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on 28 May 2002
If you've loved Tolkien's books all your life, and wondered what kind of person it takes to come up with works of genius like The Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, this book will be just what you wanted.
Carpenter makes illuminating connections, linking Tolkien's early fascination with languages to the fact that the author first studied languages with his mother (who died while he was quite young). That nostalgic attachment to language led him to a lifetime of study of all sorts of Scandinavian and Germanic myths and epics, which ultimately inspired him to create his own mythology.
Carpenter also mentions that Leaf By Niggle, one of Tolkien's short stories, expressed his own bittersweet feelings about having spent most of his life writing the Silmarillion and Lord Of The Rings; especially given that advancing age made it increasingly unlikely that they would be finished in his lifetime. This was news to me, so I tracked down the story in a secondhand copy of The Tolkien Reader... it was really quite touching.
I'm planning to read The Letters Of J.R.R. Tolkien by Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien next. I'm pretty sure I won't be disappointed.
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on 17 September 2003
I haven't read all Tolkien byographies out there, but I have read some, and I think this is the best by far. Not only is it precise and somewhat more 'unbiased' than others (it's clear that the author deeply appreciates Tolkien and his works, but unlike others, he didn't turn the biography into a giant praise to JRRT's genius), but it's also entertaining and easy to read, something which can't be said of many biographies. If you want to know more about JRRT as a person and a scholar, and not just as the LotR author, you really should read this.
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on 19 May 2014
My, what a life dear old Tolkien lived! I'm strongly tempted to outline some of the episodes that made it so dramatic, but I wouldn't want to spoil the story for people who're not yet familiar with it. Suffice it to say that it must have been in part Tolkien's own experiences that enabled him to write fiction of such enormous emotional power.

The late Humphrey Carpenter's gracefully written 1977 biography is still, I think, probably the best that there is. Humphrey himself knew Tolkien only slightly, but he wrote with the cooperation of Tolkien's family, and so he had access to Tolkien's diaries and correspondence as well as to the recollections of Tolkien's children. Obviously this was immensely helpful.

Of course, authorised status isn't enough by itself to guarantee that a biography will be good, but Humphrey, even at the beginning of his literary career, was a biographer of genius. I have to confess that I bought this book determined to love it - Tolkien is my favourite author - but I can't remember any other literary biography that has been more richly enjoyable. What makes the book so rewarding is, I think, the ingenuity of its form. The backbone of it is a traditional, cradle-to-the-grave linear narrative, but Humphrey interrupts the story with many discursions exploring different facets of Tolkien's life and character, and these sidebars enrich the story tremendously. Thus the chapter Oxford Life describes the minutiae of a typical Tolkien day in the early 1930s, Photographs Observed examines what can be gleaned from the family albums, another chapter focuses on Tolkien's scholarship and teaching, another tells us what it was like to visit the great man in his old age...We learn about his religion, his friendships with C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, his melancholy, his asceticism, his fondness for practical jokes: Humphrey's portrait of JRRT is not so much a painting as a hologram, a three-dimensional image that invites us to contemplate him from every angle. By the time that you come to the end of this book, you'll feel that you know him almost as well as the chums who used to down a beer with him in his favourite Oxford tavern.

The first edition of Humphrey's book is a 240mm by 160mm by 35mm hardback volume nicely made in Britain by the Westerham Press. The paper, design and printing are all very good indeed, and miles better than the kind of thing you're likely to find in books printed nowadays. There are twenty-nine well chosen illustrations, beautifully reproduced on proper photographic plates. At the back of the book, fans of The Lord of the Rings will be amused to find a hobbity family tree, a four page chronological summary of Tolkien's life, a very thorough eight page list of Tolkien's publications, four pages of acknowledgements and a seven page index. And as you can see, the dust jacket rejoices in a characteristic vignette of JRRT puffing away at a pipe of Longbottom leaf.
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on 28 July 2010
If I was interesting enough to have my own Biography, Humphrey Carpenter would be my choice to write it.

