In Tolkien: How an Obscure Oxford Professor Wrote The Hobbit and Became the Most Beloved Author of the Century, author Devin Brown gives readers an overview of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, particularly the experiences that affected his writing.
The good: Brown knows and loves his subject, so well, in fact, that he teaches a class on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at Asbury University.
The book is mercifully brief. It’s 192 pages, but page 127 and following contain curious facts and Tolkien sites, and much of that is information already included in the book. There are many Tolkien books on the market, but few are this short.
Despite its length, Tolkien manages to include many telling and interesting details about Tolkien’s life and how it affected his work, from his childhood in South Africa to his insistence that The Lord of the Rings be published with The Silmarillion (which, thankfully, he gave up on, or audiences might never have had the opportunity to read more of his works than The Hobbit).
Brown has a gift for including what is important and ignoring the rest. For example:
Five weeks into Tolkien’s first term, on November 25, 1911, Exeter Library records indicated that he checked out A Finnish Grammar, by Charles Eliot … He was not taking a class that required Finnish. This was simply a subject that interested him. … and through its inspiration he began to develop Quenya, the language that his High Elves would speak.
What I found most compelling was Tolkien’s relationship with fellow Oxford professor and writer C.S. Lewis. I wanted to read more, and can only hope Brown will write a book specifically on that relationship. (He’s already written a biography of Lewis.)
The book is from Abingdon Press, a Christian publisher, and Brown teaches at a Christian university. But while Brown explores the impact Tolkien’s Catholic faith has on his writing, the book rarely feels preachy. Brown weaves Tolkien’s faith into the book in the same way it seems his faith was woven into his life.
The not so good: At times the book feels too short. Just when I wanted Brown to delve deeper into a topic, he moved on to something else. I got the feeling there must be some great primary source material he was drawing on, and I wanted to hear more in Tolkien’s own words.
That said, he made me want to learn more.
The larger problem is that every once in a while, Brown tells us too much too quickly. At the risk of a spoiler, here is a bit from the passage where Tolkien meets his wife:
Her name was Edith Bratt. She would be Tolkien’s first love and his last. Eight years later — after a rocky courtship, three years of forced separation, and a two-year engagement — Edith Bratt would become Edith Tolkien.
He has the opportunity to build suspense and instead tells us what happened before we’ve even had a chance to meet her.
Conclusions: This a quick, clear introduction to the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s a good read for someone who wants to know the events in his life that led to his writings. I’m glad I read it.
I read this book for free via Netgalley.com. This is my honest opinion of the book.