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Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

Tolkien: A Biography (1977)

by Humphrey Carpenter

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Other reviews will give you a deeper sense of the structure and content of this magnificent biography. Carpenter succeeds in providing an account of Tolkien's fantastic life and career. He provides the young reader a glimpse of the life lead by one of the greatest authors of the last century without falling into the trp of over-glamorization (Mr. Tolkien's life was anything but, in my opinion).

The purpose for my review, then, if not to provide information relative to the substance of the work, is to urge the reader of Tolkien (old and new alike) to pick up this volume. The information provided herein is invaluable to anyone attempting any serious or real study of the man or of myth. ( )
  Joseph_Scifres | Sep 20, 2017 |
With his high fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkien has provided the tinder that stokes the imagination of millions. His books are known around the world, and for great reason. Having read some of his work myself, thought it prudent to see what events provided him with the impetus to create a whole mythology to boot.

In that sense, J.R.R. Tolkien – A Biography by Humphrey Carter, which was featured in the March Book Haul, provides some illumination into the underlying reasons that drove Tolkien to write what he wrote and create what he did.

The biography is split up into 8 parts, some of which are more interesting than others. Admittedly, autobiographies can run quite dry many times, but this still did a reasonable job of showing us Tolkien in his most authentic form.

Tolkien’s growth, his early years, his friendship with C.S. Lewis, and even his penchant for countless revisions are all catalogued within the book. It was particularly interesting to see what a perfectionist Tolkien was. In a sense, this allowed Tolkien to fine tune his writing process while at the same time expanding his Legendarium.

The Legendarium was created by Tolkien to serve as the fictional mythology about Earth’s remote past, and is composed by The Simarillion, The Hobbit, Lord Of The Rings, The History Of The Middle-Earth and more. This however, is not discussed in the book. I only mention it to supply the fervent reader for additional avenues to explore Tolkien’s unbounded work.

My favorite parts of the autobiography were about the creation of his books. Be that as it may, Tolkien’s skill in poetry, in conjunction with his relentless passion as a philologist to pursue the roots of language and learn everything about it was also highly intriguing.

In fact, regarding his penchant for writing Lord Of The Rings and linguistics, Tolkien had this to say:

“One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mould is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.”[1]

In its entirety, the book provides ample latitude of background while still providing enough fascinating components of Tolkien’s life. Each reader will undoubtedly gain different insights, but regardless, it’s intriguing to note that Tolkien himself was not an avid fan of biographies.

Tolkien believed that biographies wouldn’t provide the truest nature of the person, and perhaps he was right. Just like movies, which are based on books, provide merely a facsimile of the depth which is entirely superficial of what great books provide, autobiographies will likewise never capture in full breadth and scope the life of an individual. Still, readers are lucky that Tolkien wrote phenomenal fiction because it allows us to see Tolkien’s soul as it is infused within pages. And there’s no more authentic biography than a writer’s words.

[1] Humphrey Carter, J.R.R. Tolkien – A Biography, p. 131. ( )
  ZyPhReX | May 30, 2017 |
Summary: The biography of the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, describing his early life, participation in The Inklings, and his habits of work, scholarship, and how his most famous works came to be written.

Humphrey Carpenter wrote what, as far as I can ascertain, the first biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, published in 1977, four years after the death of the author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the unfinished Silmarillion. He opens this book by recounting his first meeting with Tolkien, in 1967. He writes:

"His eyes fix on some distant object, and he seems to have forgotten that I am there as he clutches his pipe and speaks through its stem. It occurs to me that in all externals he represents the archetypal Oxford don, at times even the stage caricature of a don. But that is exactly what he is not. It is rather as if some strange spirit had taken on the guise of an elderly professor. The body may be pacing this shabby little suburban room, but the mind is far away, roaming the plains and mountains of Middle-earth."

Central to Carpenter's narrative of Tolkien's life is his preoccupation with the mythology most fully expressed in his posthumous Silmarillion but also in his earlier "elvish" poetry, The Hobbit, and in the work for which he was most know, The Lord of the Rings. Carpenter sketches the backdrop to this mythology in a life that included the loss of both parents at an early age, the influence of Father Francis, the formation of T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barrovian Society, the pre-cursor to the Inklings), his romance and eventual marriage to Edith, his war experiences, his scholarly life as a philologist at Oxford, and his involvement with the Inklings and relationship with C. S. Lewis.

