J.R.R. Tolkien: A Life Inspired

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien image courtesy of British Museum

J.R.R. Tolkien A Life Inspired; by Wyatt North
| published January 8, 2015 |

Book review by Lisa K Whitten
Thursday Review contributor

I first learned of The Hobbit in the early 1970's. I read one and a half of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and stopped because I couldn't keep track of everyone and everything. That, and I was just beginning my adult life and was too busy for reading. With the impending release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies I obtained a copy of this short biography on J.R.R. Tolkien and read it prior to seeing the latest movie. The movie was intense (how could it not be with five armies battling at the same time?) I still had trouble keeping up with who everyone was but it was easier.

Although this biography is very short, only 92 pages of the 108 pages in the book, it is a comprehensive biography on Tolkien. It begins with his parents meeting, their long courtship in England, and his father moving to South Africa to find a way to sustain a living for the family before getting married. It ends with J.R.R. Tolkien's death.

Tolkien and his younger brother were born in South Africa, and after moving back to England with their mother for a family visit they lost their father, who had remained behind in South Africa, to rheumatic fever. This left the small family with no income. As a result they remained in England and moved in with his maternal grandparents.

Tolkien and his brother were home-schooled, and during that time he came to love botany and drawing nature. Tolkien was reading by age 4 and learned to write not long after. In his later years he was fascinated by languages. He especially enjoyed the older languages and decorative writing. He enjoyed drawing maps and developing his own languages. Do you see where this is going?

When Tolkien was 12 years old his mother died from diabetes at a time before insulin had been discovered. Death continues to touch the people in Tolkien's life as he gets older, and much of that near-obsession with death came as a result of World War I. He served in the war and made it home. Parts of The Hobbit very possibly were influenced by his experiences in the war. Clearly, his war experiences came out in his stories.

Wyatt includes information on the education and literary clubs in which Tolkien held membership, and in the close friendships he formed, such as his close bond with C.S. Lewis. It was during these club meetings that The Hobbit was introduced and some elements of The Lord of the Rings. Lewis gave Tolkien encouragement to keep writing. Tolkien viewed Lewis' Narnia as superficial to his Christianity. He viewed his own triology as more subtle yet it is clear to see his surroundings and experiences in the stories. His belief was his writings were not his own but rather he was just the secretary. The intent of his myths was to point the reader to the Gospel.

Prior to the war Tolkien married Edith Bratt who was three years his senior and of a different religion. As hard as she tried, his wife just did not feel connected with his Catholicism and often did not attend mass. Together they had four children. Christopher, his third son, became involved in his father's work on The Lord of the Rings. In later years his son would edit and publish his father's Silmarillion and other publications after his the elder Tolkien's death. Some are the bedtime stories Tolkien spun for his children.

Once retired, his celebrity status grew steadily along with sales of his books. Unsure of how to deal with the increased attention, according to Wyatt, Tolkien had his phone number unlisted and moved to a different home. In his later years he received an honorary Doctorate from Oxford and honorary Doctor of Letters in Belgium. At Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth named him Commander of the British Empire. Though he passed away in 1973, Bilbo Baggins, his nephew Frodo, and scores of other characters live on--in the millions of copies of Tolkien's books sold worldwide, among millions more moviegoers now familiar with the hugely successful motion picture series directed by Peter Jackson, and most recently in the third and final installment of the prequel films, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and in the hearts of fans.