Review: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

Previously on An Adventure in Tolkien: Wow, I cannot accurately describe to you how much I loathe The Hobbit movies.

My goal this month is to read and review both The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, so in order to a) split those up and b) give myself ample time to read FOTR, we’re sneaking in Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography of the legend himself, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. This will definitely be a bit more structured than most of my Middle-earth reviews, which can all be found here on the An Adventure in Tolkien homepage.

And because I love making things more difficult, we’re going to follow Carpenter’s lead and split this into sections.

UM HI I SHOULD HAVE REALIZED THIS WAS GOING TO CONTAIN PICTURES, BUT I DIDN’T, SO NOW I’M PROACTIVELY CRYING

I’m going to quote Carpenter’s introduction because I think it’s very fitting:

This book is based upon the letters, diaries, and other papers of the late Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, and upon the reminiscences of his family and friends.

Tolkien himself did not entirely approve of biography. Or rather, he disliked its use as a form of literary criticism. ‘One of my strongest opinions,’ he wrote once, ‘is that investigation of an author’s biography is an entirely vain and false approach to his works.’ yet he was undoubtedly aware that the remarkable popularity of his fiction made it highly likely that a biography would be written after his death; and indeed he appears to have made some preparation for this himself, for in the last years of his life he annotated a number of old letters and papers with explanatory notes or other comments. He also wrote a few pages of recollections of his childhood. It may thus be hoped that this book would not be entirely foreign to his wishes.

In writing it I have tried to tell the story of Tolkien’s life without attempting any critical judgements of his works of fiction. This is partly in deference to his own views, but in any case it seems to me that the first published biography of a writer is not necessarily the best place to make literary judgements, which will after all reflect the character of the critic just as much as that of his subject. I have however tried to delineate some of the literary and other influences that came to bear on Tolkien’s imagination, in the hope that this may shed some light on his books.

Humphrey Carpenter
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A visit

I’m on the second page, and already I think I’m going to cry.

The shelves are crammed with dictionaries, works on etymology and philology, and editions of texts in many languages, predominant among which are Old and Middle English and Old Norse; but there is also a section devoted to translations of The Lord of the Rings into Polish, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Japanese; and the map of his invented ‘Middle-earth’ is pinned to the window-ledge.

pg 12

So often, these writers that we love are only popular posthumously, and it’s so, so sad, but Tolkien got to know that he was loved, that his stories were cherished, that his writing was celebrated, and it just makes me burst with joy.

My goodness, if you read this book for nothing else but this visit between the Professor & Humphrey, this is worth it. (Also, can we officially mark this as me starting to refer to Tolkien as the Professor occasionally? Because I love that.) He literally sounds like a fairytale, and it’s the cutest thing ever, and I am going to weep about this man.

Image result for jrr tolkien as a child

1892-1916: Early years

Gosh, there’s a letter at the end of the first chapter that JRR dictates to his nurse to write to his father, and it’s the cutest full paragraph run-on I have ever seen in my life. I absolutely adore the way HC is writing this, as well. It feels like a story rather than a biography thus far, like these early years are just the prologue for something grand. He’s still a little tyke at this point; he’s three when his father dies. And so, we haven’t really met JRR yet, and it’s just sweet and adorable and wholesome right now.

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Oh, this is just a delight! He dislikes Shakespeare “cordially,” falls in love with Welsh via trains, and thinks Greek is just the bee’s knees. This man is a dork, which I knew, but it’s all the more apparent, and I love it.

He’s just found out that Edith is engaged, and I am full of sorrow.

And again, with the major dork vibes, ya boy just kept consuming languages like he would perish if he didn’t learn a new one every few months. We’re finally getting to the birth of his mythology, as well, which I find so interesting to see the bits and bobs of it come together. He reads about a character named Earendel, and immediately creates this whole idea of a star-mariner who sails the skies. He also stumbles across the word Mirkwood, and shortly after starts writing an original poem. Little does he know that the pieces of something incredible are starting to form.

OH MY GOD

Here, please see both my review of The Silmarillion, and, later, my review of the Great Tales of the Elder Days, both of which contain my deep dislike for all things Túrin and his accidental incest with his sister.

He chose the story of Kullervo, a hapless young man who unknowingly commits incest and, when he discovers, throws himself on to his sword.

pg 81, War

TOLKIEN WHY ARE YOU OBSESSED WITH THIS PARTICULAR STORY

Good lord, I didn’t think I was going to have to shout quite like this, but if I have to read about this damn story one more time, I’m going to consider throwing a fit.

Never mind, we’re back to me loving him.

