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The authorized biography of the creator of Middle-earth. In the decades since his death in September 1973, millions have read THE HOBBIT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE SILMARILLION and become fascinated about the very private man behind the books. Born in South Africa in January 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was orphaned in childhood and brought up in near-poverty. He s The authorized biography of the creator of Middle-earth. In the decades since his death in September 1973, millions have read THE HOBBIT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE SILMARILLION and become fascinated about the very private man behind the books. Born in South Africa in January 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was orphaned in childhood and brought up in near-poverty. He served in the first World War, surviving the Battle of the Somme, where he lost many of the closest friends he'd ever had. After the war he returned to the academic life, achieving high repute as a scholar and university teacher, eventually becoming Merton Professor of English at Oxford where he was a close friend of C.S. Lewis and the other writers known as The Inklings. Then suddenly his life changed dramatically. One day while grading essay papers he found himself writing 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- and worldwide renown awaited him. Humphrey Carpenter was given unrestricted access to all Tolkien's papers, and interviewed his friends and family. From these sources he follows the long and painful process of creation that produced THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION and offers a wealth of information about the life and work of the twentieth century's most cherished author.


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The authorized biography of the creator of Middle-earth. In the decades since his death in September 1973, millions have read THE HOBBIT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE SILMARILLION and become fascinated about the very private man behind the books. Born in South Africa in January 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was orphaned in childhood and brought up in near-poverty. He s The authorized biography of the creator of Middle-earth. In the decades since his death in September 1973, millions have read THE HOBBIT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE SILMARILLION and become fascinated about the very private man behind the books. Born in South Africa in January 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was orphaned in childhood and brought up in near-poverty. He served in the first World War, surviving the Battle of the Somme, where he lost many of the closest friends he'd ever had. After the war he returned to the academic life, achieving high repute as a scholar and university teacher, eventually becoming Merton Professor of English at Oxford where he was a close friend of C.S. Lewis and the other writers known as The Inklings. Then suddenly his life changed dramatically. One day while grading essay papers he found himself writing 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- and worldwide renown awaited him. Humphrey Carpenter was given unrestricted access to all Tolkien's papers, and interviewed his friends and family. From these sources he follows the long and painful process of creation that produced THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION and offers a wealth of information about the life and work of the twentieth century's most cherished author.

30 review for J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Melindam

    "...And if after this we may not have any better idea why he wrote his books, then at least we should know a little more about the man who did write them." "...Certainly Tolkien himself would have agreed with this. It was one of his strongest-held opinions that the investigation of an author’s life reveals very little of the workings of his mind." A few years ago I read The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends by Humphrey Carpenter and I really enjoyed it. It wa "...And if after this we may not have any better idea why he wrote his books, then at least we should know a little more about the man who did write them." "...Certainly Tolkien himself would have agreed with this. It was one of his strongest-held opinions that the investigation of an author’s life reveals very little of the workings of his mind." A few years ago I read The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends by Humphrey Carpenter and I really enjoyed it. It was an informative, but easy and very entertaining read as far as biographies go. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography was written in very much the same vein: it was entertaining without being didactic. Also Carpenter never acted like he was unveiling some huge mystery about a most beloved author, he simply delivers all details about his life without trying to make Tolkien out of proportions or belittle him. He shows us both the man, the scholar and the author in a pleasing balance. Much recommended.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Julie Davis

    I recently read Humphrey Carpenter's book, The Inklings, for a discussion at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast and it piqued my interest in his biography of one of my favorite authors. I liked The Inklings but this book was even better, possibly because Carpenter was focusing on one person instead of a group. It gave a thorough story of Tolkien's life without sugar coating his flaws but in a way that allowed me to understand and appreciate him as both a person and author. I'm not usually very I recently read Humphrey Carpenter's book, The Inklings, for a discussion at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast and it piqued my interest in his biography of one of my favorite authors. I liked The Inklings but this book was even better, possibly because Carpenter was focusing on one person instead of a group. It gave a thorough story of Tolkien's life without sugar coating his flaws but in a way that allowed me to understand and appreciate him as both a person and author. I'm not usually very interested in biographies but read this in record time, which is a tribute to Carpenter's skill in finding a fascinating story in the outwardly mundane life of an Oxford professor. Of course, like Dr. Who's TARDIS, we're all bigger on the inside and Tolkien's inner landscape held a vast imagination coupled with interest in so many topics that he was sometimes unable to finish a project unless prodded by deadlines or friends. It is Humphrey Carpenter's ability to reconcile Tolkien's inner and outer man, while including his popular fiction in the timeline, that make this book so riveting. We feel we truly know J.R.R. Tolkien by the end. And, this is the ultimate tribute to the author's skill ... as I read the epilogue, I cried.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Cass

