Friday, October 30, 2009

J.R.R.Tolkien and Agatha Christie

J.R.R. Tolkien and Agatha Christie were authors who kept to very different parts of England geographically, occupationally, and socially. I have seen no evidence that they ever met or even spoke about each other. Their books are separated by more than the letters D through S in the alphabet. Yet, having just read Tolkien: The Authorized Biography by Humphrey Carpenter and Duchess of Death: The Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie by Richard Hack, I am struck by similarities.

Both Tolkien and Christie were born in the 1890s: Christie in 1890 and Tolkien in 1892.

Both lost parents in childhood: Christie's father died when she was eleven, and Tolkien lost his father at four and his mother at twelve.

Christie's once well-to-do family was always in debt and lived beyond their means during her childhood, while Tolkien's family was truly poor; he and his brother were taken in my priests who paid for their schools.

Both attended many schools, never really settling long in any.

Both saw the horror of World War I firsthand: Tolkien as a soldier and Christie as a nurse's helper.

Neither really intended to write novels for profit: Christie wrote her first mystery on a dare, while bedtime stories that Tolkien told his sons led to a few short stories and The Hobbit.

Both authors were very private and hated the idea that people would want to know about their lives. They avoided most interviews and said that they wanted no biographies. Of course, that only made readers more intent on learning about them. Tolkien tired of having fans just showing up at his house in Oxford, so he kept his new address private when he and his wife moved to a retirement apartment near Bournemouth. Christie had large estates to which to escape.

Both most enjoyed quiet work on ancient studies: Christie helping her second husband with his archeological digs in Iraq and Tolkien with his studies of myths and ancient languages.

Tolkien died in 1973, while Christie died in 1976.

Despite the subtitles, "authorized" and "unauthorized," the biographies are similar. Both accounts are sympathetic without excusing some of the subjects' faults. Christie neglected her daughter at times, while Tolkien spent much time with his children but neglected his wife, who never was comfortable in Oxford. In both books I most enjoyed reading about childhoods, early careers, and first books. Carpenter's account of Tolkien's drawn out period of writing The Lord of the Rings effectively conveys how frustrating it must have been to be his editor; readers may want to skim over this part. Hack's brief telling about the publication of every Christie mystery gets a bit repetitive. Both books become compelling in describing their subjects' final years, when writing and daily living become more difficult.

Books by both Tolkien and Christie are readily found in abundance in homes, bookstores, and libraries today. There are about 100 Christie titles in print. Tolkien wrote much less, but his major books are widely held, and since his death his son Christopher has released over a dozen titles from his father's unpublished manuscripts. With interest in these authors still high, their biographies belong in most public libraries.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 1977. ISBN 0395253608

Hack, Richard. Duchess of Death: The Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie. Phoenix Books, 2009. ISBN 9781597776202

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