil seemed to be his pet story – or, as his biographer put it, “his life’s work” – but it’s one I have been advised by fans of his to save until later because of its dense history and similarity to the Old Testament! And, even though I rather like the OT, I’m taking the advice of my husband and my friend’s Facebook friend, with whom I got into a conversation about Tolkien and his works. I’ll start with The Hobbit.

I am leaving out major pieces of Tolkien’s history in this already-long post: his friendship and, later, break with fellow Oxford professor and fantasy/sci-fi writer C.S. Lewis; his service in World War I; his marriage; his children; his death; and so much more.

But any good writer should know when it’s time to shut up, and that time is now. I’ll leave you with this:

     “Not all those who wander are lost.”
            – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Excuse me now – I have some Hobbits to get acquainted with.

I’ve been a part of Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze project for nearly three years. It allows me to get free books in exchange for giving my honest opinion, whether I like the books or not. If you’d like to get in on this sweet deal, click the link above.

2 comments to Book review: ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’ by Mark Horne

  • Eric Francis

    Howdy!

    Tolkien has been my favorite writer since college; in fact, he is so much my favorite that I have accorded him emeritus status so I can grant other good authors favorite status as I read their books.

    While there is no doubt of the importance of his faith in his everyday life, the ongoing discussion of exactly to what degree his religion influenced and, more particularly, was expressed in his works is a fascinating topic. Those who have advised you to read The Hobbit and LOTR before The Silmarillion are wise; if you were to read the latter first (say, because of the groundwork it lays for the history and theology of Middle-Earth) then I think you’d find yourself overwhelmed. It is a dense, complex book, but also a work of great beauty. I hope that when you do read it, you find the same joy that I did in “The Lay of Beren and Luthien,” in my mind its most moving chapter.

    I read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien in college and its account of his friendship with C.S. Lewis was fascinating – particularly how it described Tolkien’s happiness upon leading Lewis to convert to Christianity, only to have it turn into disappointment when Lewis joined the Church of England rather than the Catholic church. Those two were quite the pair; I actually had a meal or two in the Eagle & Child pub where they and the other Inklings hung out in Oxford.

    If you’d like to read something else by Tolkien, something not so fraught with the mythology and symbolism of his Middle-Earth works, I have a few books I’d unhesitatingly recommend. First, his translations of the Middle English poems “Sir Orfeo,” “The Pearl,” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which were collected in a single volume. His facility with ancient languages contributed mightily to the authenticity of the fictional world he created. Also, there is an essay called “On Fairy Stories” that explains the philosophy that led him to write “The Hobbit” (and it is often published along with a charming work called “Leaf by Niggle”). Finally, I have an old paperback with two of his stories, “Smith of Wootton Major” and “Farmer Giles of Ham.” Both are charming, fun reads.

    And IMO, the LOTR movies are abominations, at least to a Tolkien buff like myself. Much of what you saw isn’t in the books, it came from Peter Jackson’s brain, and I didn’t appreciate it. :)

    Looking forward to hearing more of your take on Tolkien’s works!

    XOXO,

    Eric

  • Eric, I’m glad you offered your opinion. I’d love to hear from other Tolkien fans, as you know doubt realize that my knowledge of him and his works is superficial. I have wanted to read his works for years, and many of the ones you mentioned were discussed in the bio. I want to read a more thorough examination of the man and his work.

    As for the movies, I had nothing to compare them to when I saw them but probably would have had the same reaction you and other Tolkien fans had – if I had read them first. In fact, I may have hesitated to watch the movies at all if I had read and loved the books.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I look forward to checking them out (it may take years, as I have a mile-high stack of books to get to first).

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