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 nothing less than an entire mythology, a long and stirring epic of mighty battles between good and evil, of angelic hosts descending from on high, a mighty kingdom drowned beneath the waves and, at the last, a small hobbit being the only thing standing against the shadow. This is the story of J.R.R. Tolkien and his life.
Originally published in 1976, Humphrey Carpenter's painstaking biography remains the definitive account of his life. Other biographies have followed, but they either draw so much on Carpenter that you might as well just read the original, or they are more interested in stirring up controversy which doesn't really exist.
Carpenter divides his book into sections, focusing on Tolkien's traumatic childhood and the development of his early interesting in languages, then his even more traumatic life as a young man, fighting in the trenches of the Somme and trying to win the heart of a (slightly) older woman, and then his life as an academic and teacher, during which time he began writing The Silmarillion and, later The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Carpenter has an interesting task here because, although Tolkien's life was certainly not free of tragedy and incident, it was also arguably not wall-to-wall action. Tolkien, by his own admission, was a conservative figure. He did not travel widely, apart from the war he avoided from getting involved in any major political or national events, and he was at his happiest in a pub or friend's drawing room, drawn into an engrossing conversation about religion, myth, art or literature. A fascinating biography this does not necessarily make.
But Carpenter does make it work, by tying incidents in Tolkien's life into his mythology, noting how a 1911 trip to Switzerland inspired Tolkien's fascination with mountains, and encounters with Norse, Icelandic, Welsh and Finnish mythology gave him the names "Middle-earth" and "Earendel." This constant circling back to Tolkien's literary works is clever - it's of course why people are interested in Tolkien's life - and gives the book a strong thematic spine. This approach also means we get a good view of Tolkien the individual and Tolkien the writer and academic and how these two sides developed.
Those looking for drama and controversy will find relatively little, apart from Tolkien's dislike of his friend C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories and the occasional tension between Tolkien and his wife over religion (Edith was a Protestant who had converted to Catholicism on marriage, something she always resented). The truth is that Tolkien's wasn't that controversial a character, so the biography instead is able to delve deeply into his stories and the events in his life that shaped them.
Carpenter writes with an easy, flowing style, mixing academic musings with more relaxed accounts of home life. The book never becomes bogged down in detail, but some elements are explored in greater depth where necessary. I suspect that when he wrote this book, Carpenter had an idea to publish Tolkien's own letters in a companion volume (Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981), whilst he certainly knew that Christopher Tolkien was planning the publication of The Silmarillion (1977) and possibly companion volumes, so that people who wanted more detail and depth on the mythology could find it elsewhere.
There's also a hint of poetry in the book, particularly the way Carpenter stakes out important touchstones in Tolkien's life - his love for his wife, his appreciation of trees - and uses these to anchor several key moments in the book: his early childhood in the countryside near Birmingham, a key moment when he was utterly stuck on Lord of the Rings and a neighbour's tree crisis sparked in him a revelation that helped him to complete the book, and his last few years in retirement. The result is that rarest of beasts: a biography of a literary figure that is fast-moving, rich in anecdote and detail, and simply enjoyable to read.
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (*****) remains the definitive Tolkien biography, a well-written, well-researched and fascinating account of the most important figure in the history of fantasy literature. If you are at all interesting in how The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion came about, this is essential reading. It is available now in the UK and USA.