The Real J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man who created Middle-Earth • 2021 • Non-fiction book by Jesse Xander

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Does the world need yet another Tolkien biography?

There is already the excellent and ancient 1977 “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography”, and the newer 2012 “J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend” by Colin Duriez. Other biographies focus on special topics, like two excellent books by John Garth: “Tolkien at Exeter College” from 2014, and the better known “Tolkien and the Great War” from 2002. Adding to that a huge number of articles in publications by several Tolkien societies and in the academia (just search at researchgate).

Enter the author, Jesse Xander, an unknown face in the area of Tolkien research, obviously a huge fan of Tolkien’s work, and a studied biological anthropologist. A first-time biographer who wants to add valuable insights from the point of view of an anthropologist. Like taking a fresh, new look at gender and racism topics and class it to the context of British first half of the 20th century.

That seems to be Xander’s mission. He brought forward his view by interpreting the females in the work mostly derived from Tolkien’s mother and his wife. Adding to that the implicit racism with Dwarves taking the roles of Jews in Middle-Earth. Both topics are highly disputable, and the author failed by providing only one view to the discussion, just like an essay would do.

Here is the most important error with this book: it is just too short and shies away everywhere where it could provide valid insights, because the author is just too lazy to bring own material or dig deeper than just scratching on the surface. Nearly all of his citations are based on Carpenter’s and Duriez’s former biographies plus the Tolkien Letters. I can’t see where he added additional, new contributions to the field.

Rewriting and shortening two existing biographies could be fun, but the author failed utterly in that regard. The outcome is a dry course through Tolkien’s life, failing to link to his works at essential milestones. Can you rely on a Tolkien biography which mentions The Inklings only once?

If Carpenter’s biography is too old, Duriez’s 230 pages still too long, and you see this very short and totally new book in the shelves, then do yourself a favor and just read through the wikipedia entry. Because the world needs a new view on the famous author, but not this one.

Meta: isbn 9781526765154. Published at 28.2.2021 by Pen&Sword.

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13 Responses to The Real J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man who created Middle-Earth • 2021 • Non-fiction book by Jesse Xander

  1. I think far too much is made of connecting Middle-Earth features to real world peoples. Dwarves taking the roles of Jews in Middle-Earth? Female characters derived from his family? Does that really have anything to do with whatever Tolkien’s motivations or inspirations were?

    Also, have you seen the 2019 film Tolkien?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Every time someone tries to draw parallels between Tolkien’s creations and real-life topics, I would like to remind them about his words on allegory vs. applicability…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      He didn’t work intentionally allegorical. But his works still can be analyzed if there are gender issues etc in it. As can be analyzed where in mythology all the figures came from, eg the dwarves from nordic sagas

      Liked by 1 person

      • And I guess the author did not take this path in his analysis (if any) of Tolkien’s works?


        • Andreas says:

          He is well aware of Tolkien’s issues with allegories. He distinguishes between synecdoche, symbolism, influences, and allegories. Those parts are done very carefully. Just to give you a taste, here’s a longer citation from page 128 where he goes farther than elsewhere with allegories (as usual, this is a citation from the arc and may read different in the final publication) :
          “Although Tolkien took an admirable stance against antisemitism, it is
          unfortunate that this is not reflected in his work. Tolkien’s Dwarves, drawing
          heavily on European legends loaded with antisemitism, although noble and
          kind, are also depicted as (and written about by Bilbo as being) focused on
          material riches, and decried for their cowardice (although this is thoroughly
          unsupported by the courage of the Dwarves in the text of all Middle-Earth
          books). And this is where Tolkien’s dislike of allegory starts to break down. He may well have not intentionally written a story where White Scandinaviancoded
          Elves are viewed by the highest god of the world as inherently nobler
          than the Dwarves, Dwarves who – at one point in The Silmarillion – are
          hunted to the point of genocide of one of the Dwarf Houses by the Elves,
          because the Elves did not realise they were people, but that is what he wrote.
          His Dwarves also strongly physically resemble the antisemitic caricatures of
          Medieval Europe; they have exaggerated noses, ears, and facial hair. And by
          taking inspiration from legends, which themselves were conscious (and in
          the case of the Dwarves, malicious) allegory at some point in their history,
          he ended up writing stories with large antisemitic and racist undertones,
          which holders of similarly abhorrent beliefs have held up as examples of
          him being a secret supporter of fascism and Nazi race science, things he
          explicitly decried in life.”


  3. Ola G says:

    Oh my, oh my… Nope, thanks – I’ll steer clear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      Have you read secondary literature about Tolkien or his works?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ola G says:

        Just bits and pieces really, never a full biography or some such – more like literary essays, some info on his private life, his friendships and family. Do you have any recommendations?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Andreas says:

          Of course! (Brace for impact 🤪)
          Carpenter’s 1977 biography (title in the review) is the one to go. He had access to Tolkien’s diaries and notes, talked to him.
          More specialized on WwI is John Garth‘s title (T. and the Great War). There are other books for racism, gender, and so on so forth. It really depends on what you’re interested in.

          Liked by 1 person

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