Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien famously penned The Hobbit and the three-volume novel The Lord of the Rings. Known as "the father of modern fantasy literature," his writings have inspired many other works of fantasy and have had a lasting effect on the entire genre. In this Christian Encounters biography, learn how Tolkien's faith was an intrinsic element of his creative imagination, one that played out in the pages of his writings and his life. (Description from

While this book is titled "J. R. R. Tolkien", I think it could have been called, "J. R. R. Tolkien's Life & Faith, & How It Impacted His Writing".  Much of the emphasis is not on his life—although the book certainly reviews Tolkien's whole life—but on how his life and his faith found its way into his writing.

I must hand it to the author; he could write a fairly engrossing biography, enough to pull me out of a fantasy novel and dive into this nonfiction.  Thinking I would read this after I finished a novel I was reading, I flipped through it, read the back, and read the introduction.  And from that introduction, I couldn't resist picking up the book.  The biography is small; only 160 pages.  But though it was small, it was certainly a good read.

Perhaps it's because I'm a writer that I liked it so much.  Much of the material touched upon—writing, Lord of the Rings, the Inklings, Tolkien's beliefs about fantasy and myth—was relevant to me, as a writer.  The goal of the TPBS (a group consisting of Tolkien's closest friends) was especially relevant.

As to the actual writing, the biography style of it was fine.  There were several sections where the author—probably on purpose—began with a bit of prose.  "It was the biggest snake Tolkien had seen" or something like that.  I found them to be out of place with the rest of the book, and a little annoying.

Even without this, the book would have made 4.5, maybe even 5 stars.  However, the "Legacy" chapter—the last one in the book—lowered my opinion of the book.  Without going into detail, I will say that I disagreed with some of the author's opinions, especially regarding Harry Potter.  Besides this, I felt that much of the chapter was out of place with the rest of the book.  While it is appropriate, when reviewing Tolkien's life, to also take a look at his legacy, I felt that some of this section could have been cut.

Overall, this was a good read that gave a lot of insight into Tolkien's life and the beliefs behind his tales.  Several sections—especially the sections about the TBPS—were just beautiful and poetic.  I literally stopped reading in several places to contemplate quotes that the author gave from various sources.  This excellent biography was only diminished by a few things that I disliked.

Rated 7.5 out of 10.  (Four stars)

Read it, you won't regret it.  Unless you don't like Tolkien and/or fantasy, that is.  Recommended.

(I received this book for free from Booksneeze, in exchange for a review.  I was not required to write a positive review.)


Noah Arsenault said...

I'm thinking about getting this from booksneeze, if it's still there after I finish my current book.

Eric said...

Dude, you received it only yesterday!

Good review.


Jake said...

If you're interested in Tolkien, you should get it. :) It's worth a read.

Yup. It was good enough to read in one night...and besides, I couldn't sleep.

Hannah Joy said...

Jake: Just as a random question, have you ever read or watched the Harry Potter books/movies? I have not, but I have heard VERY mixed reviews on the subject. Some Christians say that it points them to God, and others say that it will lead you into practicing witchcraft. I am planning on reading the books to be able to make an educated deduction for myself, but I would like to know what you think.

Anyway, thanks for the review, and sorry to stray off subject.

Jake said...

@Hannah Joy
I have watched several and read them all. It's been a while since I've read them (years), and I'm sure my opinions have changed since then. However, in hindsight, I have mixed feelings. I think it's neither. There are good aspects in the Harry Potter books, and there are bad ones. They do not point people to God (the author is an atheist), but they don't lead you into practicing witchcraft, either.

I view it as a dark tale with a few redeemable elements. I should re-read them to see how my opinions have changed. I was not a Christian the first time I read them. :)

No problem! Feel free to ask anytime.

Hannah Joy said...

Thanks! I find it really annoying when Christians do not read the book, and then criticize it without knowing what they are criticizing. It kind of makes us hypocrites. That is why I would like to read them--because I want to see what I think about them.

It is also interesting coming from a non-Christian point of view when you first read them. Were you "into" them at that point?

Anyway, especially since the new movie just came out, I've been hearing a lot about them, prompting me to make my decision on them. My mom has been reading them and she says while they are a ripping tale (pardon my British adjective--been reading E. Nesbit's Woudbegoods lately) and while they aren't trying to trick you into practicing magic, the character of Harry is not the greatest role model, and there aren't really godly points in them.

Anyway. I'll read them to see what I think.

Jake said...

@Hannah Joy
Indeed. I've done the same for several other popular books; Ranger's Apprentice, Percy Jackson, and the like.

It depends. I really liked the series, yes. Even from a non-Christian point of view, I tended to hold others to Christian standards that I didn't hold myself to, which changed my outlook of the series. My life before Christ was a rather confused muddle, actually. I expected people to hold to the Bible and was disturbed when they did not; however, I knew I was not a Christian.

For that reason, while I wasn't bothered by the witchcraft and all that, I WAS bothered by some other stuff, such as swearing. I was a rather legalistic fellow, LOL. In essence, I devoured the books, but I still liked Tolkien better. I think this was largely due to the fact that Tolkien held himself to that standard that Rowling did not. In fact, one of his reasons for creating Lord of the Rings was to create a fiction that would leave the reader loving goodness, to leave the reader feeling clean. Harry Potter doesn't do that.

