The truth is that "The Lord of the Rings" didn't just win in one poll, it won in several, and Tolkien himself won "author of the century". What really upset the literati was that he won again, and again, and again. Burned 'em up, it did. What this said was that "The Lord of the Rings" was not 'the greatest' book of the century, but it was the one people loved the most, the one they cherished and gave their children, the one that had the most meaning for them in the quiet places of their hearts. Which hurt the establishment even more, I expect, and which leads us to Mr. Pearce's book.
Part of the problem with writing biographical material now nearly 30 years after a seminal biography (and a dozen or more literary critiques) have come to press regarding one of the century's most popular writers, is that it's all pretty much been said. So don't be surprised when Carpenter's excellent and justly famous biography is footnoted many, many times. This isn't meant to be an entirely original biography. The biographical section does in 4 pages what Carpenter does in 40 - this book is about something else. Tolkien distrusted traditional biography and doubted very seriously that just because something happened to an artist that it was necessarily important to him or her. Tolkien's own list of the most important events of his life and art is pretty short...the Catholic Church and growing up in the pre-industrial English countryside. Not much there for a biographer to go on, seemingly. But Mr. Pearce wisely lifts these and a very few other aspects out of the white noise of every life and uses them to illuminate the life and work of a singular and impressive man. His unshakeable Catholic faith, his tireless devotion to his family, his love of the unspoilt countryside: there you have Tolkien in a nutshell. It's Pearce's assertion that many modern readers don't really want to hear all that. Often looking more for excuses rather than examples, they want to know all the cracks in the plaster. What were his indiscretions? His debaucheries? His infidelities? Was he gay? What is most important is that, even after losing both beloved parents in childhood, spending a difficult and poverty stricken youth moving from one shabby apartment to another, struggling to obtain an education, losing two of his greatest friends in the meat grinder of the Somme in WW1, making it home himself by sheer luck, he remained decade after decade a tireless and devoted father and husband, a fount of instruction for generations through his teaching, and the writer of one of the most entrancing and beguiling works ever to be written in the English language. He didn't devolve into a drunk or a wife beater as did many another self absorbed artist dealing with his "issues" or carrying around post traumatic stress. So where's the fun in reading about him then, you ask? Pearce's delightful book shows how Tolkien did it, how he lived the life he did, based on the things that were important to the man himself. And Tolkien ought to be allowed an opinion, don't you think?