// you’re reading...


Reader’s Voice speaks to Tolkien biographer and writer, Michael White

Michael White's biography, Tolkien, would inspire any writer in a funk to get moving and finish that book they had always planned to write. JRR Tolkien had the dedication and perseverence to finish his epic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, despite the big demands on his time. By day an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon marking school papers to get by. By night, creator of Middle Earth. Reader's Voice spoke to biographer and writer, Michael White.

READER’S VOICE: Your biography, Tolkien, said JRR Tolkien didn’t particularly enjoy modern literature, preferring ancient myths, like Beowulf and Icelandic sagas. Do you think Tolkien was being disingenuous when he said he had no interest in modern literature?

MICHAEL WHITE: Tolkien was a bit of a crank when it came to literature and he really did genuinely dislike almost everything written after about 1300 apart from some fantasy literature written by his contemporaries. He had a very narrow vision of literature and his taste was driven by ancient myth and romance.

RV: Did your research into Tolkien change your perception of him?

MW: A little. I had read a lot about him when I was a teenager, so I had a fairly clear idea of his personality. I think he was both more ordinary and extraordinary than I had realised before. He led a very ordinary family life and did his job at the uni, but then he created this entire universe in his head and put it onto the page, which is an amazing thing to do.

RV: When you were researching your biography were there many people at Oxford that you spoke to who had actually known Tolkien, and how did they know him? What memories of him did they have?

MW: There are very few people alive who knew him in his prime. The Inklings (a group of literary enthusiasts Tolkien regularly met with at an Oxford pub, including C.S. Lewis, author of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, The Screwtape Letters -ed.) folded over 50 years ago so anyone who witnessed meetings etc would be in their 70s upwards. I met the children of people who knew him and they had stories from their parents’ you th. The best ones came from the children of former students who had attended Tolkien’s extraordinary lectures. RV: What made you decide to write a biography of Tolkien when your other biographies focus on scientific types?

MW: My agent was approached by an American publisher and asked if I would be interested. I have written one biography of a writer – Isaac Asimov. As I say in the intro to the Tolkien biography, he was a writer I had admired since childhood and I had read The Lord of the Rings eight times in succession when I was about 17, so he was someone I felt comfortable writing about.

RV: Tolkien first studied classics before specialising in English Language and Literature, and philology. Would you know off-hand what sort of titles Tolkien have studied in these fields?

MW: Not off-hand. I imagine they are long since out of print. One of his first university lecturers was Professor Joe Wright who wrote A Primer of the Gothic Language which Tolkien studied while engaged in Classics.

RV: Reading some of his essays in The Monsters and The Critics, the detail and depth of Tolkien’s knowledge in language and myths is over-whelming. Why do you think Tolkien was so obsessed with these fields?

MW: I think the beauty of language came to him as a young boy. He was a complete natural and was lucky enough to find the subject that inspired him so early in his life. Some people never do find their vocation. Tolkien also loved the whole history and mythology of Nordic races and he realised early on that language was an integral part of the culture of these ancient peoples and through language he could understand them far better.
RV: Do you think Tolkien had difficulty living in the real world as an Oxford professor with a family, having to mark papers etc; while also living in the ancient worlds including Middle Earth?

MW: I think he did find it difficult. He hated the fact that he had to mark papers and make a living from teaching. However, he had the amazing discipline, energised by his obsessive love of the subject, to devote all his other energies into creating his own great mythology.

RV: The Lord of the Rings seems to have a an almost political effect in terms of polarising people’s opinion of it. Do you think it takes a political stance?

MW: No, I don’t. I think the sole reason some people are so aggressively anti-The Lord of the Rings is an expression of reverse snobbery or some form of pretension. It is a reaction some people have to anything that a lot of other people like. You see the same thing with music, art, theatre, film, fashion.

RV: Could you give me a list of a few books that were important to you over the years?

MW: The most important books? I’m a great fan of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. I still believe they are the best example of the genre. I loved Herman Hesse’s novels when I was younger, but I haven’t re-read them, so I may not like them now. I went through the entire collection one after the other when I was about 18.
I adore Hemmingway. I love his sparse use of language and his ability to capture complex emotions with a sentence, like an artist using just a few lines to create a powerful image.

Check out Michael White’s website at www.michaelwhite.com.au