Sunday, March 12, 2017

A definitive Tolkien biography for a new generation

The following was first published on this date in 2016 on the now-defunct It is reproduced here for posterity. 

Lion Hudson 2012 (Fair Use)
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend

What does war do to a person? For many of JRR Tolkien’s generation, the “Great War” left them jaded, cynical, and agnostic. Tolkien, on the other hand, came through it with his faith strengthened and his imagination stirred toward creating a Legendarium anchored in a morality based upon his faith. His was not merely an ethereal faith, but was well grounded in everyday life. He understood the importance of the ordinary. As Colin Duriez comments in his biography, 'J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend' (p. 81):

In a curious way, the climate of war was having an invigorating effect upon Tolkien’s imagination. Perhaps it was because war heightened the importance of ordinary life. Elements like love, friendship, enjoyment of art, and the free pursuit of knowledge, worship, and leisure, even if hard-won in poverty, in representing peace stood in contrast to war. … Tolkien’s creativity arose out of the ordinary, which is why the Shire, and its protection, is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, standing for the wider protection of the human itself.

Arguably, part of what has made 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' so great is the “everyman” character of Bilbo, Sam, and, to a lesser extent, Frodo. For Tolkien, war and heroism are on the periphery. They are part of the story, and a catalyst for change in his protagonists, but they are never the main focus.

If “ordinary life” is what was important for Tolkien, and what is important in 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings,' it would be helpful to know a bit about the author’s life. What was “ordinary” for this “everyman?” While it is always a dangerous thing to make too much of an author’s life when interpreting his works, a good biography can help us gain insights, and perhaps help us understand what he was trying to say. There is no shortage of material about Tolkien the man, but some volumes are more helpful than others. Until the twenty-first century, the definitive source had been Humphrey Carpenter’s 'Authorized Biography.' Not until John Garth’s 'Tolkien and the Great War' (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history.

Garth’s biography is a great source for information surrounding the first World War, but no comprehensive biography on Tolkien had come forth until now. Drawing from a variety of sources, including letters and memoirs of those who knew the Professor, Duriez’ biography should stand as the definitive source for this generation. The novice will find the book very readable and accessible, while the aficionado will benefit from a strong refresher, as well as a few new tidbits and ideas to chew on. The Select Bibliography and Index should prove helpful for scholars and devoted fans who want to explore deeper or find that bit of information they are looking for.

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