I agree. It's not the most godly series. However, there are some things (and since some of them are spoilers, I'll let you see them for yourself) where the author mirrored a Biblical example without meaning to. There are elements of courage and self-sacrifice. If you read the last book, you'll see the most obvious one. :)

Anyway, glad to be of service. I look forward to seeing your opinions. :)

Chrisopher said...

I might disagree with your conclusions about Harry Potter. If you think about it, it isn't really a dark tale. Its more of a story about good vs. evil. Obviously, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are flawed, but all good characters are. I'm not excusing that, but I do want to point that out. I do agree that in no way does it draw you into practicing witchcraft. I personally think they are good, well written books that are enjoyable.

There are bad aspects to them, but how are we handling them? As Christians, we have a law that we can measure other things to. The Bible. Clearly, Harry Potter has some beliefs that aren't Christian. But I read these books, not focusing on the bad, but on the good. The books aren't dark, they are realistic. And there are many, many redeeming elements about them. No, Harry Potter isn't Jesus, but there are good virtues. Diligence, loyalty, choosing good even when its hard; those are just a few.

Still, they should be read with caution, and only by people who can see the bad, but are able to discern it, and enjoy the good. If you are determined to see the books as bad, you will. But if you are looking for the good, you will see that clearly.

Once again, there is bad. But its the same in any books. Tolkien included. Narnia, Percy Jackson, LOTR, anything! If we are going to stay away from books because they are bad, do we do the same with everything? No! By walking down my street I could talk to people, hear, and see things that are much worse than the evil in Harry Potter.

Sorry about the length, and pushing myself into the conversation.


Jake said...

Hey, Chris. :)

I understand what you mean. These comments are coming from my limited knowledge and memory of the Harry Potter books, just so you know. I need to reread them, since it's been so long and so many things have changed (my salvation, for one).

I understand what you're trying to get at here, but I disagree. "The books aren't dark, they are realistic."

No. I refuse to accept this. (This isn't anything against you, but rather a refusal against darkness in the world itself.) Harry Potter portrays darkness, but not a light. There is good, yes, but how good is good? Lord of the Rings makes us love goodness; and like I said, Harry Potter certainly does not.

I refuse, as a writer, to accept that darkness is "realistic". There IS a Light in the darkness. And that is what I write. The world has darkness, but that doesn't stop the millions of Christians around the globe from spreading the light.

I am not suggesting, however, that we stay away from books that are "bad". I suggest that we read them with an open mind, note the good in things, but not ignore the wrong.
I did not focus on the bad, either—-there ARE redeeming elements. There are parallels. But I'm not letting that stop me from pointing out what is wrong, either. I try to give an even-handed position.

However, there is a limit in this. For instance, if there is inappropriate content in a book, I WILL stop it. I will not compromise my beliefs in order to read a book or watch a movie.

Jesus spent time with sinners, tax-collectors, and prostitutes. The sick are the ones who need a healer. But he did not compromise Himself. I will do the same.

Like I said, I think I may re-read these books and give a mass review to materialize my thoughts.

Thank you for your thoughts. :)

Hannah Joy said...

Wow. Long comments. ;-) I'm interested in what both of you, Jake and Chris, have to say. But I can't present any arguments to either side, seeing as I'm still waiting for the books from the library.

Thanks for all your thoughts though! I will take both sides into my reading.

Christopher said...

I still disagree that the books are dark. They certainly do have dark elements, but, like the real world, there is a light. There is good, and there will always be bad that combats the good until Jesus returns. I won't say anything about my comment on them being not dark, but realistic. I am, however, standing by that. I am simply choosing not to pursue the matter any further, though I do have multiple arguments against your answer.

And by the way, Eragon has a lot more bad stuff, and is much, much darker than any of the Harry Potter books. And the magic is the same. So how would you, with what knowledge you have of Harry Potter, say that Harry Potter is dark, but Eragon is not?

I respect every ones views on this matter. I just wanted to say that to let you know that I am listening to your views and opinions, and they are well thought out and good.


Jake said...

Just wondering, have you read the entire series yet? It gets darker as the HP goes on.

Once I get an answer, I'll write a longer reply, but your answer would have an impact on my comment.

Christopher said...

Yes, I have read the entire series, and have read the first and fifth twice. I just finished them for the first time maybe, two weeks ago. Does that answer your question?


Elizabeth Eiowing said...

Wow!! I deff want to read this book!! I am a huge fan of LOTR and J.R.R. Tolkien and it is because of him that I started writing myself! :) (And got up the guts to!)

Just as a side note, I noticed a lot of talk about Harry Potter. I don't want to start a huge debate or anything but I love those books, too. If you're wondering whether a Christian would benefit by reading them, (and don't just want to take my word that they would!) Try reading Finding God in Harry Potter by John Granger. It's published by Tyndale House and it is a AWESOME book!! Harry Potter really has a lot of awesome parallels and themes and this book outlines them for you. :) (Just thought I would throw that out there!)

Manny said...

Jakey, I miss you. Wuv you. :)