As the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day.” Wars were fought and won, infrastructure was built and fortified, and the culture of the ancient West flourished as a result. Similarly, the Middle-Earth of Tolkien’s imagination did not spring up ex nihilo from his imagination but is the culmination of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life work. Various elements of Middle Earth had their genesis in his life experience and academic pursuits of Tolkien. In Tolkien: The Making of a Legend, noted expert on Tolkien and the Inklings, Colin Duriez, tells the story of Tolkien’s life and the events which shaped him as an author.
Tolkien’s life story found its way into his fiction. A tarantula bite in childhood may have provided the background fpr Ungoliant or Shelob (13) . Places that were special to Tolkien provided the basis for important locations (i.e. the Shire, the two towers, the Ivy Bush all have their origin in actual locations). The love Tolkien had for his wife Edith provided the inspiration for the story of Luthien and Beren (one of the central legends of Middle Earth). His experience of warfare in World War I made him critical of the way technology was destroying modern life(a major theme in the LotR trilogy). But Tolkien’s literary vision was also enriched by his friendships and academic pursuits.
In his schooldays he and a group of literary friends formed a ‘Tea Club, later known as the TCBS (Tea Club Barrovian Society). They dreamed of later literary achievements (though several members did not survive the First World War). As an academic at Oxford, Tolkien formed the ‘Coal Biters’ a group which gathered weekly to translate and read Norse Mythology. Later, the Inkling(with C.S. Lewis and others) would meet Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child. The members of that group listened to, discussed and critiqued early drafts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The friendship with Lewis was mutually beneficial and while it cooled somewhat in later years, Tolkein and Lewis continued to support one another throughout their life. Tokien’s relationship with Lewis and other writers provided him the relational support he needed and helped him hone his craft as an author.
And of course Tolkien’s own genius grew up with keen interest in and talent for language. His skill at languages enabled him to create several Elvin languages. His work on the OED (after his military service) would prove to give him the proper training to create the world of Middle Earth and in later years, his academic writings mostly served to enrich his fiction.
This is an interesting biography and paints a compelling vision of its subject. Druiez shares the effect Tolkien’s reading of Beowulf had for his students. This, coupled with Tolkien’s belief in the power of story, makes me appreciate Tolkien’s fiction all the more. As one who has enjoyed Tolkien’s books (and Peter Jackson’s adaptations) I do not hesitate to recommend this book. It is a readable account of a much beloved author.
Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.