Tolkien: A Biography by Michael White

Tolkien Reading Event 2018

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Home and Hearth: The Many Ways of Being a Hobbit. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!


Goodreads: Tolkien: A Biography
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 2001


Michael White promises to go beyond the typical biographies of Tolkien, showing the real man and not the idol fans have hitherto worshiped.


The official biography and the official letters of Tolkien do not, Michael White assures us, tell the entire story.  They are mostly preoccupied with Tolkien’s professional life (indeed, the letters to his wife Edith were intentionally left out of the collection).  But White is going to reveal the real Tolkien, the one with foibles and flaws.  Tolkien was, he tells us, a man and not an idol.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine exactly how much of the “real” Tolkien White reveals because so much of the work seems to be White’s speculations or personal prejudices.  The biography is not well sourced, so when White informs us that Edith felt annoyed or patronized, or that Tolkien disliked someone because they were Protestant, it is difficult to know if any of this is true.  There are no quotes from diaries, letters, or interviews indicating that Edith or Tolkien felt any such emotions.  One begins to wonder if White just felt that they ought have felt patronized or would have disliked Protestants.

The issue of religion is, I would argue, handled clumsily.  White begins by asserting that Tolkien became what he labels, towards the end of the book, a “fanatical” Catholic because his mother died when he was young.  His dismissive psychoanalysis assumes that Tolkien did not have any real intellectual reasons for his faith or any legitimate emotional pull.  It almost begins to feel as if the author has something against religion.  And yet, it seems to me, a biographer ought to try to approach his subject’s beliefs with understanding, not contempt. How can he ever really “get” Tolkien if he refuses to consider seriously the religion that molded Tolkien’s philosophy, life, and literature?

The pyschoanalysis, unsourced assertions, and dismissal of Tolkien’s faith all make the work suspect to me.  However, there are other issues that also trouble me.  For instance, White blithely asserts that Mrs. Moore was “both lover and mother” to C. S. Lewis.  Lewis did live, unmarried, with an older woman, but it seems that most scholars (and even his close friends) are uncertain about their exact relationship.  White does not acknowledge this, but writes “lover” as undisputed fact.  What other “facts” does the book contain that are not true?

Some parts of the book are quite interesting.  Readers may chuckle over Tolkien’s poor driving, his irascible replies to publishers, or his dislike of modern machinery.  They may be intrigued by the look at his relationship with Edith.  However, the author’s failure to distinguish his own feelings and beliefs from actual recorded fact are troubling.  Perhaps the official biography leaves parts out, but, if it is sourced, I would prefer to read it over mere speculation.

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2 star review

16 thoughts on “Tolkien: A Biography by Michael White

  1. R.K. Lander says:

    I think with biographies, it’s important to identify at least two sub-genres: the hard facts, references and minimal speculation one expects to find in what I would consider the ‘classic’ approach to biographies, and then the conjecture-based biography, an interpretative work the author puts out. Of course, I believe these very different types of biographies should be clearly identified and stated in the book’s blurb, just so the reader knows what he or she is getting into. I can take the lack of references IF the author states he is speculating. If it is sold as fact, or probable fact, then I have a problem with that.
    Great post, K.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I felt like White was trying to sell us the “true” because unauthorized story. But…you can’t just tell me Edith reacted a certain way or Tolkien didn’t like people and not back that up with any evidence. If he wanted to write a work of fiction, he could imagine Edith’s emotional reactions. But I don’t find his interpretation of people very convincing when it seems based more on his personality than on Edith’s or Tolkien’s personalities….

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    Yeah, the The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski takes a really hard look at the CS Lewis thing, and while everyone at the time seemed to interpret the relationship as romantic (Lewis’s father and brother, for instance) and it seemed likely it was, Lewis always denied this, and the authors were reluctant to say with 100% certainty that it was (even though a lot of evidence points that way, including writing from Lewis about how wonderful Moore was).


    • Krysta says:

      Right. I can see why people would think it is romantic, but the scholarly thing to do would be to explain exactly this: that all the evidence points to it being romantic, but Lewis denied it, and we can’t be positive. It’s not that hard, really, to add that kind of nuance to the text.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Grab the Lapels says:

    I’m wondering what respectable editor or publisher let the book be released with such unfounded speculation. I don’t know much about Tolkien, but I would think someone so famous would have a family or trust who looked out for his affairs/reputation of his work and would have something to say about this book.


    • Krysta says:

      I’m not sure you can stop publication of biographies by other people? There is an authorized version by Humphrey Carpenter, but I assume that, as long as you indicate you’re not associated with the Tolkien Estate, you can write about Tolkien’s life. I doubt many people read this biography over the Carpenter one anyway….


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