JRR Tolkien: Christian Maker of Middle-earth – Jeremy Johnston

J.R.R. Tolkien: Christian Maker of Middle-Earth by Jeremy W. Johnston
Published by H&E Publishing on December 5, 2023
Genres: Non-Fiction, Biography, Tolkien
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"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." So begins J.R.R. Tolkien's marvellous tale of wizards, elves, dragons, and dwarves in the children's book, The Hobbit. Since Bilbo Baggins entered the hearts and minds of readers in 1937, millions of people around the world have gone on to read, watch, and study Tolkien's epic masterpieces The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Yet, in spite of the legacy and the world-wide fame of Tolkien's Middle-earth, many people know more about hobbits, trolls, and magic rings than they do about the man behind it all. So who was J.R.R. Tolkien, the maker of Middle-earth? In his own words, he says, "I am a Christian" and plainly states that he wrote The Lord of the Rings "to be consonant with Christian thought and belief." This is why Tolkien's Christian faith is the linchpin for fully understanding and appreciating his voluminous writings. This biography is intended to show readers that Tolkien's Christian faith was central to his life and work, personally, professionally, and-most importantly-creatively.

What could possibly be said about JRR Tolkien that has not already been said? In the decades since Tolkien’s death, he has become an enduring figure in literature. Christopher Tolkien heavily expanded his father’s legacy by taking the massive amounts of unpublished writings Tolkien left behind and curating them into a readable form. There have been a host of Tolkien biographies, scores of books focused on literary analysis of Tolkien’s works, entire academic degrees can be gotten in Tolkien-related studies—what more could possibly be said?

Any new Tolkien biography or review of his writing runs the risk of being something said a thousand times before. How do we make the study of Tolkien new and fresh while remaining true to Tolkien’s life and work? For Jeremy W. Johnston, it is all about the lens through which Tolkien is viewed. As teacher of literature of history at Heritage College & Seminary, Johnston’s foray into Tolkien’s life focuses on Tolkien’s Christian faith. J.R.R. Tolkien: Christian Maker of Middle-earth is a biography specifically focused on the influence of Christianity on Tolkien’s life and work.

In many ways, what Johnston is offering a curation of Tolkien’s biographies, writings, and letters that binds together all everything of Tolkien’s life and work related to Christianity into a compelling thematic narrative. Johnston exhibits a deep knowledge of Tolkien’s work, not simply containing himself to The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings but citing virtually every major Tolkien work. Even lesser-known works like Finn and Hengest and Roverandom get a mention.

It’s also important to note that J.R.R. Tolkien: Christian Maker of Middle-earth is a biography and not a literary analysis. While Tolkien’s writings are inexorably part of his life, much of the book is dedicated to Tolkien’s pre-published years. Part One covers Tolkien’s childhood and discusses how he came to be raised within a Catholic community and, after his mother’s death, became the ward of a Catholic priest. Part Two follows Tolkien as a young scholar and soldier, talking about how the crucible of war affected Tolkien’s faith and, quite importantly, developed Tolkien’s deep passion for close friendships. Part Three moves into Tolkien’s life as post-war academic beginning life as a husband and father. There’s a whole chapter on the friendship of Tolkien and CS Lewis. It’s not until the final part in Part Four, which covers Tolkien’s literary life (1930 to his death in 1973) that Johnston focuses on Tolkien as writer.

If the book has one weakness, it is that two-thirds of Tolkien’s life—and ostensibly the most interesting parts of it—is crammed into this final quarter of the book. There are concepts and events here that I think could have been borne out in greater detail and depth while, in earlier chapters, Johnston gives a lot of retread basic biography to fill the pages. J.R.R. Tolkien: Christian Maker of Middle-earth is a serviceable thematic biography. Johnston is able to show with clarity that Christianity was crucial, not just ancillary to Tolkien’s faith and writing. That’s an incredibly important element to note for an author whose literary work isn’t confined to Christian spaces. You cannot take Christianity out of Middle-earth. Christian concepts are infused within it, because Middle-earth is a reflection of Tolkien the person and Christianity was infused within him.