    Aside from required reading, it is a rare occasion when I crack open a non-fiction work (with the notable exception of C.S. Lewis's works, which I've read so often and with such enthusiasm they're essentially a separate category. Classics, Fiction, Children's Lit, nonfic, and Lewis.) But in a deliberate effort to explore new territories in my reading, recently I've set aside my Alice-in-Wonderland prejudices ("what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?") and ventured, not witho Aside from required reading, it is a rare occasion when I crack open a non-fiction work (with the notable exception of C.S. Lewis's works, which I've read so often and with such enthusiasm they're essentially a separate category. Classics, Fiction, Children's Lit, nonfic, and Lewis.) But in a deliberate effort to explore new territories in my reading, recently I've set aside my Alice-in-Wonderland prejudices ("what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?") and ventured, not without some apprehension, into the world of criticism, apologetics, biographies, and no plots or characters. And found, much to my surprise and satisfaction, that it was a world I could feel at home in. Of course, I had the best of guides. Carpenter's prose is clear and engaging, and he offers just the right blend of historical data, personal insight, quotes from Tolkien's own letters or from his friends, and fascinating albeit seemingly unimportant details (such as his childhood fascination with Welsh place-names) to create a richly colored portrait of this unassuming genius. Although he is unfailingly precise in the biographical facts, Carpenter's emphasis is on understanding how Tolkien's mind worked. Thus we are told, for instance, not only that he lived at such-and-such address for so-and-so years, but why he moved there, whether he was pleased or disappointed with the change, how his family reacted, and--perhaps most importantly--how it affected his writing habits. Particularly of interest to me were the frequent mentions of events that would, in some cases decades later, resurface in his works such as The Lord of the Rings. Because that's really why this book is of interest. Tolkien the scholar, the catholic, the father, the teacher, are sides of him that are interesting to get to know, and probably to him equally important parts of his life as the literary; but the reason I, and I suspect most readers, bothered picking up the book at all was to get to know Tolkien the author. And that is precisely what Carpenter delivers. I highly recommend it to any Tolkien fans interested in getting to know the forgetful, contrary, quirkily humorous man behind the myth so many have fallen in love with.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Nicky

    Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien is a surprisingly balanced picture of the man. He clearly admires his talent without being blind to his faults. It is neither a book-length endorsement nor a character assassination, but an attempt at portraying the man's life fairly. It's very easy to read and enjoyable, including just the right sort of facts to interest the reader -- allowing us to laugh at him a little as well as love him more. Tolkien studies can be criticised as being too biographica Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien is a surprisingly balanced picture of the man. He clearly admires his talent without being blind to his faults. It is neither a book-length endorsement nor a character assassination, but an attempt at portraying the man's life fairly. It's very easy to read and enjoyable, including just the right sort of facts to interest the reader -- allowing us to laugh at him a little as well as love him more. Tolkien studies can be criticised as being too biographical -- Tolkien himself would have disliked that preoccupation among academics a great deal -- but it's worth reading to get an idea of his background, his intentions, the 'leaf mould' from which his work grew.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Anatoly

    Since I was a boy, J.R.R Tolkien was my favorite author. So it was natural that sooner or later I will have to read about the man himself. I knew many of the details in this biography, but here was the first time I actually read a complete chronicle of his life. Fascinating work! And more than that, a fascinating man!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Swaroop Kanti

    "The body may be pacing this shabby little suburban room, but the mind is far away, roaming the plains and mountains of Middle-earth." Come sing ye light fairy things trippings so gay, Like visions, like glinting reflections of joy All fashion'd of radiance, careless of grief, O'er this green and brown carpet; nor hasten away. O! come to me! dance for me! Sprites of the wood, O! come to me! Sing to me once ere ye fade! ~ "Wood-sunshine" by John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R) Tolkien, July 1910 Humphrey Carpenter' "The body may be pacing this shabby little suburban room, but the mind is far away, roaming the plains and mountains of Middle-earth." Come sing ye light fairy things trippings so gay, Like visions, like glinting reflections of joy All fashion'd of radiance, careless of grief, O'er this green and brown carpet; nor hasten away. O! come to me! dance for me! Sprites of the wood, O! come to me! Sing to me once ere ye fade! ~ "Wood-sunshine" by John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R) Tolkien, July 1910 Humphrey Carpenter's "authorized biography" of Professor J.R.R. Tolkien is well written, thorough, engaging and interesting. First published in the year 1977, this book gives a complete picture of the man who wrote the classic tales of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. Professor Tolkien spent his entire life writing and creating a new world, for generations to come. "My gentlehobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits, May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees."

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kris

    Very well researched, and I think Carpenter writes with a lovely tone. Perhaps the chapters could have been better organized or labelled, but the content is still great. There are certain sections that are solely about Tolkien's writings, not just Tolkien, but I'd imagine that anyone looking into the life of the man would want to hear info on his works as well. I'm lucky this is the first biography on Tolkien I picked up, as it seems to have been the first one written, back in the 1970s, shortly Very well researched, and I think Carpenter writes with a lovely tone. Perhaps the chapters could have been better organized or labelled, but the content is still great. There are certain sections that are solely about Tolkien's writings, not just Tolkien, but I'd imagine that anyone looking into the life of the man would want to hear info on his works as well. I'm lucky this is the first biography on Tolkien I picked up, as it seems to have been the first one written, back in the 1970s, shortly after his death. It was wonderful to hear from an author that was much closer to Tolkien's time than we are now.

