Book Review: Tolkien

Tolkien:  How An Obscure Oxford Professor Wrote The Hobbit And Became The Most Beloved Author Of The Century, by Devin Brown

In reading this book I am reminded that there are a great many people who might want to read a biography but do not want to read one that is particularly long or detailed.  They may not want to know a lot of information about the author but still have a fondness for Tolkien thanks to his writing and do not want to take too much time to get at least some understanding of how it was that he became famous and how he lived his life when he wasn’t writing about elves, orcs, hobbits, and the like.  And this book certainly does provide some information about the providential publishing of Tolkien’s works as well as just praise of C.S. Lewis for encouraging the work.  One cannot help but think that there is a lot more about Tolkien that could that could have been written here that wasn’t.  This just isn’t a very long and detailed book for all of its focus on the publishing history of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and though that isn’t a bad thing, it is hard to avoid wanting more from a biography of Tolkien that somehow manages to be less than 150 pages.

This book is a short one of about 150 pages or so that begins with a prologue that looks at the current popularity of Tolkien and his body of writing.  This book was, perhaps unsurprisingly, published in the midst of the film trilogy of the Hobbit that showed the enduring mass appeal of Tolkien’s writing to the contemporary generation.  After that the author provides a three-chapter biography of Tolkien that is immensely short, beginning with Tolkien’s life as a son and schoolboy examining how he was born in South Africa and was orphaned during childhood after first his father and mother died, and how he made friends with a group of other students before going to Oxford.  After that the author discusses Tolkien’s career as a scholar and soldier switching from Classics to English and then serving as an officer in the trenches of World War I until trench fever knocked him out of active service.  After that the author discusses Tolkien’s long career as a storyteller and mythmaker while also working as an Oxford professor.  An epilogue follows and then there are supplementary materials included that provide curious facts of Tolkien’s life and writing as well as fourteen Tolkien sites that can be visited by the interested reader, as well as suggestions of additional resources.

I suppose there are far worse things about a book than to want more form it.  This book is enjoyable to read and for what it is it is certainly not bad as a first taste of biographical material about Tolkien.  Obviously, someone who is a fan of Tolkien and wants to understand the context of his life is going to want a far larger biography than this one.  And it is rather telling that a man who wrote long and difficult books and one of the most sprawling collections of legendaria in the entire history of epic literature would have a biography this short to discuss why it was that the series was almost never published in the first place because of Tolkien’s perfectionism as well as the fact that publishers thought that there was not a huge market for his material.  Obviously, as this book points out, things have changed in a big way and Tolkien regularly tops readers’ lists for favorite books of all time.  All of that means that there is a market for plenty of books, big and small, about Tolkien and his writing.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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