- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1st edition (June 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0618057021
- ISBN-13: 978-0618057023
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 85 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,153 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography Paperback – June 6, 2000
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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
From Library Journal
Carpenter's 1977 biography offers a broad look at the Oxford don, who lived a relatively quiet life. This also details his close friendship with C.S Lewis.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Yet this book is far from being focused just on the LoTR. It provides a background of Tolkien's life from birth to death, his natural ability with languages, his family, the war, Oxford and being appointed professor at the age of 32 among many other accomplishments.
This book is a very easy read and uncovers the intriguing life of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Three Key Takeaways from the book:
1. Good friends with C.S. Lewis
2. Lord of the Rings took 16 years from writing to publication
3. J.R.R Tolkien was known to most people as Ronald
In 2010, I read Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings. I've posted my review of that elsewhere on this site. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography is of equal quality to that later work, though the primary focus here is on the creator of Middle Earth.
The following are among the "new" insights I found in this work:
1. Edith Tolkien, though a friend of Joy Davidman, felt jealousy over her husband's devotion to C.S. Lewis (perhaps in part because "Jack" was socially awkward in her presence).
2. Though a perfectionist, J.R.R. Tolkien often experienced difficulty in focusing on a given task (which lead to frequent publication delays).
3. Tolkien disliked the adaptation of the Catholic Mass into the vernacular from Latin.
4. Tolkien's mother knew Latin, French, and German, and he related most closely with her side of the family. He and his brother were homeschooled by their mom at a young age, and Tolkien could even read by the age of four.
5. Tolkien lost both parents before he was a teenager; a local priest, Father Francis Morgan, proved indispensable in filling a great gap in both Tolkien boys' lives.
6. He treasured his friendships with other males from school days, time in the army, and career as an academic.
7. J.R.R. Tolkien did not own a car after World War II. Thus, he had to arrange taxis for himself and his wife.
8. He was grieved by the "different breed of men, less discursive, less sociable in the old way, and certainly less Christian" (239) who replaced his generation of scholars at Oxford.
9. Tolkien's great works all developed in a different manner. The Simarillion was the first major story he began, but also the one he never completed. The Hobbit took the shortest amount of time to complete. The Lord of the Rings series suffered from endless starts and stops until he settled on its contents and publisher.
This book contains simply some of the finest narrative storytelling one can find anywhere. Of particular interest is the section on "Tolkien's typical day" that parallels the "imaginary" Inklings meeting in The Inklings. There is also an insightful account of how C.S. Lewis came to faith in Christ through his friendship with Tolkien.
I had already known a fair amount about Mr. Tolkien, bit and pieces gathered here and there. I even enjoyed his letters (again, compiled by his son Christopher and Mr. Carpenter)., but this book gave me more a glimpse into not only the daily life of Mr. Tolkien, but also his creative genius and his workflow. It was a delightful book about a very delightful, yet curious man. I only wish I could have known him in real life.