  8. 5 out of 5

    ahobbitsbooks

    I picked up this biography in preparation for the new Tolkien movie and while I still haven't seen the film, I have read this book and let me tell you: everything you ever wanted to know about JRR Tolkien is in here! Look no further for you have found your eternal source of facts and anecdotes on the man himself. This biography explores Tolkien's life from his birth (and beyond, as you will also get to know about his parents) to his death and everything in between and it manages to do so in a fun I picked up this biography in preparation for the new Tolkien movie and while I still haven't seen the film, I have read this book and let me tell you: everything you ever wanted to know about JRR Tolkien is in here! Look no further for you have found your eternal source of facts and anecdotes on the man himself. This biography explores Tolkien's life from his birth (and beyond, as you will also get to know about his parents) to his death and everything in between and it manages to do so in a fun, interesting way, never letting you fall asleep, never boring you with too many numbers or dates or facts. Carpenter's account of Tolkien's life is not only a perfect start for someone who hasn't read a biography yet and might be scared of doing so but it also gives a great insight into who this man was, how he was like and what it was that he was doing. Do I remember when Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit was published? No, and although the book provides its readers with the correct dates, that's not what is important to me. What's important to me is the small things that I took from it. That Tolkien spoke fluent Greek in his debate club in secondary school because he found Latin to be too easy. That he was a notorious perfectionist. That he liked hanging out with his boys' club. That he calculated the phases of the moon and how long the fellowship would take from place A to B and which phase of the moon they would then experience when looking up into the sky. Those are some of the information I took from this moving and gripping biography of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Do yourself a favour and pick this one up. Be like Legolas. Trust me on this one.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dominik

    As a Tolkien fan, this was great! I got a new insight into the life of this history-changing author! After reading, I picked up the Hobbit again and fell into Middle-earth again. A must-read for fans of JRR Tolkien's works!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Willian Molinari

