J.R.R.Tolkien: A Biography

by Humphrey Carpenter

Paperback, 1992



Call number




HarperCollins (1992), Paperback


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Nicely done and enjoyable biography from 1977. Tolkien died in 1973, but Carpenter had been working with him on the biography since before then. Carpenter was from Oxford, where Tolkien worked. Curiously, Carpenter and Tolkien are now buried in the same cemetery. Tolkien did not lead a life of
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action, but intellectually he took many adventures. Romantically he married his childhood sweetheart, but how they met and what brought them together is one of the more touching aspects of his life. He did not have an easy childhood but somehow made a fairy tale of his life. I was surprised to learn he was a conservative and pious Catholic. This opens many questions unexplored. This is not a deep or scholarly look but for an introduction or even curiosity it is well done, comforting even.
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LibraryThing member aethercowboy
Tolkien hated biography, at least as a method of literary criticism. As such, you would be best to avoid this volume if your goal is to better understand Tolkien's Legendarium. While a recorded history of the author's life is bound to shed some light on things that are to be found in his work, to
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view his work through the glass of his life is like viewing the world through tinted, smudged glasses.

While this book won't make LotR any more understandable, it will shed some light on the person of Tolkien, and his particularly unremarkable yet fascinating life.

Carpenter has made every effort to portray Tolkien from cradle to grave, showing each hurdle he had to overcome to get what he wanted, and how a simple fascination with languages at a young age led to one of the most memorable and quintessential fantasy works ever written. It's definitely a must for those who can't get enough Tolkien.

The passage I was most struck by was the description involving the unauthorized Ace publication of The Lord of the Rings in the United States. While a US audience was awaiting the procrastinating Tolkien's revision of his books for publication here, Ace went ahead and published their own copy with arguably better cover art and a cheaper cover price than the eventual Ballantine first edition. Tolkien did not sue them, though it apparently angered him. It led, however, to a sort of crazed fandom in the US of Tolkien's work. Tolkien remedied this unauthorized snafu by telling all of his fans (via a blurb on the cover of the Ballantine edition and through responses to fan mail) that the Ballantine edition was the only one published in the US with his consent. This led to various groups in the US pressuring Ace to cease distribution (including the SFWA), and in turn, Ace offered to make reparations with Tolkien and ceased publication of their edition. But by then, the damage was done: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings had sold millions of copies (with the Ballantine edition soon outpacing the Ace), and pretty much all of America was ready to buy anything else with his name on it.

Oh wait, that's not damage. That's good. It's my humble opinion, that in the light of recent books and other works featuring Tolkien or Tolkienian subjects, that the estate of Tolkien should instead embrace the value that its adds to its collective intellectual property, and not try to kill it for whatever stretches of IP law they wish to try to leverage on severely confused courts.

As a biography, though, well written, and quite interesting!
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LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
Tolkien taught philology, and wrote books. Not exactly the stuff of great biorgraphies, and Carpenter does not really take you "behind" his thinking, but overall this is an entertaining book. For hobbitophiles, it is a neccessity.
LibraryThing member wisdomlore
Considered THE biography of Tolkien - Carpenter is obviously a friend and follower - but his portrait of JRRT is a good first look at the life and times of this incredibly interesting and gifted professor.
LibraryThing member irishdutchman
I have been a fan of Tolkien since early childhood. So naturally, I have consumed much material by and about him. This biography was a pleasant blend of Tolkien’s life events and his literary influences. For any who wonder how or why Tolkien wrote the stories he is now famous for, this is an
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excellent resource. This is no dry biography but rather a story of how a man, who had quirks and flaws, produced a masterful work that continues to impact readers of all ages. Humphrey Carpenter draws on all the pertinent influences of Tolkien’s life to give you a portrait of one of the twentieth centuries most enigmatic and influential writers. If you only want facts about Tolkien’s life, search him on wikipedia. But if you want to gain an understanding of the man and his myth, read Humphrey Carpenter’s book and gain a deeper appreciation for the creator of middle-earth.
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LibraryThing member piemouth
I read his books in junior high and liked them well enough but have never felt any desire to re-read, nor do I have any interest in the movies. However, I was curious about him. This biography doesn't attempt any literary criticism or link events in his life with his writing except where he had
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made the link himself. It was pretty interesting. I didn't know he grew up in poverty and lost his parents early, though I had known he was a devout Catholic. I didn't know much about his scholarly life, either, and that was interesting.

