At first, I found the details of Tolkien’s life interesting. He lived in a different day and age and in many respects, he and his brother Hilary had a hard life, in part, because they were orphaned when they were quite young. Because of family dynamics and strong beliefs, the boys were not raised by family but were handed over to others to raise. The author details a lot about their youth and JRR’s adulthood and how his experiences and the people he knew were reflected in Tolkien’s writings.
Since I loved JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy books and movie adaptations I was excited to read a new biography The Real JRR Tolkien – The Man Who Created Middle Earth by Jesse Xander. This author’s work is new to me but I was eager to learn more about the life of JRR Tolkien.
Sounds good and much of the reading was fascinating. Then I started seeing things in the book that were off. Something I’ve never seen in a biography before is an author essentially apologizing for things in the subject’s life or religion or work that they felt might cause an offense to today’s readers. Xander saw fit to read into Tolkien’s writing and assume bigotry, oppression, and criticism about his Catholic faith.
Instead of exegeting Tolkien’s work, Jesse Xander eisegeses or reads into his work and assigns motives based on today’s political and moral environment. He attributes to Tolkien prejudice, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, neglect of his wife, and an imbalance of power in their marriage.
It seems as though Xander failed to understand and appreciate JRR Tolkien in the time and era that he grew up and he lived in. He is judging him by today’s standard of “moral superiority”. In a way, Xander seems to have an appreciation for Tolkien and has a lot of knowledge about his work. In other respects, it’s like he has a love-hate relationship with Tolkien. He spends most of the book talking about Tolkien’s life and at other times tearing him down and attributing ugly motives to him.
Because of Xander’s eisegeses of Tolkien’s life and apologies for it (instead of simply telling about his life) I find suspect his interpretation because it was biased or influenced by his imposing today’s standards on this man who lived in a different day and age.
Because of the flawed way Jesse Xander wrote this biography, The Real JRR Tolkien, I would not recommend it. If he had been upfront and said he was writing a criticism of JRR Tolkien’s life that would have been more honest and upfront and given readers a more accurate way to decide if they want to read his book.
I would like to thank Pen & Sword Publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read a complimentary copy of The Real JRR Tolkien. I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.