Tolkien: Man and Myth

Tolkien: Man and Myth, by Joseph Pearce

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Tolkien: Man and Myth
by Joseph Pearce
242 pp., trade paperback, 2001, Ignatius Press

After reading this book, I did something I hadn't done in the previous five years of running this website - took it upon myself to add to the "Basic Tolkien Reading List" that's on this part of the site. That's not because I consider this the best book on Tolkien that I've read during that time, although it would be in the top five; it's primarily because Humphrey Carpenter's biography is overdue for major updating (as well as for some critical evaluation), and Tolkien: Man and Myth does a very good job of this. In fact, the "myth" in the title seems to hold a double meaning, referring both to the mythology Tolkien created and to some of the things "everyone knows" about him from reading Carpenter. Each person will have to judge the evidence for herself or himself, but I think this book has enough basis to it that anyone who has read Carpenter should also read Pearce, if for no other reason than to see that Tolkien the man is perhaps not as easily understood as we might have thought. An important consideration is that there's a lot more published material available now than there was when Carpenter wrote his biography - a major reason that it was time for an update.  

Pearce's introductory material indicates that his primary purpose wasn't to write a biography of Tolkien but to explore the substance behind his subcreation, and he determined that the best way to do this was to write a "literary biography" of both the man and his work. From the two books Pearce was involved with that I've already reviewed (he gave one of the lectures included in Celebrating Middle-earth and edited Tolkien: A Celebration), it won't be a surprise to learn that his views come from a traditional - and traditionally Christian - worldview. Although that can be limiting in some ways when it comes to discussing Tolkien from a literary standpoint, it can be an advantage when it comes to understanding his mythology, and even moreso when attempting to understand the man himself.   

I'm reviewing two books this month that I think belong on the shelf of every Tolkienite: this one, and Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of JRR Tolkien. The two books are very different from each other, which makes it all the better. I'm not adding Secret Fire to the Basic Tolkien Reading List, because it's more of a specialized book than a basic overview. OTOH, I think Man and Myth can be as good as Humphrey's biography for an overall look at Tolkien.

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