J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

“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.”

If you are ever looking for a biography on an absolutely fascinating person, look no further than J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. After re-reading The Hobbit with intentions of reading The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) for the first time, I decided to read up a bit on the author himself before embarking on the journey. This book provides an extremely detailed and comprehensive insight into the life of one of the most well-known and renowned authors of our time and is the official authorized biography of Tolkien by the Tolkien Society. This authorization stems from Carpenter having unfettered access to Tolkien’s personal papers and letters, as well as permission to interview family members and close friends.

Beginning with the meeting of his parents in England and concluding with his death in 1973, this biography seemingly details every moment in between of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life with acute clarity. Completely unbeknownst to me, Tolkien was born in South Africa and lived there for five years before moving with his mother, Mabel, and younger brother, Hilary, to Birmingham, England. Shortly thereafter, tragedy and poverty struck the family upon the death of his father (who was still working in South Africa as a bank clerk). Despite this, Mabel did all she could to ensure an education for both of her sons at King Edward’s School. Tragedy struck again, however, when she passed away just nine years after moving back to England. Orphaned at just twelve years old, Tolkien and his younger brother were placed under the guardianship of Father Morgan, a close family friend and local Catholic priest. Under his guidance, aid, and mentorship, Tolkien was able to complete his schooling at King Edward’s School before eventually continuing his education at the University of Oxford.

One of the most fascinating parts of this book for me was learning how LOTR came to be. It was such an unmeditated, disorderly, and delayed process, yet that is where the real genius and magic resided. Tolkien had no clear outline of his saga while writing it, let alone any idea that this was to be his masterpiece and legacy. It all began with his love of language. As a young boy, Tolkien was fascinated by the mechanics and workings of words, eventually coming to learn an astounding variety of both ancient and modern languages, including Welsh, Finnish, and Gothic. In fact, he loved languages so much he actually began creating his own – he even wrote journals in languages he invented! After creating these languages, Tolkien felt he had a responsibility to “discover” the history behind them; this history would ultimately become the foundation of an entire mythology (eventually captured in The Silmarillion) and, unbeknownst to Tolkien, the foundation for The Hobbit and LOTR. 

While there is SO much more I could talk about, I have condensed some more interesting tidbits about Tolkien and LOTR in the fun facts below!

  • Tolkien was known for his procrastination on projects; this was in large part due to his perfectionist attitude toward his own work. After reading about his lengthy process of writing and publishing LOTR, it is a miracle anything was ever published at all!
  • LOTR is NOT a trilogy – nor did Tolkien ever want it to be. It was broken into three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) primarily due to the cost of paper at the time and worries that such a long manuscript would not garner enough sales to be worthwhile.
  • Tolkien was NOT a fan of allegory. He specifically noted his works were not meant to be interpreted in the political context of the time in which they were written; he felt that allegories ultimately limited the reader’s imagination. With that being said, he did admit to the resemblances between his work and his own life experiences – he even acknowledged his close likeness to Bilbo Baggins!
  • Tolkien was an Assistant Lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Despite knowing Edith Bratt (his future wife) as a teenager, Tolkien was forbidden to spend time with her due to her being three years his senior.
  • One of Tolkien’s most prized works, Beren and Lúthien, was inspired by his love for Edith; these names are even inscribed on their tombstones.

From his early childhood and love story with Edith, to his time serving in WWI and developing dear friendships among fellow intellectuals (including C.S. Lewis), to becoming the father of four and holding several professorships, to creating Middle-Earth and experiencing fame as an author, this biography marks the loves, joys, tragedies, struggles, accomplishments, setbacks, fame, and daily life of the man who would go on to publish the masterpieces we know today, along with a plethora of scholarly work, poems, and short stories. Overall, I would highly recommend this biography to anyone who wants to learn more about Tolkien’s life, as well as those who are general LOTR fans!

*I would also highly recommend checking out https://www.tolkiensociety.org/ for even more information on all things Tolkien!*

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