Thanks to Kregel for the opportunity to read and do a review of Colin Duriez’ recent biography J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend (Lion Books, 2012).
To be honest, I did not read the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings books when I was Highschool. I am not even sure I had heard of them. Further, I am not sure what was going on with me during those years but I was not even really interested in Literature much. It might have been part of the fact that I am more of a visual learning and things like watching TV were more how I learned than by reading books per se. Well, sometime during college that changed and I learned to read books as a way of learning and things like language and literature began to be more appealing to me. Learning NT Greek at my home church may have helped too.
When the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring came out, I decided to get the books and start reading them, from the beginning. I have a dear friend who I refer to as my resident Tolkien scholar and he was able to give me some direction and I was also able to talk and reflect on the stories with him as I went through. By resident scholar I mean he has read the stories some 20 times or more and owns and has read extensively all the back story material too – he KNOWS Tolkien inside and out. So I had The Hobbit, The LOTR set, The Silmarillion, and The Unfinished Tales along with a Guide to Middle Earth! I was set.
Additionally I took a weekend seminar on Tolkien in Seminary and learned quite a bit about the context and background and various interpretations of the legends of Middle Earth. So I was happy to have a chance to read Colin Duriez’ biography.
In this biography you learn much not just about the man but you learn about how he thought and the major events in his life that in the long run all in some way contributed to his developing the world and wonder of Middle Earth. Many elements of the Shire represent the area where Tolkien grew up. He and his brother led a Scouting for Boys group that contributed to qualities and characteristics of characters in the stories. Samwise Gamgee telling Gollum there was only one way to properly cook Coney (rabbit) would be one example of Scouting skills that found its way into the story.
I think most people know that the Elvish languages spoken in stories were all invented by Tolkien. Tolkien had three passions in his life: Old Norse, festivity, and classical philology. He began his studies in the Classics but eventually found himself (and by way of his mentors) better suited to Comparative Philology and that helped him go deeper not just into the languages but also the history of languages and their development (he could site read old Icelandic saga straight off the pages with no helps). The classical romance seen between Aragorn and Arwen is in many ways a reflection of the relationship between Tolkien and the love of his life, Edith. The were forbidden to be together for quite a few years by Tolkien guardian who was concerned that Edith would prevent Tolkien from being successful in his academic pursuits and so be able to have a career and provide for her. They would meet secretly and haphazardly until they were allowed to marry.
Tolkien took a summer trip to the Alps once, this could have provided background for scenes in the various mountains in the stories. We know that he was involved to some degree in both world wars, and so there are ties to that. He was not a fan of modern technology and preferred the quiet life of Oxford, which is reflected in the life of the Shire. The Shire represents all that is good and Mordor and Isengard represent the onset of modernization that Tolkien didn’t care for. It also reflects the awfulness of war.
From the Back cover: “Tolkien had a difficult life for many years: orphaned and poor, his guardian forbade him to communicate with the woman he had fallen in love with, and he went through the horrors of the First World War. An intensely private and brilliant scholar, he spent over fifty years working on the languages, history, peoples, and geography of Middle Earth, with a consistent mythology inspired by formidable knowledge of early northern European history and culture. J.R.R. Tolkien became a legend by creating an imaginary world that has enthralled and delighted generations. This engaging and accessible biography brings him to life.”
Honestly, this sort of thing is probably only going to satisfy and interest the devoted Tolkien fan. Many people have seen the movies and so stopped reading the stories but I think those who have allowed themselves to keep reading the books, will enjoy learning more about the man and the life behind it all!