He had shown the original Earendel lines to G. B. Smith, who had said that he liked them but asked what they were really about. Tolkien had replied: ‘I don’t know. I’ll try to find out.’ Not try to invent: try to find out. He did not see himself as an inventor of story but asa discoverer of legend.

pg 83, War

There is nothing more I love than watching people’s faces when I say that I didn’t know something was going to happen while writing, and they try to figure how that works since I’m the one writing this, and to find that my favorite author was the same exact way just brings me the utmost joy.

Not only that, but his mythology had such a backwards birth. He created the language first, started weaving it through an epic poem about Earendel, naming made-up places and giving home to foreign races, and, at some point, came to the idea of writing prose instead of poetry. He didn’t even start at the beginning–he started somewhere between the beginning and the middle.

Well, half the TCBS is now dead due to war, and I’m sad, so I’m continuing onto the next section straightaway.

Image result for jrr tolkien young man

1917-1925: The making of a mythology

He’s so handsome, what the hell!

Oh, I’ve got chills, so I’m quoting a bit of this:

‘But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story–the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths–which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our “air” (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe, not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be “high”, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.’

pg 97-98, Lost Tales

I mean, have you ever seen a more perfect description for the history of Middle-earth?

wait wait wait

we about to ramble

Some reads have taken this to refer to another planet, but Tolkien had no such intention. ‘Middle-earth is our world,’ he wrote, adding: ‘I have (of course) placed the action in a purely imaginary (though not wholly impossible) period of antiquity, in which the shape of the continental masses was different.’

pg 98, Lost Tales

Okay, let’s take it back to the early bits of The Silmarillion. In its very beginning, Middle-earth is this flat thing. Like, flat earthers, gather round. It just looks like a one-dimensional map. But as the Valar (pantheon of gods & goddesses) start to mess around with the world, they keep messing up. They settle into an area, and the Maiar (their first followers) are birthed, but Melkor is also Morgoth, and that all goes to shit, so they sink a bunch of land. This keeps happening. They wake the elves, and eventually the elves decide they want to abandon their original homeland, so the Valar get mad and sink that. They keep doing these planet-altering events until the world literally starts to reshape itself. Flat earthers, go away now. Middle-earth gains a rounded globe shape.

But, you say, this still doesn’t work as a precursor to life as we know it. Elves don’t exist. Don’t worry, Tolkien’s got you covered.

So all the events of the First-Third Age happen–wars are fought, Morgoth & Sauron both suck immensely (stay tuned for the last discussion of the month where I try to make you fall in love with them spoiler: it’s super easy), and eventually, the One Ring is destroyed, evil is officially cast out of Middle-earth, and everyone starts to chill. The elves decide they don’t want to live on Middle-earth anymore, so they sail ships off into heaven, essentially. The wizards are also hella tired, and they decide to peace out with the elves. The dwarves decide they’ve definitely had enough of everyone, so they burrow underground in their mountains and never come out. All evil is destroyed, so goblins and orcs and trolls are gone. Eventually, hobbits & mankind start to intermingle, and, a lot of centuries down the road, we’ve essentially adapted out of both hobbit-size and long life of the Dúnedain until you’ve just got, you guessed it, regular old humans.

I can’t. How Tolkien fit Middle-earth into our history so neatly just astounds me.

Let’s have another picture of this cutie as an attempt at a segue-way away from me screaming about Middle-earth because Morgoth has been mentioned far too many times for me to restrain myself much longer.

Image result for jrr tolkien young man

1925-1949(i): ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’

Okay, so there’s not a lot of information on what Tolkien got up to around these years, so HC decides he’s going to give us an imagined look at the family’s daily life, and it’s truly adorable, so I hope it’s all true. Much of it makes me smile so much my face hurts, but my favorite bit is this:

He need not have worried that his notes will run out. The chimes for twelve o’clock and the noise of people in the passage bring him to a halt long before he can finish his prepared material. Indeed for the last ten minutes he has departed entirely from his notes, and has been talking about a particular point of relation between Gothic and Old English that was suggested by a word in the text.

pg 123, Oxford Life

TOLKIEN YOU NERD

Also, this is a small thing, but I absolutely love the font that this is in. It looks old.

There’s a chapter in here that discusses Tolkien’s life as a scholar and an academic apart from his life as a writer. It makes clear that the two are not separate entities or persons within Tolkien since both influenced each other so heavily, but the chapter does take a moment to talk about why he loved school so much, and my goodness, this bit about Beowulf kills me and makes me want to read his translation immediately:

‘He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting listening guests.’

pg 138, ‘He had been inside language.’

Apparently, when Tolkien lectured on Beowulf, he used to come into the room, shout Hwæt!, which was the first word in the original Old English of the poem, and begin a dramatic reading of it. Gosh, I wish there was video of that.