    It's not a secret to anyone that I'm a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I have 3 versions of this book. A translated version (pt-BR), the original version in English, and the audiobook. It's no news that it would be a 5 star book to me. I just listened to the Inklings book by Humphrey Carpenter, so it was the best time to also listen to this one (yes, I went for the Audiobook). Tolkien was a genius and a real nerd IMO. Reading this biography is also finding the human part of Tolkien. He had his own flaw It's not a secret to anyone that I'm a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I have 3 versions of this book. A translated version (pt-BR), the original version in English, and the audiobook. It's no news that it would be a 5 star book to me. I just listened to the Inklings book by Humphrey Carpenter, so it was the best time to also listen to this one (yes, I went for the Audiobook). Tolkien was a genius and a real nerd IMO. Reading this biography is also finding the human part of Tolkien. He had his own flaws and lived a simple life as a professor in Oxford. When he started making real money from his creations, he was already 60+ years old. It was great to see that The Silmarillion was Tolkien's life work. Everything else he did was creating more content on top of the Silmarillion. The attention to details Tolkien had is out of this world. Thinking about where the moon should be in the story to make things coherent is something that very few authors take into account. It took more than a decade to write the LotR. Well, if you like the man and/or his work, I definitely recommend you read/listen to this one. Humphrey Carpenter did a great job capturing who Tolkien was and what he did. Here are my notes for this book: Tolkien had a situation with a poisonous spider when he was a kid. He often said it did not cause any dislikes on him about spiders but often used them in his books The only memory of his father was him painting "AR Tolkien" (Arthur Reuel) on the lead of a trunk Tolkien's mother knew Latin, French, and German Tolkien liked to draw trees and be with trees. He didn't care about botanical details, he liked the shape of trees. He even talked to trees when he was a kid. Tolkien's mother corrected grammatical errors in his stories when he was a kid. Example: "a great green dragon" instead of "a green great dragon" Many times Ms. Tolkien removed her children from school because she could educate them better Tolkien disliked Shakespeare Tolkien was 13 when his mother died Anglo saxon == old english Both Tolkien and Edith were orphans Tolkien did not know about homosexuality until he was 19. At the age of boys are discovering romance he was forced to be distant from Edith and be around people of the same sex. He associated male company with most of its good in life The painting of "the mountain spirit" is the origin of Gandalf Tolkien did not come from a rich family and the distinction was clear among groups at the University. He found some catholic friends there, which made things easier -- It's interesting how religion plays a social role in many contexts Tolkien was fascinated by the Welsh language Tolkien had a different style of handwriting for each of his friends Tolkien and Edith spent 3 years apart from each other and they grew differently. Both had to do concessions if they want to stay together. Tolkien had to tolerate Edith's absorption in the daily things of life, as trivial as it looks for him. Edith had to tolerate Ronald's invented languages and academic papers, as selfish as it looks for her Tolkien considered himself as a sentimental one but that's not what he shows to his male friends If Tolkien had shown Edith his "bookish face" she would be more tolerant when those topics appear in their marriage, but he kept the two sides of his life firmly apart Tolkien didn't see him as an inventor of stories but a discover of legends "You can't have a language without people to speak it". Tolkien was creating the story to support his made-up languages His language would come from the land that Earendel saw in his strange voyage Sam Gangi is a reflection of the English soldier taking care of their superior Unfinished tales should be "The book of lost tales" if it was completed "I never knew a man of this age that is, in this respect, his equal" -- his boss from the oxford English dictionary Tolkien and Gordon formed a "Viking Club" which consisted of them drinking large quantities of beer and reciting Norse sagas -- it's interesting that most of the work Tolkien was famous for writing was not his main job. Many parts of his main job were contributors to give him knowledge for it, but the work itself is totally related to his passion for literature, languages, and old tales Tolkien did not finish the Silmarillion and he would probably never finish it. Sometimes because of his perfectionism and others because he doesn't want his mythology to die when finished Tolkien lived in Leeds for years and was a professor at Leeds university At the age of 32, Tolkien was a professor at Leeds, had many languages developed (Sindarin, Quenya, etc.), have written most of Silmarillion, and had three children Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon for 20 years, then elected Merton professor of English and literature, lived the first part of his retirement in Oxford, moved, came back to Oxford after Edith died, and had a peaceful death at the age of 81. It was the ordinary remarkable life lived by scholars. A life of academic brilliance for sure, but only in a very narrow academic field. Between these years where "nothing happens" Tolkien wrote two books that because best sellers and kept the imagination and thinking of several million readers "It's a strange paradox the fact that The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are the work of an obscure Oxford professor who specialized in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden." Edith and Ronald had their own rooms and did not disturb one another. Edith finds Ronald's snoring tiresome. Ronald was not a big fan of railways because it brings noise and dirty to the countryside Tolkien was not a big fan of news (as well as his friend Lewis) because journalists are usually not masters of the topics they write about it things and opinions change very fast Tolkien did not give much care to his clothes. Everything he used was common and not much thought Tolkien was an old fashion conservative. He liked monarchy and did not believe in the rule if the people Tolkien's perfectionism didn't help him to publish articles, he edits too much. Edith noticed that one part of Tolkien only came alive when being with other men of his kind At some point, Edith opposed to Tolkien taking kids to the mass and she showed some anti-catholic behaviors. Tolkien usually worked until late times because it was only when Edith went to bed that he had time without interruptions at his desk. It was mostly domestic matters or Edith requiring attention, which was quite normal. It was often irritant to him but he took it patiently Tolkien was never shy of kissing his sons in public, even when they grew up Tolkien realized he could use all the complexity and creativity he used for Silmarillion to also create simple stories for his children Tom Bombadil was based on a Dutch doll that belongs to Michael "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit" was the first sentence of the hobbits ever written Gandalf was called Bladolfin and Gandalf was the leader of the dwarfs. The name Gandalf was taken from the Icelandic and means sorcerer elf The hobbit was abandoned right after the death of Smaug. It was only resurrected after a graduating student asked for the manuscript, read it, and told the publishers about it. The Shire was everything Tolkien liked about England. The first name of Frodo was Bingo The lord of the rings is the realization of the Silmarillion, which only became viable because of the Hobbit "Germans virtues (and they are virtues!) in obedience and patriotism are greater than ours". He curses Adolf Hitler for perverting these virtues. Tolkien was very perfectionist. Christopher helped by drawing a map, but he had to calculate distances, make names consistent, calculating moon phases, and even the direction of the wind sometimes Tolkien was 51 and scared that he would never finish his stories because of the huge amount of work it requires to make everything consistent. He was already known for his procrastination on his philological work Leaf by niggle was written while Tolkien was concerned about the progress of his mythological world, in the middle of the writing of LotR Tolkien didn't have the same way of thinking as Charles Williams but they were friends. It's hard to say why the friendship with CS Lewis started to cool down. Maybe because Tolkien disliked the Narnia stories by Lewis or the fact that the whole Narnia chronicles were written 3x faster than then LotR, or maybe because Tolkien was seeing a fan of his mythology become a successful writer by himself. There was also the fact that Lewis went to Cambridge after some time, which made it harder to keep in touch. It took 12 years to write LotR Silmarillion was Tolkien's life work. Rejecting it was almost an insult to him Tolkien just had one manuscript of LotR -- seeing that today feels very frightening The publisher had an agreement with Tolkien to do split sharing. After the book paid its costs, the author and the publisher will share the profits. This model was usually used for non-conventional books as it reduces risks for the publisher and better rewards the author in case the book sells. It took more than 16 years since the beginning of the writing of LotR until its publication They initially printed 3500 copies of the fellowship of the ring Tolkien hated combustion engines and the problems they bring to society The first check Tolkien received from the publisher was considerably more than his annual salary at the University Tolkien replying to letters from fans played an important part in fixing the pirating problem he had in America Tolkien was too kind to reject interviews but he decided to select just a few of them to accept because there were too many. He usually likes people when he meets them but got annoyed soon after. He usually starts an alarm clock when a visitor comes in and tell the visitor he has other things to do when Edith became friends with Joy (wife of CSL) and Tolkien and Lewis had part of their friendship back Tolkien used to reply to almost all letters, especially the ones coming from children or elderly people. Sometimes he wrote the same letter more than once until he was satisfied with the final version. It took much of his time. After the death of CS Lewis, Tolkien wrote: "So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age - like an old tree that is losing all its leave one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots".