It spurred an interesting discussion with my mom - she's read his books too but is totally dismissive of them, feels everything he wrote was just derivative and unoriginal. I've got no dog in that fight.
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LibraryThing member katieloucks
Absolutely loved it!!!! A great book
LibraryThing member Joseph_Scifres
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
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
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[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).
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LibraryThing member scottjpearson
J.R.R. Tolkien is most well-known to the public as the author of the famous trilogy Lord of the Rings, surely one of the best works of art ever written in the English language. This work by Carpenter serves as his authorized biography. Tolkien’s professorial and academic life as an Oxford don
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dominates most of the narrative, but always lingering behind lies his unique love of language (philology) – particularly “sub-creating” worlds with language.

Carpenter achieves a balanced job of handling Tolkien’s life. He avoids hagiography while also avoiding smears. Tolkien comes off as a curious professor of Anglo-Saxon literature in an era before technology consumed modern life and before post-graduate research overtook leading universities. His eventual fame due to the famous trilogy comes off as unexpected and unplanned.

Women do not play a major role in this narrative. At the time, Oxford was a mostly male-run institution. Edith, Tolkien’s wife, only played a supporting role for most of his life. His daughter Priscilla did not play a leading role in Carpenter’s narrative either. One could aptly use the word “patriarchal” to describe the arrangement of Tolkien’s life. Indeed, similar words were sometimes used to describe his trilogy. This seems a fair criticism even if it aligned with the sense of his times.

Fans of Lord of the Rings will find Tolkien’s style of working especially interesting. Many are curious about the origins of this tale, and I’m not sure this book provides a definitive answer. It simply sprung from Tolkien’s imagination and life, not from any singular event. Certainly, his experiences in both World Wars played monumental roles as did his male friendships and lifelong experiences creating languages.

This work chronicles the life of this humble yet imaginative professor well and serves his continued cadre of fans. It also provides a historical record of mid-twentieth-century Oxford before it became such a dominant research university and before women played significant roles in its leadership. Carpenter’s work dates from the 1970s (44 years prior to my writing), yet it has aged quite well. I am left with a sense that Tolkien was a man of great curiosity, creativity, and imagination; much like Carpenter admits in his epilogue, I remain mystified, even befuddled, by the transcendent nature of the Lord of the Rings.
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LibraryThing member mirryi
Until I read this, I didn't know that biographies could be so engaging. Carpenter paints a vivid picture of Tolkien's life, skillfully balancing discussion of his day-to-day life with those elements that might tell us more about how his great works came to be. The writing style is immensely
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enjoyable, that even the mundanities of Tolkien's daily commutes seem like activity bursting with vitality.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
I fell in love with The Lord of the Rings when I was in high school. Nevertheless, this biography has remained unread on my shelves for over fifteen years. Why? Some authors are an absolute disappointment to read about. I guess I didn’t want to know if the Professor was one of them.

He’s not.

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you had to write a fictional biography for Tolkien it would look much like this.

Orphaned at an early age, he fell In love with a girl, also orphaned and living in the same boarding house.

His fascination with languages, learning ancient languages and even developing his own secret languages based on strict linguistical rules, showed themselves at an early age.

The only disappointment to me was that his fascinating circle of friends didn’t include women. He was a complete product of his time, attending boys’ prep schools and colleges. Only in the very later years is a female graduate student mentioned. This is often reflected in his books, where usually (but not always) women have secondary roles, leaving the adventuring and hero-ing to men.

Highly recommended.
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Original publication date


Physical description

288 p.; 7.56 inches


0261102451 / 9780261102453
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