Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography” as Want to Read:
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  9,928 ratings  ·  433 reviews
The authorized biography of the creator of Middle-earth. In the decades since his death in September 1973, millions have read THE HOBBIT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE SILMARILLION and become fascinated about the very private man behind the books. Born in South Africa in January 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was orphaned in childhood and brought up in near-poverty. He ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published June 6th 2000 by Mariner Books (first published 1977)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about J.R.R. Tolkien, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
Allan The Lord of the Rings was written only after insistence from Tolkien's publisher.

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.07  · 
Rating details
 ·  9,928 ratings  ·  433 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography
"...And if after this we may not have any better idea why he wrote his books, then at least we should know a little more about the man who did write them."

"...Certainly Tolkien himself would have agreed with this. It was one of his strongest-held opinions that the investigation of an author’s life reveals very little of the workings of his mind."

A few years ago I read The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends by Humphrey Carpenter and I really enjoyed it. It
Julie Davis
Sep 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I recently read Humphrey Carpenter's book, The Inklings, for a discussion at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast and it piqued my interest in his biography of one of my favorite authors. I liked The Inklings but this book was even better, possibly because Carpenter was focusing on one person instead of a group.

It gave a thorough story of Tolkien's life without sugar coating his flaws but in a way that allowed me to understand and appreciate him as both a person and author. I'm not usually very
Jul 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
Aside from required reading, it is a rare occasion when I crack open a non-fiction work (with the notable exception of C.S. Lewis's works, which I've read so often and with such enthusiasm they're essentially a separate category. Classics, Fiction, Children's Lit, nonfic, and Lewis.) But in a deliberate effort to explore new territories in my reading, recently I've set aside my Alice-in-Wonderland prejudices ("what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?") and ventured, not ...more
Dec 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien is a surprisingly balanced picture of the man. He clearly admires his talent without being blind to his faults. It is neither a book-length endorsement nor a character assassination, but an attempt at portraying the man's life fairly. It's very easy to read and enjoyable, including just the right sort of facts to interest the reader -- allowing us to laugh at him a little as well as love him more.

Tolkien studies can be criticised as being too
Jan 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Since I was a boy, J.R.R Tolkien was my favorite author. So it was natural that sooner or later I will have to read about the man himself. I knew many of the details in this biography, but here was the first time I actually read a complete chronicle of his life. Fascinating work! And more than that, a fascinating man!
Nov 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-owned
Very well researched, and I think Carpenter writes with a lovely tone. Perhaps the chapters could have been better organized or labelled, but the content is still great. There are certain sections that are solely about Tolkien's writings, not just Tolkien, but I'd imagine that anyone looking into the life of the man would want to hear info on his works as well.

I'm lucky this is the first biography on Tolkien I picked up, as it seems to have been the first one written, back in the 1970s, shortly
Jan 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a Tolkien fan, this was great! I got a new insight into the life of this history-changing author! After reading, I picked up the Hobbit again and fell into Middle-earth again. A must-read for fans of JRR Tolkien's works!
Jul 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for professor Tolkien's works. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion have helped shape me not only in my tastes and my own attempts at creativity, but as a person. This official biography takes a look at the man behind those books and it does that while being fully aware of Tolkien's own dislike of biography as an attempt to understand the works themselves better (one of the professor's many strongly held opinions). Indeed, this book makes ...more
Nov 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: j-r-r-tolkien
I read this book in my freshmen year of high school and found it both enjoyable and fascinating in the way that most biographies are. If you enjoy hearing the history of ones doings, which in this case are both full of Love, Learning, Literature, Fun times, Old Friends, Family Life, Grief,Loss, and much much more: then I am sure you will enjoy this book as much as I did, and even more if you are one of those people who knows Tolkien so well that you have learned elvish.

