The Man Behind Middle-Earth

Cover Illustration by Brad Weinman

Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien
By Anne E. Neimark
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 1996, 2nd edition 2012, New York, $12.99)

For years, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have enthralled children and adults alike. In Mythmaker, Anne E. Neimark tells Tolkien’s story for middle-grade and young adult readers.

Tolkien’s life lends itself well to biography as his truth was nearly as spellbinding as his fantasies. Growing up in South Africa and England, he was orphaned at a young age and endured a repressive guardian, poverty, dreary boarding houses, a nearly tragic romance, and the trenches of World War I before becoming a professor of ancient languages at Oxford. Tolkien was as much a world-builder as a novelist: he invented languages and even alphabets for his Middle Earth characters. In The Silmarillion, he created a mythology that supported his other works.  What is most remarkable is that Tolkien led an active life – raising four children with his wife, publishing scholarly works, mentoring students, even serving as an air raid warden during World War II – while weaving his Middle Earth tapestry.

Neimark often employs the techniques of fiction in her biography. At times, this approach allows her to connect the storyteller with his work and to vividly portray certain significant moments in his life. Mythmaker begins with three year old Tolkien scampering away from his African nurse on a quest of his own: in this scene, Neimark conjures his South African childhood and his early love of adventure. Occasionally, this novelistic approach backfires, especially when she uses stilted dialogue to convey information about Tolkien’s life.  However, Mythmaker is a readable and often poignant introduction to a man who loved fantasy for its ability to show us “light and high beauty for ever beyond” the shadows in our own lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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