A review of Michael Coren’s book J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created The Lord of the Rings.
by Nancy Schiefer
London Free Press
Toronto writer Michael Coren’s brief biography of J.R.R. Tolkien is timely. Its publication, prior to this fall’s release of the blockbuster film The Lord of the Rings, will please not only Rings fans but readers who have savoured only Tolkien’s The Hobbit or The Silmarillion.
Tolkien, Coren points out in his preface to the book, was once viewed with suspicion by the small but influential literary coterie that tends to shape public opinion about books. This group (critics, TV hosts and such) was proven wrong about Tolkien, Coren contends, and he proceeds to show how in a lavishly illustrated mini-biography of the writer, geared for young adults.
Those wishing a more detailed and probing account of Tolkien’s life can turn to Humphrey Carpenter’s painstakingly researched and moving biography, published in 1977. But Coren’s book is a good introduction and is a lively summer read; brisk, chatty, well written and full of generous enthusiasm.
Coren is obviously a fan of the writer and he brings a good deal of zest to his sketch of a life he calls that of “an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.” It is, he says, a chronicle of “happiness, suffering, friendship and genius.”
Coren’s look at Tolkien’s life is standard biography. It begins with John Robert Reuel’s birth in South Africa in 1892, where his English father was manager of the bustling Bank of Africa at Bloemfontein. When Tolkien developed a serious childhood illness, his mother took him and his younger brother Hilary to England to seek better treatment. His father remained in Africa, where he died of rheumatic fever before he could rejoin his family.
Tolkien was raised near his mother’s family on the outskirts of Birmingham. But when Mabel, alone and disconsolate, converted to Roman Catholicism, she was disowned. Tolkien was then sent to St. Philip’s, a grammar school connected to the Birmingham Catholic Oratory, where his mother was befriended by a compassionate priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who would become a surrogate father to her two sons. It was at his new school that Tolkien first encountered the medieval world, which became the touchstone of his life, its language, laws and letters remaining, for him, an exciting and limitless field for speculation.
Tolkien’s mother died of diabetes when her sons were adolescents and the confused boys became wards of Father Morgan, who had been named guardian. Morgan was diligent and made sure both boys were well educated. J.R.R. was to become a professor of English at the University of Leeds, then of Anglo-Saxon studies at Oxford.
Coren is interesting in his description of Tolkien’s student days at Oxford, his passion for languages and mythology and his marriage, at 21, to Edith Bratt, a convert, to her family’s dismay, to Tolkien’s religion. The couple had three sons and a daughter and were to remain at Oxford until Tolkien’s retirement in 1959, at the age of 67.
Tolkien, Coren claims, had been a devout boy and became an equally devout man “whose writing was to be soaked with his beliefs.” He was, as well, a vital and humorous individual who enjoyed good food, his jaunts to the local pub and an ever-present pipe.
Of the writer’s domestic scene, Coren notes: “Books were everywhere. Books lined his study; books made for chairs and tables; books formed archways through which one had to walk. Books, pipes, papers, pens, bottles of ink, and cups of tea not finished and maybe not even started would be scattered throughout the house.”
Tolkien’s own celebrated books are the centre-piece of Coren’s biography, and the reader is introduced both to the stories themselves and to the cast of mind that created them. In a set of thoughtful summations Coren suggests that Tolkien had been busy writing The Hobbit, in his mind, for much of his life. “A few notes here, an observation there, a story to the children at bedtime, and a thought rushing through his head as he cycled to the university.” The Lord of the Rings, he adds, had taken 12 years to write and was a product of inspiration, imagination, blood, sweat and tears.
As he did with his biography of C. S. Lewis, Coren, who has also written lives of H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, treats his young audience as intelligent and attentive. Assuming their interest, he proffers a readable account of the writer’s academic and philosophical underpinnings and of the books which reflected Tolkien’s passions. Readers interested in what became known as the “sword and sorcery” genre of fiction will enjoy both Coren’s informative overview of Tolkien’s life and the well-chosen photographs that accompany it.