J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter
Published in 1977
Genre: Non-fiction, biography
“It is mid-morning on a spring day in 1967.”
So begins Humphrey Carpenter’s J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, a look at the man behind one of the most popular fantasy series ever written. What follows is an in-depth study of Tolkien’s life from his birth in South Africa to his death in his beloved English countryside. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography gives an extraordinary amount of context that explains not only the style in which Tolkien’s stories were written, but the genesis of a brilliant man and the beliefs that shaped him.
Born in South Africa on January 3rd, 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien grew up in the care of his parents until their untimely deaths. His father died when he was four years old which left his mother to look after him and his younger brother Hilary. Through her home tutelage, the young Tolkien developed an affection for learning and his early love of languages was heavily encouraged. However, such happy times were not to last; his mother passed away when he was just 13 years old. Her death not only caused a deep pessimism to grow within, but also shook the foundations of Tolkien’s faith as a Catholic, which would become an integral part of his beliefs as an adult.
Around the age of 16, his interest in philology (the study of literary texts and written records) bloomed and he began creating his own languages. When he was 18, he began a romantic affair with Edith Bratt, the woman who would become his wife. Once this was discovered by his guardian, who was a Catholic priest, they weren’t allowed to see each other because she was three years older. Much of Tolkien’s time was then focused on school, thoughts of Edith, playing rugby, and the multitude of clubs he was a member of. Many of his favorite activities centered around male bonding and would continue to do so for the remainder of his life, sometimes to the chagrin of his loving wife (unintentional rhyme, but there it is).
His fame came from writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Within these stories, it is easy to see the influence of the topics he loved; languages, trees, and European mythology all laid the groundwork for Middle-earth. His books stemmed out of a desire to create a central mythology for England and his first attempts can be found in The Silmarillion, an account of the early myths of Middle-earth, which wasn’t published until after his death. Due to this mentality, he often spoke of writing the stories as if he were discovering the texts rather than creating them himself.
His writing style was a direct product from the epic poetry he loved. Most readers are polarized by this style, which often focuses on long descriptions of the landscape and the minutia of the people and cultures he created in Middle-earth. Due to The Lord of the Rings having a central theme of good versus evil, many assume it is an allegory. However, Tolkien spoke on many occasions of his disdain for allegory, making a point to differentiate it from applicability. The world of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings was born out of his needing histories for the languages he invented. This should come as no surprise since the very subject he excelled at consisted primarily of languages, their histories, and the histories of the people who spoke them.
Tolkien, as a person, was many things: a stubborn perfectionist, a woeful procrastinator, and a meticulous editor of his own work. He spoke quickly and often alluded to subjects he was thinking about but the person he was speaking to might not be aware of. However, though this may not seem conducive to it, he often enjoyed discussing his favorite topics in the company of others.
This biography is organized in such a way as to give context early that builds and later accentuates the explanation of how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings came about. Some narrative commentary is present and while it occasionally tries to forewarn and explain the upcoming topic, this doesn’t detract from the flow of the writing. Carpenter also avoids being bogged down by in-text quotations and massive amounts of footnotes, opting instead for appendices at the end of the book.
J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography is a careful study of one of the most prolific fantasy writers of the 20th century. The book gives broader context as to why Tolkien wrote the way he did, where his influences came from, and who he was as a person. As a Tolkien fan, I feel this will give me another level of enjoyment the next time I reach for my battered copy of The Lord of the Rings and will heighten my appreciation for the amount of work that went into the books. Carpenter does his best to write with the tastes and personality of Tolkien in mind, and I believe he wrote a spectacular account of a legendary individual.
Verdict: 4 meticulously invented languages out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, philologists, those who want a deeper look into the man behind the stories, people who like in-depth research that doesn’t bog down the pace of a biography, and you!
Not recommended for: People who don’t like biographies, people who don’t like J. R. R. Tolkien, people who don’t like The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (if you feel this way, how did you read enough of this review to get to the bottom? I am genuinely curious), or industrialists.