Review: ‘Tolkien’

December 10th, 2014

I first became a lover of Tolkien's Middle-earth in the fall prior to the release of the film adaption of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” I had received for my birthday a small, green paperback copy of “The Hobbit” from my older brother and was then instructed to put down whatever I was currently reading (which, conveniently, was nothing) and read the first few pages. Like thousands before me and thousands after, I not only tore through the first few pages, I tore through the book. It was, at that time in my life, the single most magnificent piece of literature I had ever read and still to this day, along with ”The Lord of the Rings,” it would vie for the number one spot (and I've read a great deal of books since then!)

With what looks to be Peter Jackson's final adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's legacy, Devin Brown, professor of English at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, has done individuals like me a great service. For the past three or four years, Brown has established himself as a leading scholar on both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, teaching classes, publishing essays, speaking at conferences and writing books on both figures and their famous works. Brown's latest book, “Tolkien: How an Obscure Oxford Professor Wrote The Hobbit and Became the Most Beloved Author of the Century” serves as a worthy contribution to both scholarly and popular understandings of Tolkien and the world he crafted.

It's an interesting thing to know how tenuous the creation and publication of “The Hobbit” and its subsequent stories actually were. For most of us living in the 21st century, the existence and popularity of these works are just a fact of life. I for one, because of my deep love for the literature and the way it has spoken to me through the years, can't really imagine having an entire book shelf devoid of the name Tolkien. But as Brown argues time and again, “The Hobbit” was almost an idea lost in the wind.

Few people know that the first line of “The Hobbit” (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”) was written on a blank page of an exam that Tolkien was grading (yes, professors get bored too!) Few people know that Tolkien almost quit several times because he figured nobody would want to read his work. Few people know that Tolkien wrote his first Middle-earth stories because of a bed-ridden sickness during the First World War. And few know that the approval or disapproval to publish “The Hobbit” once lay with a ten-year old boy.

All of these are curious facts, of course, and ones which Brown illuminates to his readers throughout the book. And that's the major contribution of Brown's work, I think, to both scholarly and popular audiences: how an almost-nothing professor produced an almost-nothing work, only to find both his name and his literature both high in the realm of eternal imagination. To sum what I think Brown finds most impressive about Tolkien, sometimes the most beautiful works of art are things which are so intimately wound up in contingency that we must see a larger narrative at work in its actuality.

Brown also spends a great deal of time illustrating how Tolkien's Christian faith helped shaped the world he was creating. Against popular literary attempts to make nominal Tolkien's faith and distance it from his Middle-earth, Brown shows how deeply set his faith was and how much it shaped what Tolkien believed himself to be doing, both in his work and in his relationships. Indeed, even with the contingency of Tolkien's own works, we might say that Lewis' “Narnia” and other works also hinged on Tolkien, for it was he that contributed perhaps most significantly to Lewis' conversion. This, again, I think Brown would concede is not just the result of historical happenchance but a larger divine narrative at work (and that, of course, is how one sees Tolkien's faith enter in his stories).

It is a biographical story worth reading, and as with Brown's previous two works on “The Hobbit,” there are lessons to be learned. At 145 pages (one thing which distinguishes it from other leading biographies), the book is an easy read but one that the reader will inevitably find himself in and personally learning from. For the fan of Tolkien's Middle-earth, it deserves a spot on the bookshelf.

Tolkien: How an Obscure Harvard Professor Wrote The Hobbit and Became the Most Beloved Author of the Century
by Devin Brown
Abingdon Press. 145 pages 


Randall Hardman blogs at The Bara Initiative.

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