Humphrey Carpenter,
Tolkien: A Biography
(Houghton Mifflin, 1977; 2000)

Most readers will recognize the name J.R.R. Tolkien, even if they have not read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. But few people actually know anything at all about Tolkien beyond the creation of his beloved Middle-Earth. This book will correct that.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892. He spent the first few years of his life there, before his mother took him and his younger brother Hilary home to England for a visit that turned permanent when his father, still in Bloemfontein, died unexpectedly. His mother also died unexpectedly in 1904, leaving Ronald, as he was known, and Hilary orphaned. Their guardian, Father Francis Morgan, placed them with a couple of different families as they grew up.

Tolkien served in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, fighting in France during World War I. Just before leaving for France, he married Edith Bratt, who had been his first and only sweetheart. He began writing The Silmarillion in 1917 while recovering from trench fever. The Hobbit was published in 1937, but it took him 17 more years to write The Lord of the Rings. The first two installments, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, were published in 1954, followed by The Return of the King in 1955.

Tolkien was a professor of English, first at Leeds University, then at Oxford, from which position he retired in 1959. In the meantime, he and Edith had four children. His youngest son, Christopher, was most like Tolkien in temperament, and it was he who finished The Silmarillion after Tolkien's death in 1973.

This is only the briefest of summaries of a long and productive life. Aside from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien also published a large number of poems and articles in various journals. This biography tells a great deal more about Tolkien than what he published, however. It begins before his birth, when his mother Mabel Suffield traveled to South Africa to wed Arthur Tolkien. It mentions childhood incidents, such as the time he was bitten by a tarantula when he was still in South Africa, which may or may not be the origin of such creatures as Shelob and Ungoliant. It tells of Sarehole, the small village that he, his mother and his brother lived in for a few idyllic years after his father's death. Sarehole, with its mill, is recognizably the origin of Hobbiton. It relates his horror at the trench warfare of World War I. Much of the book deals with Tolkien's friends and their influences on him.

It also relates the surprising fact that Tolkien began building Middle-Earth merely as a backdrop for his invented languages Quenya and Sindarin. Rather than inventing languages for the elves, he did it the other way around and invented elves for his languages, for language was Tolkien's first love. He was an expert in many vanished languages, including Gothic, Old English and Norse. He also spoke Finnish, Welsh, Swedish and others. Carpenter compares Tolkien's love of words with other people's love of music. Where some would compose music, Tolkien composed languages.

Carpenter shows Tolkien to be very much the Oxford professor. He loved his wife and family, but they were not part of his academic life. He kept the two halves of his life firmly separated. He spent time with his friends, themselves professors and authors, engaged in poetry readings or reading each others' works. He also reveals Tolkien to have been an extreme perfectionist. The reason it took him 16 years to write The Lord of the Rings was because he was always revising some portion of it, and when one portion was revised, often something else also needed revision. Even when it first went to the printers, he was still revising the appendices. This is also the reason why The Silmarillion remained unfinished at his death, and had to be edited by his son Christopher.

Carpenter's writing style is very readable, and he tells an extremely enjoyable story. Fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings will enjoy picking out details of Tolkien's life that appear in his works in a different guise, as well as getting a glimpse of how a true craftsman created a most beloved work of art. This wonderful book can be hard to find, but most libraries should have a copy. Go out and find one!

review by
Laurie Thayer

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