Debra Taron
Adam Whitehead
Mar 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In 1892, a young British couple working for an English bank in South Africa had a son, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. By the time he was twelve years old, Tolkien had lost both his family and was brought up by a family friend. He developed a love of languages and mythology, fell in love, married, went to Oxford University, fought in the First World War, went into academic, became a respected expert in his (albeit narrow) field and died peacefully at the age of 81. But along the way he created ...more
Courtney (courtney & books)
This is the official biography of Tolkien, which means it was approved by the Tolkien estate. While it was a very informative and interesting read, it is also biased. The book glosses over many details to create a comprehensive narrative. I’m not a big bio person, but this was quite easy to read and I found it engaging. Fun to get more understanding on an author I have enjoyed.
Bjørk Rúnadóttir
I honestly really enjoyed reading a book about my favorite author. He was a very simple man with an enormous imagination. I really want to reread The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, but gosh darn my TBR-pile got big again after easter break.
May 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I picked up this biography in preparation for the new Tolkien movie and while I still haven't seen the film, I have read this book and let me tell you: everything you ever wanted to know about JRR Tolkien is in here! Look no further for you have found your eternal source of facts and anecdotes on the man himself.
This biography explores Tolkien's life from his birth (and beyond, as you will also get to know about his parents) to his death and everything in between and it manages to do so in a
Jan 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
A well rounded book that manages to convey Tolkien's life and work using interesting quotes, good narrative style, and plenty of details to provide a greater context for the subject without getting bogged down in quotations, narrative, or details. Humphrey Carpenter has the ability to write a biography that is not literary criticism, an objective that is harder then it may seem. I found Tolkien to be a fascinating individual, one of a certain breed of English men which were the product of a ...more
May 23, 2017 rated it liked it

I really enjoyed this!

This is basically exactly what it is described as - a Biography about J. R. R. Tolkien. This one is a bit more credible then most because the author sat down and actually spoke to Tolkien, but anyways, I think he did a wonderful job of telling Tolkien's tale! This book goes through Tolkien's life, his works, his friendships, his relationships, all the way up to his death. I loved discovering new things I didn't actually know about him or his works, and the author
Kelly Vergara
Aug 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
If one more person tells me "Tolkien's writings are an allegory for the wars he fought in" I'm going to slap them with this book. He didn't care for it. Letting life experiences slip into your fictional writing is called "writing good fiction", not allegory.

From his birth in south Africa through his writings and later life, this book shows the events, people and interests that eventually inspired his work. The first thing he wrote were the elven languages. The man loved language. And smoking
Feb 13, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Carpenter writes, "Tolkien himself did not entirely approve of biography. Or, rather, he disliked its use as a form of literary criticism." Tolkien didn't like biography for the purpose of better understanding an author's work. Carpenter pays his respects to this judgment within a biography, where, though he refrains from criticism, he greatly helps one to understand the man and thus, his works. Because I am so thankful for Tolkien's work, I'm thankful for Carpenter's. An excellent biography.
Erik Graff
May 11, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Tolkien fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: biography
Union Theological Seminary in New York had a long winter "Intercession" during which time they offered intensive courses to keep students on campus. I didn't stay around, but returned for my annual visit to friends and family in the Chicago area.

Although I did read serious books during the break, I also devoured the fun books which the school terms did not allow time for. One of them during the winter break of 1977/8 was Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, an author I'd been very fond of as a
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Wow. I learned so much about Tolkien through this book!! I always thought that Tolkien just sat down one day, and said, "I want to write a best-selling book," and then went at it. But, it has given me a lot of hope and realization that, as an aspiring author, that even the big dogs had trouble sometimes writing their books. It was so great to get a glimpse of Tolkien's life, and in how "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" was written and imagined.
May 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: relaxing-reads
A beautiful, well-paced, informative read. With lovely prose, Carpenter does a wonderful job of highlighting the different influential threads of Tolkien's life, not making assumptions or aiming for the sensational, but giving a clear background for the Tolkien scholar. It was respectful and careful and made sure to honor Tolkien's distinct opinions. I always found it easy to pick up, and though most of Tolkien's life was far from what most of us would call eventful, Carpenter's treatment made ...more
Jun 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Carpenter's writing may leave you wanting, but this is an excellent survey of Tolkien’s life nonetheless. Though he lived a simple life as a professor and family man, he had a surprisingly complex personality. A devastating childhood seemed to perpetuate turbid relationships throughout his life. Those painful experiences also bore much fruit though, as they were the soil out of which his epics grew.
Its a biography. Biography's are rarely all that amazing. But this one kept my interest. It was well done. You really do get a good sense of the inspirations that led to Middle Earth being written about.