I was surprised that Carpenter did not make more of the influence Tolkien's war experience on his writing, as some recent writers including Joseph Loconte and Colin Duriez have done. [See my reviews of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War and Bedeviled]. I wonder if for Carpenter, he would have traced more of the influence in Tolkien's books to the mythologies of Iceland, Beowulf, to Arthurian legend, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

We learn of some of the childhood places, reminiscent of his descriptions of The Shire. We see his love of fairy stories and eventually Icelandic myths. And during his convalescence from the war, we see his first musings on a mythology that would occupy his life. Carpenter describes the beginnings of The Hobbit in stories told to his children, unconnected at first to the rest of the developing mythology, and the important role his publisher's son had in persuading him to publish this story. Then there is the pressure for "more Hobbit stories" that leads to the beginning of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, which would occupy twelve years. We learn that Tolkien really hadn't connected it to his larger mythology until Frodo and the Ring arrive at Rivendell. Carpenter recounts the back and forth with his publisher over publishing The Silmarillion concurrently, and the endless revising and development of backgrounds, history, and language that would occupy Tolkien for the rest of his life.

Carpenter presents us a very human figure, yet always sympathetically. He portrays a perfectionist, who is held up from publishing so much more by his endless revising. We learn of the tensions this creates with C. S. Lewis, who in short order (by comparison) dashes off the Narnia stories, which Tolkien thought too allegorical. He resented Lewis's popularity as an apologist, considering it not quite fitting for an Oxford don, although the two remained fast friends until Lewis's death. We see a scholar caught up in the very male atmosphere of Oxford scholarship, including the circle of the Inklings, something his wife never felt at home with. Only in her latter years, when they lived at Bournemouth, did she find a circle of friends that she was at home with. We observe a marriage characterized by abiding love, and yet with the accommodations made by many people in these times who lived in two different worlds defined along gender lines. On their headstones, he is "Beren" and she "Luthien."

I think this is an essential biography for an Inklings fan, arising out of acquaintance with Tolkien, friendship with his family, and a sympathetic appreciation of the genius that created Middle-earth and the flat sides that come with such genius. He portrays a man who lived in hobbit-like modesty enjoying the pleasures of home and a good pipe, yet caught up in a truly great story in which he played a most significant part. ( )
  BobonBooks | Nov 20, 2016 |
Absolutely loved it!!!! A great book ( )
  katieloucks | Feb 26, 2016 |
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. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
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Dedicated to the memory of 'The T.C.B.S.'
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It is mid-morning on a spring day in 1967.
Tolkien had not really wanted to write any more stories like The Hobbit; he had wanted to get on with the serious business of his mythology.
[regarding The Lord of the Rings:] Tolkien himself did not think it was flawless. But he told Stanley Unwin: 'It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin, and I can no other.'
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618057021, Paperback)

There may be a corner of the world where the name J.R.R. Tolkien is unknown, but you would be hard-pressed to find it. Since their publication, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been published in every major language of the world. And though he single-handedly gave a mythology to the English and was beloved by millions, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien remained refreshingly unchanged by his fame and fortune, living out his days simply and modestly among the familiar surroundings of Oxford College. Humphrey Carpenter, who was given unrestricted access to Tolkien's papers, brilliantly puts meat to the bones of the Tolkien legend in J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, offering a well-rounded portrayal of this quiet, bookish man who always saw himself first and foremost as a philologist, uncovering rather than creating the peoples, languages, and adventures of Middle-Earth.

Carpenter chronicles Tolkien's early life with a special sensitivity; after losing both parents, Tolkien and his brother Hilary were taken from their idyllic life in the English countryside to a poverty-ridden existence in dark and sooty Birmingham. There were bright points, however. A social and cheerful lad, Tolkien enjoyed rugby and was proud of his gift for languages. It was also at this time that he met Edith Bratt, who would later become his wife. Academic life--both as a student and professor--is where this biography shines. Friendship with other men played a huge part in Tolkien's life, and Carpenter deftly reveals the importance these relationships--his complex friendship with C.S. Lewis, membership in the Inklings and the T.C.B.S.--had on the development of his writing.

The only criticism one can make about this book is that Carpenter tends to gloss over Tolkien's contributions to comparative philology. True, there is a chapter devoted to Tolkien's academic pursuits, but it tends to skim too lightly over the surface for this reviewer's tastes. Philology is a terribly methodical science, and the author clearly did not want to alienate readers who were primarily interested in Tolkien as a storyteller. Still, it would be nice to understand why Tolkien was held in such high esteem by his fellow academics. As it stands, Tolkien comes off as a slightly eccentric etymologist.

Fans who want to delve even deeper into Tolkien's life should pick up a copy of Carpenter's The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. --P.M. Atterberry

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:01 -0400)

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A biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of the fictional world of Middle-Earth, discussing his early life, his career as a scholar and teacher, his decision to write and the development of his work.

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