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Tolkien: A Biography (1977)

af Humphrey Carpenter

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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.… (mere)
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I’ll begin by confessing that J.R.R. Tolkien is one of those authors who just interests me, in ways out of proportion and in some ways independent of my interest in The Lord of the Rings. His mastery of languages was paired with a feat of worldbuilding which I don’t believe has yet been quite surpassed. And so I found a copy of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, more to indulge in a long-standing interest than to necessarily learn anything.

I love a good biography, but biographies of authors (and scientists) are rarely particularly interesting. Isaac Newton basically locked himself in his room for a couple of decades, invented calculus, spent a few months dealing with coin counterfeiting, and (probably) gave himself mercury poisoning. Charles Darwin had one interesting trip around the world and then spent the rest of his life being sick. Einstein hopped around a few universities in Europe, sailed for America, and set up lodgings at Princeton. Et cetera, et cetera. Tolkien’s life, as he and his biographer are quick to point out, is neither particularly interesting nor particularly illuminating. His childhood, education, wartime experiences, and even academic career are not all that remarkable. After attaining a Professorship in Anglo-Saxon Studies at Oxford University, the biographer writes: “[…] you might say, nothing else really happened. […] It was the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen.” I suspect if you examined the biographies of most authors, you would find similar (or even more boring) stories.

Carpenter’s strength, though, is that he is not particularly interested in writing a narrow, chronological biography. Instead, the biography takes an almost thematic approach, devoting chapters to Tolkien’s domestic life, his religious beliefs, the publication history of The Lord of the Rings, in addition to the obligatory chapters on his childhood, education, and death. Carpenter is surprisingly unflinching in depicting his marriage to Edith, for example. While they genuinely loved one another, and were immensely devoted, one cannot help but feel that they were fundamentally incompatible, living lives almost in parallel, with little overlap in experiences or interests. He was by no means a perfect man, and his criticisms of modern life and literature often come across as almost petulant or reactionary (to say nothing of an increasingly-fanatical hatred of French cooking). There is an extensive analysis of his at times uneasy friendship with C.S. Lewis, his studies of Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight, and a simulated “day in the life”. From here, the reader gets picture not simply of Tolkien’s life, but also his worldview and very way of living.

One thing that has always slightly puzzled me is Tolkien’s fervent Catholicism. For someone who crafted mythologies no less poetic or expansive than those found in Hebrew or Christian Bibles, his ardent instance that Roman Catholicism was “true” strikes me as slightly arbitrary. (I’ll readily confess that this is my own atheism seeping through). The biography leaves it a little unclear as to how literally Tolkien believed in the Bible, though a telling conversation with the then-agnostic C.S. Lewis suggests he saw it as a tale that, nevertheless, reflected a Divine truth.

Which leads into Tolkien’s own truth-telling. As reflected in a rare, analogous work “Leaf by Niggle”, Tolkien did not seem to believe in innate human creativity. Rather, the ability to “create” was a gift shared by God – whether that God is Eru Ilúvatar of Middle-earth or the God of the Patriarchs. (Indeed, one could compelling argue that the two deities are one and the same). The act of creating – in Tolkien’s case, writing – was thus ultimately an expression of the Divine, a reflection of a transcendent reality. In this way – and regardless of who’s hand composed them – the Gospels, Beowulf, the Kalevala, and The Lord of the Rings are all manifestations of a godly Truth. Tolkien’s own phrasing suggested that he was “discovering” Middle-earth and its history, not merely inventing it à la, say, George R.R. Martin. This might seem a mere poetic bit of wordplay, but I believe (and I feel Carpenter suggests) that there is more to it than that. Just as Isaac Newton believed that he was discovering sacred truths in the depths of alchemy and mathematics, so to do I suspect that Tolkien saw his writing as an ultimately pious act, sub-creation as a form of worship. Surely that would explain at least some if his epic motivation.

The biography itself is succinctly written, reading more like a novel than an academic text. My biggest nitpick is with the exclusion of footnotes (or even endnotes), something Carpenter explicitly states was a choice made to avoid breaking the narrative flow. A (slightly unfair) complaint is that this work was first written in 1977, which means that some of the more recent scholarship on Tolkien cannot be included. There is only a single sentence in the bibliography about Tolkien’s work on the translation of the Book of Jonah, for example, and many of his publications had yet to see the light of day when Carpenter wrote his work. But, overall, it certainly makes the most of its subject matter, even if it never quite explains how, as a review of The Silmarillion once asked: “did one man become the creative equivalent of a people?"

As an aspiring writer (who has never written something longer than about 20,000 words), Tolkien’s approach to writing fascinates me. He was, famously, scornful of allegory, protesting those who read The Lord of the Rings as a parable for 1930s Europe, or the Somme, or even as an extension of the old European epics. His studies of Celtic, Saxon, and Nordic lore were merely compost – dead leaves that provided the nourishment for new life to spring from. Studying the dead leaves that molded into fertilizer is not a particularly effective way of learning about their outgrowth (or so Tolkien would’ve argued). One cannot expect most writers to begin their world-building from the ground-up (or rather, from the cosmos down). But what can we, if anything, take away?

Random Observation about Tolkien’s Writing Style

Tolkien was a horribly inefficient writer. Many of his works languished unpublished for years, incomplete, abandoned, disorganized. It seems a stroke of sheer luck that The Hobbit ever made it to published form, while The Silmarillion suffered in editorial hell for decades, completely only posthumously.

Have a Habit. Tolkien appeared most effective when writing The Lord of the Rings, particularly the early chapters. He appears to have – at least for some time – gotten into the habit of spending an hour or three every night (often staying up as late as 2 AM) hammering away at the text, after a day of lectures at Oxford and dinner with friends. He worked best when he could have several hours uninterrupted, and many of the delays in The Silmarillion seem to have been caused by the demands of academic and domestic that life that made getting into that headspace impossible. The Silmarillion seems to have been tortured by the lack of any kind of organized writing process. Tolkien wrote huge chunks for it, abandoned them, rescued them, revised manuscripts and then forgot which version he was using. Perhaps this is to be expected for a work that began as a haphazard collection of poems, but it didn’t do his (published) output any favors. Find a pattern.

Meta Whatever You Want. We all like making worldbuilding notes, but for Tolkien this world-building was almost as important as the narrative story itself. He wrote essays on Middle-earth’s tobacco cultivation, the genealogies of its kings, the etymologies of its languages. More than anything, this helped Tolkien create a world that was fully fleshed-out, which allowed for a degree of simplicity in the writing process. If you can fully encompass your world, you can figure what has to happen where without quite having to make it up as you go. These essays helped stimulate him creatively, and even when they weren’t incorporated into the body of the text itself, they make appendixes that fascinate readers to this day.

Write for Different Things. The Lord of the Rings is a famously difficult book to categorize. “Adventure” is too glib a genre, whereas “epic” seems a bit anachronistic, and “fantasy” rather unsuitable. But it didn’t begin as an epic-adventure, and Tolkien’s writing habits show the benefits of straying from the narrow path. Indeed, The Lord of the Rings came about from a mixture of archaic poetry, children’s fairy tales (including the much-more-whimsical Hobbit), historical fiction, philological exercises, and an honest-to-goodness time travel tale. In the abstract, one struggles to think how writing childish tales about Father Christmas would make one better-suited to writing epics of Rohan and Gondor. But they did. Inspiration comes from many directions, and genre is all-but-irrelevant. ( )
  pvoberstein | Dec 14, 2020 |
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 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. ( )
1 stem Stbalbach | Oct 29, 2020 |
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. ( )
1 stem 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 |
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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.

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