A Fresh Look at Tolkien

 

J.R.R. Tolkien may be the most beloved twentieth-century author with the most diverse reader base. He appealed to Christian and New Age audiences as well as readers across the political spectrum. Fame and fortune were the last things he really sought. An Oxford professor, he just wanted to tell some stories.

“The Real J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created Middle Earth,” by Jesse Xander, is a new biography of Tolkien, the first major biography in nearly twenty years.

It is an independent biography, offering a fresh look at Tolkien. Xander reveals Tolkien as simultaneously archetypically ordinary and extraordinarily remarkable, an obscure professor who wrote momentous fiction.

Xander provides an outstanding exploration of Tolkien’s life. He explores Tolkien’s youth, as a baby in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and then back in Midlands England. Tolkien’s father died young, leaving his mother, Mabel, to raise her two boys as a single mother. Xander examines the influence both his mother’s and father’s family had on Tolkien. He also looks at the effects of Mabel’s (and her boys’) conversion to Catholicism. It estranged them from much of his family, reducing them to near-poverty. At the same time, these hardships cemented Tolkien’s Catholicism.

Xander also examines Tolkien’s education, showing where he gained his love of Old English and mythology.  He examines the course of Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt, whom he married in 1916. Their courtship was protracted, and opposed by both sets of families and relations, yet bloomed into a marriage of over 50 years. Xander also looks at Tolkien’s war service and his career as a young professor, and Tolkien’s influence on his students.

Xander shows how all of these wove together to influence Tolkien’s greatest work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He does an outstanding job of tracing how different experiences shaped the work. He also examines Tolkien’s bemused and occasionally exasperated reactions to fame in his old age.

The book contains eccentricities. Xander almost worships Tolkien. This yields an awkward, apologetic revelation the great man had imperfections. Well, yes. Everyone has flaws. Those Xander reveal seem trivial: Tolkien disliked the French and despised what Tolkien viewed as the pollution of modern English by Norman influences.  They are the eccentricities of a typical Oxford Don of Tolkien’s time.

Regardless, “The Real J.R.R. Tolkien” offers a fascinating look at the author, and the influence Tolkien has on modern letters. It is a book worth reading.

“The Real J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created Middle Earth,” by Jesse Xander, White Owl, 2021, 176 pages, $34.95 (hardcover)

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Seawriter: Tolkien disliked the French and despised what Tolkien viewed as the pollution of modern English by Norman influences. 

    I’m sure if pushed to it that Tolkien could have come up with a more comprehensive list of reasons. It’s not like there’s a shortage.

    • #1
  2. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Yes, they’re always farting in our general direction.

    • #2
  3. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Seawriter: Tolkien disliked the French

    Wow, I didn’t think there could be new reasons for me to admire Tolkien even more than I already did.  

    I’ll have to get this book.

    • #3
  4. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    Percival (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Tolkien disliked the French and despised what Tolkien viewed as the pollution of modern English by Norman influences.

    I’m sure if pushed to it that Tolkien could have come up with a more comprehensive list of reasons. It’s not like there’s a shortage.

    If he disliked the French, what did he think of the Germans? Oh my God!

    In LotR, of course, the orcs play the role of the German Army.

    • #4
  5. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Taras (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Tolkien disliked the French and despised what Tolkien viewed as the pollution of modern English by Norman influences.

    I’m sure if pushed to it that Tolkien could have come up with a more comprehensive list of reasons. It’s not like there’s a shortage.

    If he disliked the French, what did he think of the Germans? Oh my God!

    In LotR, of course, the orcs play the role of the German Army.

    Funny, but he always disavowed any allegation of allegory in his stories.  

    • #5
  6. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Taras (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Tolkien disliked the French and despised what Tolkien viewed as the pollution of modern English by Norman influences.

    I’m sure if pushed to it that Tolkien could have come up with a more comprehensive list of reasons. It’s not like there’s a shortage.

    If he disliked the French, what did he think of the Germans? Oh my God!

    In LotR, of course, the orcs play the role of the German Army.

    Funny, but he always disavowed any allegation of allegory in his stories.

    There’s a thin line between allegory and — inspiration.

    • #6
  7. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Taras (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Taras (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Tolkien disliked the French and despised what Tolkien viewed as the pollution of modern English by Norman influences.

    I’m sure if pushed to it that Tolkien could have come up with a more comprehensive list of reasons. It’s not like there’s a shortage.

    If he disliked the French, what did he think of the Germans? Oh my God!

    In LotR, of course, the orcs play the role of the German Army.

    Funny, but he always disavowed any allegation of allegory in his stories.

    There’s a thin line between allegory and — inspiration.

