In the 1800's, Matthew Arnold wrote a sonnet on Shakespeare, that begins: "Others abide our question. Thou art free./ We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still,/ Out-topping knowledge." I have always felt that about J. R. R. Tolkien; I have read book after book about him and his work, but there always seem to be something elusive, uncatchable about him. It was something of a revelation to see him on film, to actually see him walk and talk, but in a way it only deepened the mystery. Even now I read any book that might have a new angle on the man, and this one by Michael White has been on my list a while. When I found it at HalfPrice Books I snatched it up and read it in a day.
Michael White was a member of the 80's group The Thompson Twins in another life, then was science editor for GQ and a college professor. Previous subjects of his biographies were Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, and he definitely writes from a "skeptical" angle, although a fan of The Lord of the Rings. I found this refreshing, as he seems to have a straightforward approach; he is writing neither a hagiography of Tolkien or a slash job, has no literary axe to grind. A look at the facts with all speculations clearly labelled as such.
And that is the great virtue of this book. It is a brisk yet graceful marshalling of the events of Tolkien's life, not an analysis of his work. As such it avoids some of the waffle and meander of Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography. The final chapter seems just a little tacked on, maybe to take advantage of the buzz of the movies that had just started to come out when it was published.
But at the end it still left me with the enigma of Tolkien; an unsatisfying portrait of the man, but one taken from a different angle, that adds another aspect to ponder. It makes me think that Tolkien was transparently the man he appeared to be; the mystery of his creations is the secret.