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jack Schuffenhauer

    It was wonderful book about a wonderful wonderful man! A true literary genius. I wanted the book to be much longer and even more detailed. I would like reread his books. Thank you, Drew!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Domien

    Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for professor Tolkien's works. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion have helped shape me not only in my tastes and my own attempts at creativity, but as a person. This official biography takes a look at the man behind those books and it does that while being fully aware of Tolkien's own dislike of biography as an attempt to understand the works themselves better (one of the professor's many strongly held opinions). Indeed, this book makes Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for professor Tolkien's works. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion have helped shape me not only in my tastes and my own attempts at creativity, but as a person. This official biography takes a look at the man behind those books and it does that while being fully aware of Tolkien's own dislike of biography as an attempt to understand the works themselves better (one of the professor's many strongly held opinions). Indeed, this book makes no claims whatsoever about the "true" meanings behind anything in Tolkien's fiction. It doesn't try to explain the struggles in The Lord of the Rings by pointing to his experiences in World War I, for example. Instead, this biography simply tells the story of Tolkien's life and paints a portrait of the man's personality and for a devoted fan, that in itself is interesting enough. After a hard childhood as an orphan, a difficult challenge in his love life and the horrors of war, Tolkien settled down with his wife and children in Oxford and lived a remarkably ordinary suburban life for a professor at an elite university. The theme running throughout the book is the peculiar contrast between the man's boundless imaginary vision and the perfectly routine everyday life that he led. Strangely enough, it is this part of the book that I found most fascinating. In it, Tolkien's personality is fully on display. He was a decent but flawed man. In fact I recognise an awful lot of his character traits in myself: his outward cheerfulness that masked a tendency towards melancholy and pessimism, his lack of concentration and discipline, his religious faith, his generally conservative mindset mixed with an abiding sense of wonder, his passionate but very narrow tastes, his love of small pleasures and natural places, his distaste for the modern world, his easy, friendly manner that often belied his stubborn and sometimes frustrating character and finally, his strong belief in his own capabilities that was often undermined by moments when he felt worthless and shameful. I really liked the man I got to know in these pages. There were times when he frustrated me, for sure, especially when he did stupid things that I myself would do (and have done). But when all is said and done, the mystery remains. How could a man this ordinary be the mind behind such an extraordinary world? If there is answer to be found in this book, it would seem to be that Tolkien simply tuned into some signal only he could receive, and became a historian for a world only he had heard about.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Debra

    I read this book in my freshmen year of high school and found it both enjoyable and fascinating in the way that most biographies are. If you enjoy hearing the history of ones doings, which in this case are both full of Love, Learning, Literature, Fun times, Old Friends, Family Life, Grief,Loss, and much much more: then I am sure you will enjoy this book as much as I did, and even more if you are one of those people who knows Tolkien so well that you have learned elvish. Debra Taron

