Book Review: J. R. R. Tolkien by Mark Horne

When I saw Mark Horne’s new biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, I asked myself what I knew about this author who has long been a favourite of mine.  I didn’t come up with much, other than the fact that he was Catholic and had a few kids.  So I decided to read the book.  Part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series, it’s a slender volume that was a quick, easy, and interesting read.

A few things I didn’t know about Tolkien (and found surprising) include:

  • he was homeschooled by his mom for a year while trying to get into an exclusive boys’ school
  • he lost both his parents at a young age
  • he partied during university (including going for a joy ride on a bus)
  • he married a woman three years older than him (and had four kids with her)
  • he bucked the current trends at Oxford by being interested in Germanic languages and Norwegian tales rather than in the Greeks and Romans

While Tolkien enjoyed writing, he found it hard to finish any of his stories.  (Hmmm, sounds familiar…)  He had a perfectionist tendency that caused him to keep rewriting and changing anything he’d written.  Often, his critique partners would get frustrated because they’d suggest a few changes to a story or poem that Tolkien had showed him and expect to see a more polished manuscript a few weeks later; instead, Tolkien would completely rework the piece and show them an almost entirely new story or poem.  Even his publishers got frustrated with his constant revisions to his manuscripts.

While Tolkien was a serious Catholic, many people have pointed out that his books aren’t overtly “Christian.”  There is no mention of God anywhere in The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.  Horne explains, “Tolkien believed that all truth was from God and that it even pushed itself into human culture through myths and legends… Just because myths did not happen does not mean they don’t relate truths.  Thus, in writing a myth for the modern world, Tolkien was rather confident that he was somehow reflecting God’s truth, even without explicitly mentioning him.”

Horne displays a keen insight into Tolkien’s life and works.  He includes quotes from other Tolkien scholars and biographers, but provides an intensely interesting and readable look at the author of “the best book of the twentieth century” (according to British bookstore chain Waterstone’s poll in 1997).

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