When I was perhaps five or six years old, I first encountered J.R.R. Tolkien through his book The Hobbit. At the time, my older brother was reading The Hobbit, possibly for a school assignment or maybe just for pleasure. Over several evenings, he recited summaries of the parts he had finished reading, regaling me with incredible adventures of Middle Earth. Like so many before and after me, I took tremendous delight in the setbacks and successes of Tolkien’s unlikely and humble hero, Bilbo Baggins, as he contended with grumpy dwarves, nasty trolls, and a fierce dragon. I am thankful for my older brother, who engaged me with snippets of this marvellous tale like a bard-of-old.
A few years later, when I was browsing the shelves of my middle school library, I saw The Hobbit again. Although I immediately recognized the title, the cover of that particular edition was unusual: Bilbo—the hero—was a portly individual with a wig-like mop of curls and a stubby, little sword. Bilbo looked nothing like the archetypal heroes of 1980s film and television shows that I had watched as a kid. In stark contrast to strapping stars like Burt Reynolds, Harrison Ford, and Tom Selleck, this portrait of Bilbo seemed out-of-place. He looked more like a curly-haired version of the comedian Dom DeLuise, who often played comical sidekicks in farcical films like Cannonball Run (1981). This is hardly the sort of hero who face-off with trolls, spiders, and a dragon. The illustration was further marred by a demonic-looking Gollum, who resembled a hairless version of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. The cover of this mass market edition—now considered one of the worst covers of Tolkien’s numberless re-printed books—nearly dissuaded me from discovering for myself the wonders of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Fortunately, I trusted my brother, and I knew not to “judge a book by its cover.” So, I borrowed The Hobbit from the school library and found myself enraptured by Tolkien’s account of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Wizard, and thirteen dwarves.
Since I discovered The Hobbit, I have read The Lord of the Rings numerous times, along with many of Tolkien’s other works. I have devoured books and biographies about Tolkien and his remarkable friendship with C.S. Lewis. In particular, I read Humphrey Carpenter’s seminal biography J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. This ground-breaking work on the life of Tolkien gave me a deeper appreciation and love for the man behind the epic myth. Since Carpenter’s authorized biography appeared in 1977, several books were published about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. There are also many books of collected literary criticism, illustrations, and letters by Tolkien, as well as numerous posthumously published versions of his creative writing and translation work. There now exists numerous blogs, podcasts, societies, clubs, journals, documentaries, films, paintings, graphic novels, songs, etc., that are inspired by and about Tolkien and his Legendarium.
In August 2020, H&E Publishing commissioned me to write a short, accessible, spiritual biography of the Maker of Middle Earth. This is a daunting task but also an incredible honour. Since August, I have been immersing myself in all things Tolkien. I have also been writing as often as I can spare the time. In a Tolkien-saturated literary landscape, some have asked me why I’m writing another biography on J.R.R. Tolkien. My aim for the book is to explore his life through the lens of his Christian faith. All of Tolkien’s biographies touch on his Christian faith—some to a lesser degree and some to a greater degree. Many writers and scholars have also examined his Christian worldview through his books; however, no single biographer (that I am aware of) seeks to consider his spirituality as the central focus of his life. In some cases, Tolkien’s spirituality is downplayed or ignored entirely, as is the case with the recent biopic film Tolkien (2019), a beautifully filmed but patchy portrayal of J.R.R. Tolkien. The biography that I hope to write is intended to show readers that Tolkien’s faith was central to his personal and familial life, as well as his professional pursuits and creative imagination.
So far, researching and writing about Tolkien has been a labour of love. When my biography is published, I trust that this love and appreciation for the Maker of Middle Earth and his writings will pour off the pages into the hearts of those who read and enjoy my book. Those who are new to Tolkien will be in for a treat. Much like his books, Tolkien’s life is full of tragedy and triumph. Those old veterans of Middle Earth—especially those who have read Tolkien for more years than I have been alive—I suspect they have not yet grown weary of hearing retellings of the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
 Ballantine released this mass-market paperback edition of The Hobbit in the 1980s. It seemed to populate school libraries and book fairs across North America, probably dissuading a whole generation of readers from ever picking up the book.
 My brother, it should also be noted, introduced me to the world of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia by giving me my own set of Narnia books. He recommended that I read the books in the order Lewis wrote them (i.e., starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) as opposed to in chronological order (i.e., beginning with The Magician’s Nephew), a habit I still follow when revisiting Narnia.
 I also read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the informal literary group of which Tolkien and Lewis were founding members (The Inklings, 1978). Carpenter also collected and published a volume of select Tolkien letters (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981).
 Over forty years after Tolkien’s death, dozens and dozens of previously unpublished works were brought to print by the Tolkien Estate; among the most prominent of these posthumous publications are works such as The Silmarillion (1977), The History of Middle Earth (12 volumes published between 1983 and 1996), Roverandum (1998), The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beowulf (2014).
I just received in the mail the proof copy of my new book of poems. Hot off the press and fresh from my publisher! I get to proofread this copy looking for any remaining errors, typos, or layout problems... My book, "Undiminished Returns: Poems of a Christian Life," will be available this Fall 2020. Pre-order discount available now!
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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