    The Black Speech of Mordor, though, is based on Turkish, not German. And the name Tolkien comes from German “tollkühn”, i.e. “foolhardy”, which appellation, according to the Carpenter bio, was earned by Tolkien’s male ancestor who, during the Siege of Vienna, lept down from the city walls onto a group of Turkish soldiers, killed them all, and made it back to the city. From what I recall of the letters, he had a strained, tense relationship with the Germans- as one would expect.  He was appalled by what they had become in the 30s but what you could call a reflexive hatred does not appear to be there. 

    • #7
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):Rütten & Loening
    From what I recall of the letters, he had a strained, tense relationship with the Germans- as one would expect.  He was appalled by what they had become in the 30s but what you could call a reflexive hatred does not appear to be there. 

    From a letter to German publisher Rütten & Loening in response to an inquiry as to his racial particulars, 1938:

    But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.

    […wait for it…]

    I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

    J.R.R. could light you up like a gentleman if provoked.

    • #8
  9. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Percival (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):Rütten & Loening
    From what I recall of the letters, he had a strained, tense relationship with the Germans- as one would expect. He was appalled by what they had become in the 30s but what you could call a reflexive hatred does not appear to be there.

    From a letter to German publisher Rütten & Loening in response to an inquiry as to his racial particulars, 1938:

    But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.

    […wait for it…]

    I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

    J.R.R. could light you up like a gentleman if provoked.

    Yeah, I had the Carpenter edition of his letters and that book is likely still sitting in a box in the attic of some friends in Texas. All of the correspondence is interesting and this one in particular. 

    • #9
  10. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Seawriter: Everyone has flaws. Those Xander reveal seem trivial: Tolkien disliked the French

    Yeah, okay. But what were his flaws?

    • #10
  11. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Everyone has flaws. Those Xander reveal seem trivial: Tolkien disliked the French

    Yeah, okay. But what were his flaws?

    Kind of how I felt about the reveal, especially after the big buildup.

    • #11
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter: Tolkien disliked the French and despised what Tolkien viewed as the pollution of modern English by Norman influences.

    Wasn’t the first or the last. There was a fellow many, many moons ago who wrote A Word-book of the English Tongue, by “C.L.D.” His goal was to eliminate all of that French influence from the English language. I don’t remember what the CLD stood for. I went looking because it was the real initials of another famous author who used the penname of “Lewis Carroll.” It turned out to be some guy with a rather French name, like Delachat or DuPont or some such.

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Ah, I found it: Charles Louis Dessoulavy.

    • #13
  14. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Another great book review, thanks I always look forward to your reviews.

    JRR Tolkien was also influenced by the number of men in his generation that did not survive WWI. His Catholicism played a large role in his writing, for example compare the Lord of the Rings with the nihilist Game of Thrones books. His exposure to the Oratory of John Newman, as well as the Black Friars (Dominicans) of Oxford certainly played a large role in his life.

    • #14
  15. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    Another great book review, thanks I always look forward to your reviews.

    Agreed.

    • #15
  16. dukenaltum Coolidge
    dukenaltum
    @dukenaltum

    “Tolkien disliked the French and despised what Tolkien viewed as the pollution of modern English by Norman influences.  They are the eccentricities of a typical Oxford Don of Tolkien’s time.” 

    Hastings happens.  One can’t complain if you can’t defend your borders.  

    • #16
  17. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Seawriter: This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

    Seawriter, I think in your thumbnail bio you should include the total number of books you’ve written (thus far).  I want the whole world to share my feelings of gross inadequacy.

    • #17
  18. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Seawriter: This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

    Seawriter, I think in your thumbnail bio you should include the total number of books you’ve written (thus far). I want the whole world to share my feelings of gross inadequacy.

    Nah. For two reasons:

    1. I am naturally modest. Listing the number of books I have written could be construed as an appeal to authority – be impressed with my reviews because I have written so many books.
    2. I am naturally lazy. Listing the number of books I have written would require me to update the number every other month or so. Too much like work (keeping track of trivia) and too little like fun (writing).
    • #18
  19. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Seawriter: This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

    Seawriter, I think in your thumbnail bio you should include the total number of books you’ve written (thus far). I want the whole world to share my feelings of gross inadequacy.

    Nah. For two reasons:

    1. I am naturally modest. Listing the number of books I have written could be construed as an appeal to authority – be impressed with my reviews because I have written so many books.
    2. I am naturally lazy. Listing the number of books I have written would require me to update the number every other month or so. Too much like work (keeping track of trivia) and too little like fun (writing).

    Compare and contrast the parts I bolded ….

    (:

    • #19