  14. 5 out of 5

    Adam Whitehead

    In 1892, a young British couple working for an English bank in South Africa had a son, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. By the time he was twelve years old, Tolkien had lost both his family and was brought up by a family friend. He developed a love of languages and mythology, fell in love, married, went to Oxford University, fought in the First World War, went into academic, became a respected expert in his (albeit narrow) field and died peacefully at the age of 81. But along the way he created nothin In 1892, a young British couple working for an English bank in South Africa had a son, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. By the time he was twelve years old, Tolkien had lost both his family and was brought up by a family friend. He developed a love of languages and mythology, fell in love, married, went to Oxford University, fought in the First World War, went into academic, became a respected expert in his (albeit narrow) field and died peacefully at the age of 81. But along the way he created nothing less than an entire mythology, a long and stirring epic of mighty battles between good and evil, of angelic hosts descending from on high, a mighty kingdom drowned beneath the waves and, at the last, a small hobbit being the only thing standing against the shadow. This is the story of J.R.R. Tolkien and his life. Originally published in 1976, Humphrey Carpenter's painstaking biography remains the definitive account of his life. Other biographies have followed, but they either draw so much on Carpenter that you might as well just read the original, or they are more interested in stirring up controversy which doesn't really exist. Carpenter divides his book into sections, focusing on Tolkien's traumatic childhood and the development of his early interesting in languages, then his even more traumatic life as a young man, fighting in the trenches of the Somme and trying to win the heart of a (slightly) older woman, and then his life as an academic and teacher, during which time he began writing The Silmarillion and, later The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Carpenter has an interesting task here because, although Tolkien's life was certainly not free of tragedy and incident, it was also arguably not wall-to-wall action. Tolkien, by his own admission, was a conservative figure. He did not travel widely, apart from the war he avoided from getting involved in any major political or national events, and he was at his happiest in a pub or friend's drawing room, drawn into an engrossing conversation about religion, myth, art or literature. A fascinating biography this does not necessarily make. But Carpenter does make it work, by tying incidents in Tolkien's life into his mythology, noting how a 1911 trip to Switzerland inspired Tolkien's fascination with mountains, and encounters with Norse, Icelandic, Welsh and Finnish mythology gave him the names "Middle-earth" and "Earendel." This constant circling back to Tolkien's literary works is clever - it's of course why people are interested in Tolkien's life - and gives the book a strong thematic spine. This approach also means we get a good view of Tolkien the individual and Tolkien the writer and academic and how these two sides developed. Those looking for drama and controversy will find relatively little, apart from Tolkien's dislike of his friend C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories and the occasional tension between Tolkien and his wife over religion (Edith was a Protestant who had converted to Catholicism on marriage, something she always resented). The truth is that Tolkien's wasn't that controversial a character, so the biography instead is able to delve deeply into his stories and the events in his life that shaped them. Carpenter writes with an easy, flowing style, mixing academic musings with more relaxed accounts of home life. The book never becomes bogged down in detail, but some elements are explored in greater depth where necessary. I suspect that when he wrote this book, Carpenter had an idea to publish Tolkien's own letters in a companion volume (Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981), whilst he certainly knew that Christopher Tolkien was planning the publication of The Silmarillion (1977) and possibly companion volumes, so that people who wanted more detail and depth on the mythology could find it elsewhere. There's also a hint of poetry in the book, particularly the way Carpenter stakes out important touchstones in Tolkien's life - his love for his wife, his appreciation of trees - and uses these to anchor several key moments in the book: his early childhood in the countryside near Birmingham, a key moment when he was utterly stuck on Lord of the Rings and a neighbour's tree crisis sparked in him a revelation that helped him to complete the book, and his last few years in retirement. The result is that rarest of beasts: a biography of a literary figure that is fast-moving, rich in anecdote and detail, and simply enjoyable to read. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (*****) remains the definitive Tolkien biography, a well-written, well-researched and fascinating account of the most important figure in the history of fantasy literature. If you are at all interesting in how The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion came about, this is essential reading.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Courtney (courtney & books)

    This is the official biography of Tolkien, which means it was approved by the Tolkien estate. While it was a very informative and interesting read, it is also biased. The book glosses over many details to create a comprehensive narrative. I’m not a big bio person, but this was quite easy to read and I found it engaging. Fun to get more understanding on an author I have enjoyed.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lena

    Words cannot describe the beauty of this book ❤️

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bjørk Rúnadóttir

    I honestly really enjoyed reading a book about my favorite author. He was a very simple man with an enormous imagination. I really want to reread The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, but gosh darn my TBR-pile got big again after easter break.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Stefan