Tolkien’s driving was daring rather than skilfull. When accelerating headlong across a busy main road in Oxford in order to get into a side-street, he would ignore all other vehicles and cry ‘Charge ‘em and they scatter!’ — and scatter they did.

pg 162, Northmoor Road

Dear lord, this man is a maniac, and I love him.

I also love how HC is wielding this story. It doesn’t read like a biography. Obviously, at times, yes, like when he’s describing events in quick succession, but when he’s talking about Tolkien’s writing process, how he had only an audience of one in CS Lewis for so long, but kept writing purely because of Lewis’ wholehearted encouragement, even how he began The Hobbit because he stumbled across a blank piece of paper while grading exam papers—it feels like a journey, like a winding epic tale. And I think Tolkien would have approved of the way his life’s story was told.

1925-1949(ii): The Third Age

Two things.

One: Tolkien cannot recall when he started The Hobbit, or even really why other than to amuse his children, and he discovers that it relates to The Silmarillion purely by accident when the dwarves reference other events. I write like this—I have no idea certain things are connected until I stumble across. And it’s just so refreshing to see a beloved author doing the same thing.

Two: He originally abandoned The Hobbit after Smaug’s death, and if you’ve been paying attention, you know how I feel about the last third of the book, post-Smaug, so I’m very pleased to see that Tolkien understood the story should have ended there.

Perhaps the best bit, though, is that one of his publisher’s handed off The Hobbit to his son for review since it was a children’s story, and after it passed, decided it should go to publication. Tolkien, henceforth, sent the first few chapters of LOTR to the son so that he might hear from his desired audience first. It was only later, when he discovered—again, discovered, the amount of times this man goes oh goodness who is this new character?! just delights me endlessly—that it was an adult heroic romance that he started sending it primarily to his publishers.

He also was so determined to make it readable as “actual history,” which is both so refreshing in a world where the minute details get forgotten and gives me so much more respect than before for him.

But the map in itself was not enough, and he made endless calculations of time and distance, drawing up elaborate charts concerning events in the story, showing dates, the days of the week, the hours, and sometimes even the direction of the wind and the phase of the moon.

pg 198, ‘The new Hobbit’

Like, who takes that time? To make sure that every single detail fits together so you can just suspend all disbelief and settle into actual history.

Wanna know why the elves are so goddamn dramatic all the time?

‘It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.’

pg 208, ‘The new Hobbit’
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1949-1966: Success

TWELVE YEARS! IT TOOK HIM TWELVE YEARS TO WRITE LOTR! I’m never going to feel bad about taking my time writing a book ever again.

Oh, I kind of feel bad, reading about him becoming a “cult figurehead,” and definitely being taken advantage of by everyone when all he really wants is some peace and quiet to continue writing.

It’s so lovely to see that he experienced so much success while still alive, though. I think about Keats and Rilke, two of my favorite dead white men, who died unloved and generally harshly criticized, only for their works to become wildly beloved posthumously. But Tolkien got to see that he was loved, got to see how enormously his words impacted people of all different cultures. It just makes me so proud.

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1959-1973: Last years

I’m coming to the end here, and I really don’t want to. I’ve so enjoyed reading this. It’s almost similar to You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett, which is a look at Rainer Maria Rilke & Auguste Rodin’s friendship. They’re both so different from normal biographies or nonfiction in general, and they tell a bittersweet tale that leaves me warm inside, but also crying a bit. They’re both just excellent, and I don’t want this to be over. HC has done a fantastic job with Tolkien’s story, and Tolkien himself is just more than I ever hoped for.

I am also just so happy that he gets to live a long life. He’s 81 when he dies, and though he does die ill, it’s not long and drawn out, and he got to live his entire life with a wife he adored, four children that he cherished, and knowing that he was respected and honored.

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The Tree

Nah, it’s fine, I’m totally not crying over his & Edith’s tombstones naming them as Beren & Lúthien, I’m totally okay.

He disapproved of biography as an aid to literary appreciation; and perhaps he was right. His real biography is The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion; for the truth about him lies within their pages.

pg 200, The Tree

You know, HC, I think you did a fine job with his bio, but I also definitely agree with you.

If you hadn’t figured it out by now, five stars. Five thousand, honestly. This was absolutely wonderful.

Previously: The Hobbit | Next: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

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she/her | yoga teacher | Tibetan Buddhism | part-time witch | full-time author | astronaut in a previous life

11 thoughts on “Review: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

  1. You should read the collection of his letters, too. They’re all great, but some stand out more, such as the one where he basically explains Middle-earth to a bookseller, the one where he shreds a movie director’s horrendous film adaptation, and the one he wrote after Edith’s death.

    Liked by 1 person

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