You find out that really, JRRTolkien is Gandalf, and he just wanted you all to know about the saga of Middle Earth, so he stuck around long enough to write those books.

Like duh? He's always got a pipe, people! It should have been so obvious...
Mar 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent biography, it was very readable and immersive, not dry at all. I also loved the fact that it took the holistic view on his life. The author didn't shy away from his academic work and his simple (what some might call boring) life, in favor of focusing on his fictional work, as many have done. It gave you the full view of the man, thanks to the help and contribution of his family, friends and access to his personal writings and correspondence, giving readers a full and insightful look at ...more
Sep 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Alright, so I was expecting to like reading about Tolkien but at the same time was worried the book might be a difficult read for me. Thankfully I was wrong about that.
It was a fantastic reading experience. I was hooked from the first chapter. The writing flowed beautifully presenting the man behind Middle Earth in all aspects of life. I learned so much about Tolkien’s background, intellectual pursuits and motivation. Hard for me to say more at this point, it is a complex work and if you are
Vishal Katariya
Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Loved it because of the sneak peek it provided into the life of Tolkien. As a huge LOTR fan, I would say this is essential reading. The biography is entirely chronological and I would have appreciated it a little better perhaps if it were categorised via topic than life period. That is only a minor and aesthetic change, however. Overall very nice overview of JRR's life.
Krisette Spangler
Mar 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
I really enjoyed reading this Tolkien biography. I've always been a Middle Earth nut, so I was fascinated to learn about the man who created some of the most beloved fantasy characters of all time. The biography was not overly long, and it was filled with all kinds of interesting tidbits for fans of The Hobbit. I highly recommend reading it.
Feb 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I believe this is the authorized biography of Tolkien. It is well written and includes additional information about his works. Reading it helped me to a better understanding of both the man and his books.
Ian Patrick
Jan 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've just read an interesting and thought-provoking perspective on the various roles and responsibilities of the author in the writing of fiction. Humphrey Carpenter, in his excellent biography of Tolkien, quotes Tolkien speaking (in a lecture in 1939) about the story-maker as a 'sub-creator'. If, for Tolkien (a deeply religious man), we were to think of a divine creator who created the universe, then the author should be seen as a sub-creator who creates another universe, in its own terms just ...more
LCL Summer Reading program challenge "Read a biography"
Jun 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is well written and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Great insights to Tolkien, and I will appreciate his writings all the more!
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
What Happend to the Kindle Version 1 10 Dec 03, 2014 11:05PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
  • The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two (The History of Middle-Earth, #2)
  • Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Tales from the Perilous Realm
  • The Silmarillion (Middle-Earth Universe)
  • Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
  • The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created A New Mythology
  • The Story of Kullervo
  • The Fall of Gondolin (Middle-Earth Universe)
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book
  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator
  • The Book of Lost Tales, Part One (The History of Middle-Earth, #1)
  • Tree and Leaf: Includes Mythopoeia and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
  • The Children of Húrin
  • Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham
  • Letters from Father Christmas
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth
See similar books…
Humphrey William Bouverie Carpenter was an English biographer, writer, and radio broadcaster.
“But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.

No, said Tolkien, they are not.

...just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.”
“You call a tree a tree, he said, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a 'tree' until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.
We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Out myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of evil.”
More quotes…