    A well rounded book that manages to convey Tolkien's life and work using interesting quotes, good narrative style, and plenty of details to provide a greater context for the subject without getting bogged down in quotations, narrative, or details. Humphrey Carpenter has the ability to write a biography that is not literary criticism, an objective that is harder then it may seem. I found Tolkien to be a fascinating individual, one of a certain breed of English men which were the product of a bygo A well rounded book that manages to convey Tolkien's life and work using interesting quotes, good narrative style, and plenty of details to provide a greater context for the subject without getting bogged down in quotations, narrative, or details. Humphrey Carpenter has the ability to write a biography that is not literary criticism, an objective that is harder then it may seem. I found Tolkien to be a fascinating individual, one of a certain breed of English men which were the product of a bygone era, but the greatest single thing I took away from this book is how a ordinary man with a ordinary (even somewhat dull) life, was able to use his extraordinary mind to mentally explore extraordinary places. His life shows how being restrained physically does not mean one has to let their imaginative and mental faculties rot, but instead, let's one exercise them vigorously and use the power of the mind to journey where the body cannot. On another note, I found the relationship between C. S. Lewis and Tolkien to very interesting, yet just as interesting, was the extreme difference in their writing styles: C. S. Lewis was able to write a large number of books because he did not extensively edit or revise every piece of writing whereas Tolkien's literary output was far lower because of his perfectionism and because of his habit of taking revision and editing to the extreme (to Tolkien revision meant almost completely rewriting the whole work until was a completely different piece of writing.) This excellent biography has gotten me wanting to read The Inklings, also by Humphrey Carpenter.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    3.5/5stars I really enjoyed this! This is basically exactly what it is described as - a Biography about J. R. R. Tolkien. This one is a bit more credible then most because the author sat down and actually spoke to Tolkien, but anyways, I think he did a wonderful job of telling Tolkien's tale! This book goes through Tolkien's life, his works, his friendships, his relationships, all the way up to his death. I loved discovering new things I didn't actually know about him or his works, and the author 3.5/5stars I really enjoyed this! This is basically exactly what it is described as - a Biography about J. R. R. Tolkien. This one is a bit more credible then most because the author sat down and actually spoke to Tolkien, but anyways, I think he did a wonderful job of telling Tolkien's tale! This book goes through Tolkien's life, his works, his friendships, his relationships, all the way up to his death. I loved discovering new things I didn't actually know about him or his works, and the author did a great job of telling it like a narrative rather than how you normally think of a nonfiction work. Highly recommend for Tolkien fans!!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    Union Theological Seminary in New York had a long winter "Intercession" during which time they offered intensive courses to keep students on campus. I didn't stay around, but returned for my annual visit to friends and family in the Chicago area. Although I did read serious books during the break, I also devoured the fun books which the school terms did not allow time for. One of them during the winter break of 1977/8 was Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, an author I'd been very fond of as a chi Union Theological Seminary in New York had a long winter "Intercession" during which time they offered intensive courses to keep students on campus. I didn't stay around, but returned for my annual visit to friends and family in the Chicago area. Although I did read serious books during the break, I also devoured the fun books which the school terms did not allow time for. One of them during the winter break of 1977/8 was Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, an author I'd been very fond of as a child.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Vergara

    If one more person tells me "Tolkien's writings are an allegory for the wars he fought in" I'm going to slap them with this book. He didn't care for it. Letting life experiences slip into your fictional writing is called "writing good fiction", not allegory. From his birth in south Africa through his writings and later life, this book shows the events, people and interests that eventually inspired his work. The first thing he wrote were the elven languages. The man loved language. And smoking pi If one more person tells me "Tolkien's writings are an allegory for the wars he fought in" I'm going to slap them with this book. He didn't care for it. Letting life experiences slip into your fictional writing is called "writing good fiction", not allegory. From his birth in south Africa through his writings and later life, this book shows the events, people and interests that eventually inspired his work. The first thing he wrote were the elven languages. The man loved language. And smoking pipes while wearing tweed. Guy was nuts about that.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    Carpenter writes, "Tolkien himself did not entirely approve of biography. Or, rather, he disliked its use as a form of literary criticism." Tolkien didn't like biography for the purpose of better understanding an author's work. Carpenter pays his respects to this judgment within a biography, where, though he refrains from criticism, he greatly helps one to understand the man and thus, his works. Because I am so thankful for Tolkien's work, I'm thankful for Carpenter's. An excellent biography.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    Wow. I learned so much about Tolkien through this book!! I always thought that Tolkien just sat down one day, and said, "I want to write a best-selling book," and then went at it. But, it has given me a lot of hope and realization that, as an aspiring author, that even the big dogs had trouble sometimes writing their books. It was so great to get a glimpse of Tolkien's life, and in how "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" was written and imagined.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jackie B. - Death by Tsundoku

    Carpenter's biography is written in eight parts with 4 appendices. When I first saw this, I admit, I was a bit intimidated! Once I slipped into the pages, I found J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography to be welcoming and engaging. I found myself easily getting lost in the details of Tolkien's life. Carpenter offers a depth of detail into Tolkien's life I found refreshing. Never once is Tolkien elevated beyond the status of merely a scholastic man. I found that the picture of J.R.R. Tolkien I developed dem Carpenter's biography is written in eight parts with 4 appendices. When I first saw this, I admit, I was a bit intimidated! Once I slipped into the pages, I found J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography to be welcoming and engaging. I found myself easily getting lost in the details of Tolkien's life. Carpenter offers a depth of detail into Tolkien's life I found refreshing. Never once is Tolkien elevated beyond the status of merely a scholastic man. I found that the picture of J.R.R. Tolkien I developed demonstrated a fully-realized man. Exactly how a good biographer should present a subject who looms so large in literature. I found the format quite to my liking. The parts flow chronologically, but within each part Carpenter isn't afraid to jump around a bit in time to provide a holistic view of defining moments in Tolkien's life. My favorite part of reading J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography was learning to understand Tolkien the man, the scholar, the father, the friend, and the author. Carpenter presents a man who is all these at once; no facet can be separated from the others without diminishing Tolkien. Carpenter masterfully connected moments of Tolkien's life together to help the reader understand how engrained this mythos Tolkien created was to him. The development of languages, the myths of the First and Second age, all these percolated in Tolkien's mind for years before Bilbo's and Frodo's stories came out. I cannot believe how Tolkien brought all his passions and his scholarship together in such a magical way. Having read this biography, I will now read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with new eyes. Eyes which will see further, read deeper, and perhaps finally begin to truly understand what this mythos means both in context and to the literary world as a whole. Highly recommended.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Elsbeth Kwant

