Book Review: Tolkien: A Biography

After a while, Tolkien is satisfied he has judged the exam paper fairly and places it on the right-hand pile before plucking another from the pile to his left. For a further few minutes he reads the opening pages of this new paper and then, turning the page, he is surprised to see before him a blank sheet of paper. Pausing just for a moment and feeling as though he had been rewarded for his day’s labours – one fewer page to mark – he leans back in his chair and looks around the room. Suddenly, his eye is drawn to the carpet close to one of the desk legs. He notices a tiny hole in the fabric and stares at it for long moments, day-dreaming. Then, he turns back to the paper in front of him and begins to write: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. . .

Tolkien: A Biography by Michael White, page 9

I could not tell you the last time I read a biography. The few I read when I was younger I found quite dull. However, I believe I’ve learned that if you’re reading about an interesting person – someone you’re genuinely interested in learning about – biographies can be enjoyable. I learned this after a friend pulled off her shelves a copy of Tolkien: A Biography by Michael White and asked if I had read it.

I’ve been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien since my parents (finally) let me watch the Lord of the Rings films when I was around fourteen years old. I was immediately drawn in by the depth of storytelling and dynamic characters I found in the films, and couldn’t wait to start reading the books. Although they are not what one may call easy-to-read’s, it was well worth my time reading the series as a teenager, and worth rereading since. I discovered The Hobbit; Or, There and Back Again after my dad scarfed the book in basically one sitting, and found it a delightfully simple read after consuming The Lord of the Rings, and it is one of my all-time favorites.

Obsessing over Elijah Wood, covering my walls in posters, listening to the soundtrack on repeat, and starting my collection of Tolkien books faded to a more casual admiration, fluctuating with the emotions and circumstances of my young adult years. But more recently, it has grown into a deep appreciation and almost a kindred-type fondness toward Tolkien, called Ronald by many friends; and reading this biography was like listening to a friend open up their heart and share their life story. (Also I have a very tiny Tolkien library. Come see it sometime and we can geek out together.)

Michael White is an excellent writer. He is also a fan of Tolkien, which helps of course. Included in this edition is a list of sources used (obviously a requirement for a book like this but I still found it very interesting), a timeline of Ronald’s life, a list of selected bibliography, and an index. I also appreciated that the book does not end with Tolkien’s death, but rather with quotes, accolades, and proof of his ongoing success. It sounds cliche, but truly his legend lives on.

As a self-proclaimed “Tolkienite” and one who has picked up bits of information along the way about this author I claim as one of my favorites, being able to sit down and learn so many details about his life was incredible. I loved being able to piece parts of his story together with other events or details I was not aware of. What we create is part of who are are, and who we are is created in part by our upbringing and environment.

Tolkien’s father died when he was young. He had to move houses frequently. He was an academic. He served in World War I, and his sons served during World War II. He wrote stories and letters for his children. He was devoted to the Catholic church. He was very hard on himself, possessive of his friends, and old-fashioned in many ways. The Silmarillion was the project closest to his heart. All of these elements and more help readers understand how and why he wrote what he did (including why he never wanted his books to be seen as intentionally allegorical).

One of my favorite parts of the book was the chapter highlighting his friendship with C.S. Lewis (Jack), and of course the Inklings and their famed meetings in the Eagle and Child pub. I learned so many things that I found incredibly insightful and jaw-dropping. In fact, I found that I had actually been misinformed about some things regarding Jack himself, and his relationship with Ronald! As a reader of them both, I’m grateful that the author included so many details about this aspect of Tolkien’s life.

I identify with Ronald in many ways. He is thought, in fact, to have the same Myers-Briggs personality that I relate to. I understand his frustration with modern technology, his fearfulness and struggle to let go of things, devotion to relationships, and profound desire for simplicity, rolling hills, and a captivating book. If I was a fan before, now I feel that I am a friend of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. His talent and drive to create this Middle Earth masterpiece are unmatched.

Now it’s time to go get The Silmarillion off my bookshelf and try (again) to read it.

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