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Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth Hardcover – 16 Jan 1997
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Discusses the Oxford scholar's life and work and relates his personal experiences to the events, creatures, and themes of his books.
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That is not to say that the book is all bad (hence the two stars) . Lacking the goodwill and blessings of the Tolkien Estatein writing this book, (that was given to the much praised Humphrey Carpenter,) he ends up basing it upon other writings, a few interviews of Tolkien fans and friends, and a large amount of guesswork, so he does a decent job of establishing Tolkien's early life and getting a few of the good professor's friends and old students to make a quote here and there.He also tells an interesting and factual (!!) tale of The Lord of the Rings' first print run and its subsequent print history. So far so good huh?
The problems start to arise almost at the begining when Grotta states that Tolkien was exceedingly lazy and noncommital, flitting from one project to another, hopelessly muddling things. While there is some degree of truth to this,there is no way anyone can say that these exaggerated terms are true.When you are a highly respected childrens author, , almost unarguably the best writer of English literature in this century, one of the highest decorated professors of language in western culture, and you create an entire world with history and multiple languages along with it, you don't really find time to be lazy.
Also, as in almost every other review of this book, Grotta shows a definate grudge against the Tolkien Estate, not pulling any punches when he mentions it. It is understandable that one might be hurt at the rejection, but hey, it is their choice who gets access to Estate holdings. You don't just let anyone who comes along wanting to write a biography have total and free access to your things, do you?
I will give him some slack because the main bulk of his text was written and published before the Silmarillion was released. This glaringly shows throughout the book though. He later (in a subsequent printing) includes a chapter about the Silmarillion, but he never goes back and fixes his inferrences about the early histories of Middle Earth. He says that there wasn't any evil before the creation of the world, but in the Silmarillion, the first part tells how Morgoth came to be before the creation! There are many more like this.
Another annoyance is in his new chapter on the Silmarillion, you can see that he just skimmed it, or maybe he just bought the cliff-notes. He makes out the Valequenta to be a lesser, almost nonessential work, (is he insane?), and the only real description of any of the stories found within is of Beren and Luthien. He does a quick and ugly job of it, making it sound rather boring, meanwhile he keeps saying that Thingol (the king and father of Luthien) is really Luthien's brother! Arrrggg.....
But one of the most glaring irresponsabilities is this, taking Christopher Tolkien's name and rubbing it around in the dirt. Grotta puts him down at almost every chance. He claims that Christopher actally rewrote huge sections of manuscript (in the Silmarillion), and that it could obviously be told because they weren't worded the way that Tolkien did in his other works, saying they were much more ameturish. Sorry bud, but there isn't any bit of ameture within any of his books, and there was never any intention of it being written in the same style. Actually, most of it was rewritten by Tolkien himself in an effort to fit in with his now published works (Hobbit and LOTR), and at the same time to condense it to a more readable narrative style, because the original works were to large to all be published together. He later goes on to say that he hopes that Cristopher doesn't have any intentions of writing his own fictions, Middle Earth or otherwise, because we can now see how poorly he writes. Ouch! On another note about Christopher, Grotta slips into calling him Tolkien as if it were his father's name, making for total confusion if your not paying close attention.
Another danger point of this book is the choice of artwork. Once again someone has taken the Hilderbrandt brothers' art and strewn it chaotically across the pages of a book. I guess it is rather fitting though that an irresponsibly written book should have irresponsible paintings. I know that these are just their interpetations, but come on, we don't have to make them so popular. Most of their work looks like it belongs in a children's fairy tale, which would be alright for the hobbit maybe, but perhaps they should have taken a que from Tolkien and when he changed his style to epic writing, they should have followed suit with epic paintings.Thay also seem to have a poor eye for the proper details, painting peoples and castles as if Tolkien didn't descibe them properly.
My final word is to avoid it at almost all costs, unless you find a cheap copy like I did to at least make the booksheves look nice.
The book left me with two impressions. The first impression is that the author did not really have anything new to contribute to an understanding of the life of Tolkien, instead relying on humorous anecdotes, rehashing of Tolkien's relationship with CS Lewis, and materials found elsewhere. The second impression is that the author bears a serious grudge against the Tolkien family for not permitting the access to family papers that was accorded to the authorized biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. This grudge is manifested in snide asides about Tolkien's literary executors. Finally, I must criticize the author for his excursus into the politics surrounding the Nigerian civil war. What this has to do with Tolkien is unclear at best.
Money is far better spent on Humphrey Carpenter's biography, and his edition of letters (especially the letters). It is in the letters where the spirit and genius of Tolkien best comes through.
Give this volume a miss.
Perhaps, though, the most telling observation may be that it is hopelessly out-of-date. The more recent works regarding the writing of the LOTR make this early attempt quite trivial, incomplete, and not authoritative.
I bought an old, battered paperback copy for several dollars at a used bookstore, and, for the (unintended) amusement value alone, I don't feel cheated.