The category of book I’ve been reading the last two weeks is: A biography. The book I chose for this category was J.R.R. Tolkien: A Life Inspired. Below you’ll find some information about the book, a summary, and some closing thoughts. If you’d like to skip straight to my ratings, click here.
Bibliographic Information: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Life Inspired. North, Wyatt. Wyatt North Publishing (kindle edition) 2014.
Summary: North’s J.R.R. Tolkien is a brief (around 100 pages) summary of the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. The book is arranged both categorically and chronologically. There are a few instances where the chronology restarts because the next category demands it. For the most part, however, the description of Tolkien’s life follows the order in which it happened.
JRR’s father was a banker who worked in South Africa when Ronald (that’s what they called JRR) was born (he and his mother lived in England at the time). His father died when he was only a few years old and his mother and his sons remained in England. Ronald’s mother received some money from the mining stock of her late husband and home schooled her two children. Ronald could read by the age of four and shortly thereafter learned German, French, and Latin. This, along with his mother’s telling of fairy tales would begin to shape him into the adult fairy tale author we know today. His mother died when he was thirteen years old and he and his brother were given into the care of their parish priest.
After their first boarding fell sideways they were found new lodging. It was here that he would meet his future wife, Edith Bratt. They were forbidden to interact since she was protestant and he Catholic (and he was only 16–too young, according to the priest, to have a romantic relationship).
When he entered college his classes bored him and he spent most of his time smoking a pipe and inventing languages. His rector suggested he switch his speciality to English where he would then be able to focus on the precursors to English: Old & Medieval English and the Germanic languages. The old Norse epics, sagas and myths were especially dear to him. The day he turned 21, Ronald wrote to Edith to declare his love and propose (this was the age set by the priest). Though she was already engaged, Ronald convinced her to give up her fiance and marry him; she did. She abandoned her protestant roots and became Catholic in order to marry him.
During the Great War, Tolkien avoided certain death a couple times. The first was when many battalions were headed to the battle of Somme. His, for whatever reason, was held back. Later on in the war, when his battalion was engaged in trench warfare, he contracted “trench fever.” Because of this he was pulled out of the front lines and was in and out of hospitals for the rest of the war. Only one of his close friends from the college would survive.
His writings were heavily influenced by legendary Norwegian and Icelandic sources. The courses he taught at Leeds included Old/Middle English texts and philology and the history of English including German philology, Gothic, Old Icelandic, and Medieval Welsh. While there he formed a Viking Society where students and professors would drink beer, read Old Icelandic sagas, and sing ridiculous songs in Anglo-Saxon (mostly written by Tolkien or his compatriots). Later he would form a similar group called Inklings that deteriorated into a group of adults (all the students ended up quitting). One member of this group, C.S. Lewis, would quickly become a close friend of Tolkien’s. Their strong friendship would later wane significantly. A particular gentleman did not appreciate Tolkien’s works and tried to stop his readings. About the time that he succeeded in doing so, the group all but disbanded.
It was during his grading of exams that The Hobbit began to be written. It was originally a children’s story but developed into something that foreshadowed something much more mature and dark. Allen and Unwin published the work and the success necessitated a sequel. This sequel turned into the Lord of the Rings. This novel, which is now split into three books, were published over two years (much to the dismay of his fans) and were wildly popular–so much so that he wished he had taken early retirement. After he did retire he and his wife, Edith, moved away from Oxford. She died there at the age of 82 in 1971. He was never the same after that. He had the name “Luthien” inscribed on her tombstone–a name readers of The Silmarillion would be family with. Two years later, before finishing The Silmarillion, Tolkien caught pneumonia and died. He is buried in the same grave as his wife and added the name “Beren” to the gravestone.
6/10 If you’re looking for an in-depth, comprehensive biography of J.R.R. Tolkien this isn’t it. As I mentioned before, the biography was only about 100 pages long and reads like a string of factoids in paragraph form. At 65% through the book (no page # on the kindle) North writes “Tolkien probably began writing in earnest in 1930, and he first showed it to Lewis in 1932. Lewis was nearly rapturous and encouraged “Tollers,” as he called his friend, to complete the work.” This description is representative of how the entire biography felt: full of interesting information but wasn’t incredibly relevant. As I read, I kept wondering how much of the biography was true (perhaps footnotes would have mitigated this feeling). The life of Tolkien was incredibly interesting and North’s style of writing did not detract from it too much. Despite the shortcomings of what should be a very interesting biography I think that anyone who enjoys the Lord of the Rings and wants a cursory glimpse into the life of an interesting man and incredible writer/philologist would enjoy this brief factoid/biography of Tolkien.