When Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was voted the ‘greatest book of the century’ in a nationwide poll at the beginning of 1997 the critical response was not one of approbation but of opprobrium. Tolkien, it seemed, was as controversial and as misunderstood as ever, prompting the same popular acclaim and critical hostility that had greeted the book’s initial publication more than forty years earlier.
It was in the wake of the controversy caused by Tolkien’s triumph in the Waterstone’s poll that the idea for this volume was conceived. Tolkien: Man and Myth is an effort to get to grips with the man, the myth and the whole phenomenon that has delighted millions of readers and perplexed and apoplexed generations of critics. It is an attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding this most misunderstood of men. In order to do so, a biographical approach has been adopted that endeavours to adhere to the ‘scale of significance’ which Tolkien himself ascribed to the facts of his life in a letter written shortly after The Lord of the Rings was published. In this letter Tolkien expressed his distrust of much modern biography:
I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author’s work. . . and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest. But only one’s guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called ‘psychologists’.
But, of course, there is a scale of significance in ‘facts’ of this sort.
Tolkien then divides the ‘facts’ of his own life into three distinct categories, namely the ‘insignificant’, the ‘more significant’ and the ‘really significant’:
There are insignificant facts (those particularly dear to analysts and writers about writers): such as drunkenness, wife-beating, and suchlike disorders. I do not happen to be guilty of these particular sins. But if I were, I should not suppose that artistic work proceeded from the weaknesses that produced them, but from other and still uncorrupted regions of my being. Modern ‘researchers’ inform me that Beethoven cheated his publishers, and abominably ill-treated his nephew; but I do not believe that has anything to do with his music.
Apart from these ‘insignificant facts’, Tolkien believed that there were ‘more significant facts, which have some relation to an author’s works’. In this category he placed his academic vocation as a philologist at Oxford University. This had affected his ‘taste in languages’ which was ‘obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings’. Yet even this was subservient to more important factors:
And there are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in ‘the Shire’ in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic.