Throughout his life, J.R.R. Tolkien frequently spoke of his distaste for biographies as a means for better understanding a writer’s work. It’s ironic then that just such a work should provide eye-opening insight into the private world of one of the 20th century’s most prolific writers.
Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien is an intimate, meticulous account of Tolkien’s life and the people he surrounded himself with. Carpenter delves deep into the familial structure of the Tolkiens and his thorough research of Tolkien’s personal life is conveyed in an honest, relatable style. What could easily become a dense, epic saga of research and reflection is perfectly balanced with a strong dose of humanity and intimacy.
Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien spent the first three years of his life in the capital of the Orange Free State. During his early years there, a large baboon spider bit Tolkien and while he later said that he had no memory of being bitten, large and terrifying spiders appear frequently throughout The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. At the age of three, Tolkien’s father died in South Africa while Tolkien, his mother and younger brother Hilary were on vacation with family in England. Left without an income, the small family lived with his mother’s parents and later in the small villages around Birmingham and Worcestershire. The young Tolkien would often visit his aunt, Jane, at her small farmhouse at the end of a rural road. The property was named Bag End, which would later reappear in his works as the cozy hobbit-hole home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Growing up in the idyllic and peaceful English countryside, the young Tolkien developed a deep love of nature and plants- particularly trees- that would become a dominant motif throughout his writings. As the world became increasingly industrialized over the course of his life, Tolkien frequently wrote of his sadness at the destruction of countryside and the peaceful, West Midlands existence he held dear. An active journal-keeper, Tolkien’s personal writings take centre stage throughout Carpenter’s work. This deeply personal insight and reflect succeeds at conveying the tangible humanity of a quiet, sensitive man who lived within the endless bounds of his own imagination.
Given that Carpenter, like Tolkien, lived much of his life in the city of Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien focuses heavily on Tolkien’s academic and family life during his tenure at the university. One area in which Carpenter excels as a biographer is doing exactly what Tolkien insisted could not be done- connecting the personal details, fears and joys that reflect in the themes of Tolkien’s writings. Those who thought they knew the man behind the epics owe it to themselves to read J.R.R. Tolkien, if only for the thrill of discovering the parallels between the man’s personal life and his writings. The biography is a journey back in time to the idyllic countryside of Tolkien’s youth, to the horrors of World War One where he lost all but one of his closest friends, and to the ever-romantic, dreamy world of the University of Oxford, where Tolkien lived and spent most of his adult life creating the fantastical world of Middle Earth. In our age of constant connectivity, it’s refreshing to reflect on a time when creativity wasn’t forced through workplace collaboration schemes or online social groups. For Tolkien, the act of writing wasn’t so much about creating a new world as it was chronicling the history and mythology of a world that had yet to be discovered.