Tolkien: Man and Myth


Two weeks before Christmas in 1984, Joseph Pearce was sentenced to a 12-month imprisonment in London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison. This was his second prison sentence for publishing material that was designed to stir up racial unrest. In his autobiography, Pearce explains that at that time he was a white supremacist steeped in radical hatred.

“The worst thing about solitary confinement, and the thing about that that strikes fear into the hearts of most prisoners, is the lack of company, the absence of anyone with whom to share one’s thoughts… most prisoners are scared of solitary confinement because they do not know the comfort and company to be found in books, or more accurately, the comfort and company to be found in the authors of books… Authors long since released from this mortal coil, remain alive in their books. It is due to this delightful company of the dead that I look back with a good deal of fondness to the time that I spent in solitary confinement…” (Race With The Devil, Joseph Pearce p. 147)

While in prison, Pearce spent his time in solitary confinement “conversing” with dead authors by reading constantly and reading what the authors had read. “I wanted to like what Chesterton liked, even if I had always believed that I didn’t like it.” (Race With the Devil, p 187) Because of G. K. Chesterton, Pearce read C. S. Lewis. Because Lewis loved Middle Earth, Pearce found himself “wandering into Middle Earth” for the first time, and it changed him. God wastes no opportunity to pursue His children. Pearce is convinced that God changed his heart in large measure through the truth, goodness, and beauty in the writing of these English Christian authors.

“‘Not FACTS FIRST Truth first.’ These words, scrawled by G. K. Chesterton into a notebook sometime around 1910, should be pinned in a prominent position above the desk of anyone writing biographies… it is the failure of many modern biographers to shed light on their subject… the books may be well researched, but the facts bestow only knowledge, not understanding, and, still less, wisdom.” (Catholic Literary Giants, Joseph Pearce, p. 214)

Arguably the most famous biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, was written by Humphrey Carpenter. In Pearce’s Tolkien: Man and Myth, however, we get what seems to be a much more soulful and telling biography of the beloved father of hobbits than what Carpenter delivers. After falling in love with Middle Earth while in prison, Pearce began a long and careful study of the man behind the myth and worked to write a biography that would be not only very well-researched but also deeply truthful. Pearce was bothered by some of the literary criticism that Carpenter employs in J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. Pearce argues that Carpenter’s criticism is not only unfounded but that it reveals more about the postmodern philosophy of Carpenter than about the true faith of Tolkien. “Tolkien’s Christian faith is often ignored by critics or else, when alluded to, is dismissed as an aberration that has little or nor effect on his subcreation.” (Catholic Literary Giants, Joseph Pearce, p. 272) It is this concern that propelled Pearce forward to offer a biography of Tolkien that was more credible and more respectful of the subject himself.

In this biography, Pearce assumes a friendly tone and invites the reader to fall in love with Tolkien, just as he clearly has. Drawing from a deep well of study, Pearce includes countless letters, articles, quotes, and other primary source material to help us truly understand Tolkien and those with whom he exchanged ideas. We are treated to a personal look into the very interesting life of this unassuming giant of literature.

While Tolkien’s life was pretty wholesome, that did not stop his critics from making some lewd comments at his expense. If you are looking for a biography to share with teen readers, this is probably safer than most, but still may require a preview. Some critics saw sexual notes in Middle Earth which stunned Tolkien and are debunked by Pearce. Nonetheless, some of that conversation is included in this book.

Good-natured, well-researched, interesting, and respectful, this biography is a joy to read. My reading buddy and I cried at the end. (Why must biographies end with the deaths of beloved subjects!?) I am convinced that I not only understand the man better, but also the thinking behind his myths.