Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Reads: JRR Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

This was the only authorized biography ever written about JRR Tolkien.   Carpenter was given free access to the man and his avalanche of personal papers to document an extraordinary mind who lived a fairly common life.

From his birth in South Africa to middle-class English parents, Tolkien was orphaned young (before his teen years), this biography walks us through the development of the brilliant mind who crafted the mythical world of Middle Earth to give England it's own mythology.   A university professor by the age of 27, Tolkien's life was filled with the enduring love of languages, a fond affection for his wife for his wife, Edith, and the four children they shared, and the amazing friendships and camaraderie along the way.

I think the thing that surprised me most about the man was how much his religion shaped him as a person.   Tolkien was a devout Catholic (his mother converted them to Catholicism after she was widowed).  I'm not sure why I was so surprised, since an author cannot be judged purely on the content of his work, but it was really an all-encompassing love, enforced by the priest who was his guardian following his mother's death.  I think the surprise probably stemmed from always hearing about how religious CS Lewis was and being able to see that in Lewis's works.   This same visibility isn't in Tolkien's work and, while I didn't expect there to be no religion - I don't think I expected it to be such a prevalent influence in his life.

It's no secret that I am a pretty big LOTR fan (seriously - I've read the trilogy like 13-14 times in the last 10 years.  I've almost lost count!) and I REALLY enjoyed this biography.  Really, REALLY!   It felt like I was privy to an inspiration toolkit.  I am now antsy to start reading all of the books that inspired Tolkien.  and I love the trilogy even more for having read how it was born in the mind of this genius.  

It is hard to find the ebook of this one.  I had a paper copy I picked up secondhand and it started to fall apart when I was a quarter of the way into it.   The only ebook version I could find was on Amazon and Kindle versions just won't play on my Sony. I ended up finding a not-quite-legit copy, but I really wish I'd had a nice and shiny official version because reading something with missing punctuation and no capital letters was difficult.  Not as difficult as reading an ancient paper copy that would lose pages as I turned them, but still.

If you love Lord of the Rings (or the Hobbit, or the Simarillion or, or or) pick up a copy of this.  It shouldn't be too hard to find secondhand or, if you have a Kindle, just download it.  It's beautifully written and well worth a read!


  1. It's so funny I am a huge CS Lewis fan and not so much a Tolkien fan. The truth is I haven't even tried to read them, I watched the cartoon of The Hobbit in grade school and Golum (sp) scared me so bad. I think I should try to read them. Thanks for the information

  2. Definitely give them a try :) I can see how The Hobbit would be scary for a grade schooler...I'm glad my elementary school didn't have it on the reading list...but reading it as an adult introduced me to a whole literary world out there that I didn't even realize I needed in my life :)


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