Review: J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography


J. R. R. Tolkien: A BiographyHumphrey Carpenter. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014 (originally published 1977).

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.

One thought on “Review: J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2016 | Bob on Books

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