I just finished reading Mark Horne’s biography of J. R. R. Tolkien (a volume in the Thomas Nelson “Christian Encounters” series, e-book version kindly supplied free of charge by Booksneeze). This is a very nice introduction to Tolkien for those who (like me) have not taken the time to read the more thorough biographies).
Horne’s Tolkien could be slighted (because of its brevity) but it ought not to be. It is a clear, concise summary of Tolkien’s life and work – but it’s more than that. You get the facts, dates, times, and places, but you also get a great deal besides. Mark’s expertise as a trained theologian and Biblical scholar makes his treatment of Tolkien’s life much more than the work of another Tolkien “fanboy” (though, unquestionably, Mark is a great fan of Tolkien).
Mark’s own insights on Tolkien’s life and thought are scattered throughout the book but especially helpful (and provocative) is his analysis of Tolkien’s legacy (the last chapter). Tolkien was not a preacher but a storyteller. And, as Tolkien himself insisted, his stories were not allegories. But that doesn’t mean that his stories weren’t influenced by his convictions and experiences, or that they didn’t have a strong, vibrant message that Tolkien wanted to convey.
Contrary to many Christian authors and artists of our day, however, Tolkien refused to “dominate” the reader by forcing the message down his throat. Rather, he simply told a compelling story. Though the story Tolkien told was about an imaginary land, it was a story that enables the reader to see his own life (and duty) in the “real” world. Horne concludes:
Even though world war and Tolkien’s experiences in the face of real battles are part of what created his story, one does not need to experience life during wartime to relate to, learn from, and use Tolkien’s fiction. The loves and losses that we all experience in peacetime as well as in wartime are more than sufficient to make his imagined world relevant to ours. His enduring impact on the world shows us how a Christian artist can be most effective when he offers himself rather than when he tries to ‘help’ others see the truth. While God calls Christians to proclaim his truth in a variety of ways and situations—some of which are unavoidably confrontational—we can learn from Tolkien that sometimes a mere story can change people ’s lives.
Even though one might classify Mark Horne’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien as “light reading” (reading the book is the work of a few hours rather than days), it’s not in the least “light-weight.” Rather, it’s a well-written, brief survey and analysis of one of the most influential writers of the modern world – and one that will repay you well beyond the few hours it cost you to read it.