    What a wonderfully written book. I only just realized that with all the biographies I had read, I had never read one of Tolkien. And very revealing it was - sometimes nearly excruciating if you think how often mowing the lawn, marking undergraduate essays and playing solitaire deep into the night came between Tolkien and his creative writing. It was undoubtedly also a necessary constraint. Also Carpenter is quite judgmental about the suburban house and life (though less so than Auden, who called What a wonderfully written book. I only just realized that with all the biographies I had read, I had never read one of Tolkien. And very revealing it was - sometimes nearly excruciating if you think how often mowing the lawn, marking undergraduate essays and playing solitaire deep into the night came between Tolkien and his creative writing. It was undoubtedly also a necessary constraint. Also Carpenter is quite judgmental about the suburban house and life (though less so than Auden, who called the house hideous). In the end he concludes: "This life-style did not specifically reflect Tolkien's own tastes; on the other hand he did not exactly object to it - indeed there was an ascetic side to him which did not even notice it. Until he moved to Bournemouth, because he felt his wife deserved it: 'he found the reality a little harsher than he had expected.' Also lovely details, as that he only wrote in his diary when he was down. C.S. Lewis when the Ring was finally done:"I think the prolonged pregnancy has drained a little vitality from you: there'll be a new ripeness and freedom when the book's out."

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lydia

    Alright, so I was expecting to like reading about Tolkien but at the same time was worried the book might be a difficult read for me. Thankfully I was wrong about that. It was a fantastic reading experience. I was hooked from the first chapter. The writing flowed beautifully presenting the man behind Middle Earth in all aspects of life. I learned so much about Tolkien’s background, intellectual pursuits and motivation. Hard for me to say more at this point, it is a complex work and if you are in Alright, so I was expecting to like reading about Tolkien but at the same time was worried the book might be a difficult read for me. Thankfully I was wrong about that. It was a fantastic reading experience. I was hooked from the first chapter. The writing flowed beautifully presenting the man behind Middle Earth in all aspects of life. I learned so much about Tolkien’s background, intellectual pursuits and motivation. Hard for me to say more at this point, it is a complex work and if you are interested in Tolkien, I highly recommend you pick this book up.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Griffin

    Excellent biography, it was very readable and immersive, not dry at all. I also loved the fact that it took the holistic view on his life. The author didn't shy away from his academic work and his simple (what some might call boring) life, in favor of focusing on his fictional work, as many have done. It gave you the full view of the man, thanks to the help and contribution of his family, friends and access to his personal writings and correspondence, giving readers a full and insightful look at Excellent biography, it was very readable and immersive, not dry at all. I also loved the fact that it took the holistic view on his life. The author didn't shy away from his academic work and his simple (what some might call boring) life, in favor of focusing on his fictional work, as many have done. It gave you the full view of the man, thanks to the help and contribution of his family, friends and access to his personal writings and correspondence, giving readers a full and insightful look at a man who had , to quote the author: "the antithesis between the ordinary life he led and the extraordinary imagination that created his mythology."

  28. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

    A beautiful, well-paced, informative read. With lovely prose, Carpenter does a wonderful job of highlighting the different influential threads of Tolkien's life, not making assumptions or aiming for the sensational, but giving a clear background for the Tolkien scholar. It was respectful and careful and made sure to honor Tolkien's distinct opinions. I always found it easy to pick up, and though most of Tolkien's life was far from what most of us would call eventful, Carpenter's treatment made i A beautiful, well-paced, informative read. With lovely prose, Carpenter does a wonderful job of highlighting the different influential threads of Tolkien's life, not making assumptions or aiming for the sensational, but giving a clear background for the Tolkien scholar. It was respectful and careful and made sure to honor Tolkien's distinct opinions. I always found it easy to pick up, and though most of Tolkien's life was far from what most of us would call eventful, Carpenter's treatment made it feel like a treat, a relaxing and quiet pleasure-read.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    Carpenter's writing may leave you wanting, but this is an excellent survey of Tolkien’s life nonetheless. Though he lived a simple life as a professor and family man, he had a surprisingly complex personality. A devastating childhood seemed to perpetuate turbid relationships throughout his life. Those painful experiences also bore much fruit though, as they were the soil out of which his epics grew.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Corey

    Its a biography. Biography's are rarely all that amazing. But this one kept my interest. It was well done. You really do get a good sense of the inspirations that led to Middle Earth being written about. FAKE SPOILER ALERT: You find out that really, JRRTolkien is Gandalf, and he just wanted you all to know about the saga of Middle Earth, so he stuck around long enough to write those books. Like duh? He's always got a pipe, people! It should have been so obvious...

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