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Tolkien: A Biography (1977)

by Humphrey Carpenter

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,235164,832 (3.97)70
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.… (more)

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» See also 70 mentions

English (15)  German (1)  All languages (16)
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
This book was an embarrasingly long time unread on my shelf. My most common excuse for why I haven't read it yet was that I "knew alot about his life anyway" or so I thought. While a basic outline of his life was known to me, Humphrey Carpenter painted a intimate picture of an extraordinarily ordinary man. Carpenter managed to find a good balance between talking about Tolkien's literary creations and Tolkien himself. The account on Tolkien's last years, in particular, were moving. I cannot help, but appreciate Tolkien as the person behind the myth, with his struggle to complete projects in time, his tendency to get lost in details, his complicated, but always deeply loving, relationship with his wife Edith, more than ever before. This will be a book I'll re-read again and again in the years to come. ( )
  pencilphilos | May 15, 2020 |
In his author’s note to Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter writes that he “tried to tell the story of Tolkien’s life without attempting any critical judgements [sic] of his works of fiction. This is partly in deference to [Tolkien’s] own views, but in many cases it seems to [Carpenter] that the first published biography of a writer is not necessarily the best place to make literary judgements [sic], which will after all reflect the character of the critic just as much as that of his subject” (pg. vii).

Discussing Tolkien’s education, Carpenter describes how the English literature curriculum at King Edward’s School focused primarily on Shakespeare, “which [John] Ronald [Reuel Tolkien] soon found that he ‘disliked cordially,’” especially the fact that in Macbeth, Shakespeare did not actually have Great Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane, which inspired Tolkien to “devise a setting by which the trees might really march to war” (pg. 30). Most importantly, Carpenter describes how Tolkien discovered his love of language first from his mother’s tutoring and later at King Edward’s. While Tolkien began experimenting with inventing languages in his youth, his study of Gothic led him to “develop his invented languages backwards; that is, to posit the hypothetical ‘earlier’ words which he was finding necessary for invention by means of an organised [sic] ‘historical’ system” (pg. 41). At this time, Tolkien first encountered the words Earendel (pg. 71) and Mirkwood (pg. 78) in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic, respectively. Further, Carpenter writes of Tolkien’s interest in philology, “Though he studied the ancient literature of many countries he visited few of them, often through force of circumstance but perhaps partly through lack of inclination. And indeed the page of a medieval text may be more potent than the modern reality of the land that gave it birth” (pg. 63).

Discussing the crafting of what became The Silmarillion after the Great War, Carpenter cautions, “No account of the external events of Tolkien’s life can provide more than a superficial explanation of the origins of his mythology” (pg. 101). Further, an examination of Tolkien’s life as a professor “says nothing about the man who wrote The Silmarillion and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, does nothing to explain the nature of his mind and the way in which his imagination responded to his surroundings. Certain Tolkien himself would have agreed with this” (pg. 136). That said, an appreciation for his life adds context for those interested in Tolkien’s scholarship and the subtle ways it influenced him beyond what can be directly inferred from his day-to-day experiences. As Carpenter argues, “If we are going to understand anything about [Tolkien’s] work as a writer we had better spend a short time examining his scholarship” (pg. 146). That scholarship adds gravitas to Carpenter’s description of Tolkien’s efforts creating both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien described the process as if he were plumbing the depths of mythology similarly to his philological work.

Foreshadowing the Tolkien Estate’s recent concerns with adaptation, sales of The Lord of the Rings benefitted from a radio dramatization, “which inevitably did not meet with Tolkien’s approval, for if he had reservations about drama in general he was even more strongly opposed to the ‘adaptation’ of stories, believing that this process invariably reduced them to their merely human and thus most trivial level” (pg. 254). Carpenter writes of Tolkien’s continued revisions of The Silmarillion during his retirement, “Sub-creation had become a sufficiently rewarding pastime in itself, quite apart from the desire to see the work in print” (pg. 285). Returning to the themes of his author’s note, Carpenter concludes, “[Tolkien’s] real biography is The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion; for the truth about him lies within their pages” (pg. 293). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Aug 5, 2019 |
That moment when you read a biography of the deceased author of Lord of the Rings and still tear up, when he dies.
Loved the insights into how the story grew within Tolkien, and how the Hobbit, LotR and Silmarillion were written. I also teared up at the response of the first fans to LotR, that was beautiful, I wish I had been there. ( )
  Moonika | Mar 4, 2019 |
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 |
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Humphrey Carpenterprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ebert, DietrichCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Krege, WolfgangTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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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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