J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (Guest Post by Jackie)

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Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts


Goodreads:J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter 
Pages: 288 
Original Publication Date: 1977 
Source: Library; Paperback 


While this is only my second year participating in the Tolkien Reading Event at Pages Unbound, it has become a great point of joy each year. My relationship with the life and work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is sophomoric at best. Being able to participate in this event challenges me to learn more and deepen my understanding of, what I have come to learn, is a complex man with a brilliant mind.  To better understand the origins of Tolkien’s works, I picked up his authorized biography upon the recommendation of Kim @ Traveling in Books. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography was not a disappointment. 

Carpenter’s biography is written in eight parts with four appendices. When I first saw this, I admit, I was a bit intimidated! Once I slipped into the pages, I found J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography to be welcoming and engaging. Carpenter’s prose is clear and, at times, even conversational. I found myself easily getting lost in the details of Tolkien’s life. Carpenter offers a depth of detail into Tolkien’s life I found refreshing. Never once is Tolkien elevated beyond the status of merely a scholastic man. Carpenter doesn’t shy away from displaying the faults and flaws of Tolkien’s life, but never does he lay judgment either. I found that the picture of J.R.R. Tolkien I developed demonstrated a fully-realized man. Exactly how a good biographer should present a subject who looms so large in fantasy literature. 

I found the format quite to my liking. The parts flow chronologically, but within each part, Carpenter isn’t afraid to jump around a bit in time to provide a holistic view of defining moments in Tolkien’s life. For example, Parts 4 and 5 both cover the years 1925-1949, years where Tolkien was a professor at Oxford and crafted both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Part 4 explores the people Tolkien was close to at this time, including C.S. Lewis, and how his lifestyle routine established Tolkien as a scholar, father, and friend. But Part 5 digs deeper in those years and pulls out the moments where Bilbo Baggins came to life. Tolkien’s life is so much more than the mythos he developed in his most well-known novels. 

My favorite part of reading J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography was learning to understand Tolkien the man, the scholar, the father, the friend, and the author. Carpenter presents a man who is all these at once; no facet can be separated from the others without diminishing Tolkien. While reading, I felt like I was watching a tapestry being crafted. Moments from Tolkien’s childhood, such as his time living in Sarehole, and moments from the war, such as walking past dead and bloated corpses in the trenches, came back clearly as Bag End and the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Carpenter masterfully connected moments of Tolkien’s life together to help the reader understand how engrained this mythos Tolkien created was to him. The development of languages, the myths of the First and Second age, all these percolated in Tolkien’s mind for years before Bilbo’s and Frodo’s stories came out. 

I cannot believe how Tolkien brought all his passions and his scholarship together in such a magical way. Having read this biography, I will now read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with new eyes. Eyes which will see further, read deeper, and perhaps finally begin to truly understand what this mythos means both in context and to the literary world as a whole. Highly recommended. 

What do you think? 

  • Have you read J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography? What do you think of this book? 
  • What other Tolkien or Tolkien-adjacent non-fiction do you recommend people read to gain a deeper understanding of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
  • Tolkien held a strong opinion “that the investigation of an author’s life reveals very little of the workings of his mind” (pg. 127). Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
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About the Author

Jackie B. writes about books, book clubs, and other bookish things on Death by Tsundoku (www.deathbytsundoku.com). A passionate bibliophile, Jackie B. is an extroverted interpersonal learner who can’t stop talking about books. Unable to find enough outlets for her literary passion, she turned to blogging. By day, Jackie B. works as a corporate adult educator, continuous improvement consultant, and community musician. By night, she can be found with her “blanket and juice” [i.e. heated blanket and a bottle of wine] curled up in some corner of the house with a good book… or eight.

4 thoughts on “J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (Guest Post by Jackie)

  1. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    It has been many years since I read this book. I love what you’ve written about it – how it’s expanded your view on Tolkien’s writing 🙂 Re: that last question you’ve posed: I respect his opinion and I don’t buy too heavily into “Tolkien experienced/thought X, therefore he wrote Y”, but that won’t stop me from learning all I can about this person who created an extraordinary mythology, haha. (If he were still alive today, I might feel differently.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

      Thank you so much, Jenna!

      I agree with you– Tolkien might not put much stock in biography, but I find it valuable to understand where a person comes from to understand their art. What I greatly appreciate about Carpenter’s biography is Carpenter calls himself out for making assumptions and connections in most places (not all). He just gives us the facts of Tolkien’s life to the best of his ability.

      I’ll never be able to understand a mind like Tolkien’s, even if I was a contemporary of his. But I love learning more about how he could have possibly created such a masterpiece.

      Liked by 2 people

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