Gaurav Vartak's Reviews > J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter
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Sep 06, 11

Read from October 24, 2010 to March 28, 2011

Normally, biographies do not rank too high on my reading list. There must be barely a handful of biographies that I must have read – mostly at someone else’s urging – and I must confess that it was not a very enjoyable experience. Forgive me if I appear too snobby, but reading about other people’s life kind of bums me out. However, when I came across J.R.R Tolkien’s biography, it was hard to pass up the opportunity of reading it. For those uninitiated, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is the author of the epic fantasy novel ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the creator of that mythical place called the Middle Earth. It must be known to many Tolkien fans that he was not a great advocate of biographies. This was partly because he was an extremely private person and also because his point of view was that a biography should talk about the person’s work rather than the other aspects of his private life.
However, Humphrey Carpenter hit the jackpot when he managed to convince Tolkien to allow him to document his life. What’s more, Tolkien actually lent Carpenter his personal notes and a few letters that he had written. To his credit, Carpenter has done a splendid job to record the annals of Tolkien’s life in a riveting manner that traces Tolkien’s work while intertwining it with his life and how his life influenced his work.
Carpenter tells Tolkien’s story right from his birth in South Africa and follows it to the end in England. While some may debate that such a detailed account was irrelevant and not quite in deference to Tolkien’s idea of a biography, it must be said that one needs to know about the events mentioned in the book to understand how Tolkien came about to writing such masterpieces as The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, LOTR, and so on. The author has done a great job to trace the origins of various characters, significant or otherwise, events, places, and, most importantly, the Middle Earth right back to people, events, and places in Tolkien’s own life. Another refreshing quality of the book is Humphrey Carpenter’s taut writing. At no point does one feel too bored or feel the need to skip a few pages. In fact, there are instances in the book where you can’t help but get a few goose bumps.
That Tolkien was meticulous is quite apparent after reading his books – especially the lengthy appendices that he’s written for LOTR – but just how far he could go with his meticulousness has been captured quite succinctly in the book. One contrast that jumps out quite often – at least to me – is that for a man who wrote such great epics, Tolkien led a remarkably simple life. This is especially astonishing considering the almost celebrity like status that a lot of authors enjoy today despite having written something that is not half as good as his work. One thing that you can make out quite easily from the book is that he considered himself a philologist above everything else. Indeed, but for his love for languages, we might have not had one of the greatest mythologies ever told.
Another important facet of his life that has been captured in the book is the literary clubs that he was part of. The many hours that he spent in the company of fellow members of the ‘Tea Club and Barrovian Society’ (T.C.B.S in short) initially and the ‘The Inklings’ eventually, undoubtedly acted as a stimulant to his terrific imagination. Tolkien’s friendship with C.S Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, is well known. Carpenter explores how their friendship affected their writings and the views that they held about each other’s works.
I can assure you that once you are finished with this book, it will be hard to resist picking up your LOTR copy and reading it again. This one is a must read both for Tolkien fans and for those who are yet to experience the magnificent realm of Middle Earth.
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