This is very much a warts 'n' all book, portraying JRRT as a man of great contradictions. Extra-Ordinary in many ways, ordinary in many others. A creative genius yet disorganised, constantly missing deadlines, finishing only a small percentage of his work, losing letters, stories and notes sometimes to find them years later and continue them at that point.

He also kept 2 copies of many stories for security but would invariably make different amendments to both copies making it even harder to reconcile works for publishing.

The ultimate perfectionist I am relieved we actually got any completed work from him yet the LOTR and the Silmarillion on their own are more than enough to show for a lifes work and if JRRT had not been so pedantic they would not have been the great works they are.

Very much a man's man, his complex relationship with C S Lewis is interesting as it develops over the years.

If you are after a window into the man behind the books then I would opt for this biography over any other.

An engaging read from start to finish, highly recommended!
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on 22 November 2011
If you're into Tolkien, or any of his works and want to know a little more about the man, his life, and how he worked then this is the book to buy. It was written by someone who met Tolkien and spent a great deal of time with his family - so its not an account written by someone years after the events. There are insights into Tolkien's daily life, his inspirations, his professional life, in fact Humphrey Carpenter reveals snippets from every aspect of Tolkiens life.
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on 16 December 2014
This biography was the first to appear after Tolkien's death. While it isn't (thankfully) a cut and paste rush job - Carpenter was given a great deal of help by the Tolkien family, who also co-operated with him on an edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's letters - it isn't the most thoughtful or analytical reflection on Tolkien's like and work, either. The author seems hesitant to praise, let alone fully analyse, Tolkien's work, and also reluctant (perhaps because of his closeness to the family) to give a warts and all portrait of Tolkien's family life. There are hints at marital discord and personal unhappiness, but basically the door marked family life is kept shut. So those keen to connect the writing with the man will have to look elsewhere - to John Garth's book on Tolkien and the Great War, for example; those wanting to examine more closely Tolkien's part in the literary and academic traditions he worked in should turn to Tom Shippey's book Author of the Century.
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on 9 August 2012
This is a marvellous account of Tolkien's life, starting with his mother's departure to South Africa and his early years in Bloemfontein. The first half is more narrative in style, telling the reader about Tolkien's upbringing. The saga over his love affair with Edith is particularly affecting. We learn about Tolkien's early discovery of a love for languages and his later enjoyment of clubs, culminating in The Inklings during his adult life. The second half deals with Tolkien's major works - from literary and linguistic influences to worries over publication - but also sheds light on less famous tales such as "Leaf by Niggle" and "Smith of Wootton Major".

Carpenter makes clear from the beginning that a biography is not the way to understand an author's work (echoing Tolkien's own sentiments), and this is one of the major themes throughout the book. The sections in which Carpenter explores the relationship between Tolkien's vivid imagination and his (to the outward observer) rather quotidian existence are fascinating.

More than anything, this book is highly readable. You are not assailed by too much extraneous information - sections on, for instance, Tolkien's eccentric university professors are married neatly to the main ideas. At times you find yourself in relatively complex territory (for example, the squabble between Language and Literature departments at Oxbridge Colleges) without ever losing your way. Once I started, I could not stop reading this book.
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on 9 January 2012
One of the features of Tolkien's life which makes a biography of him so engaging is that he only became famous towards the very end of his life (although at that point he became very famous indeed). As a result, the story of his life is the story of a normal middle-class, 20th-century academic, who suffered the sorts of trials and tribulations that any normal person would suffer. Ergo: there is plenty in his personal story one can relate to.

In addition to that, Professor Tolkien was a very easy person to like: talented, dedicated, plenty of amusing eccentricities, a first-class poet and philologist, a family man and clearly a charasmatic and interesting fellow. Mr Carpenter's biography does him great justice. An eminently readable book about a fascinating and well-lived life, that had a deep and lasting influence on Western culture.

Peter Baker
The Jolly Pilgrim
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on 26 January 2015
If you have any doubts about buying this book forget them - this book is perfect. It is a biography written in as moving a style as a novel without even trying to be moving. The writer is superb, I have read his other book on the Inklings and it too is brilliant and a great companion to this. I have loved Tolkien's work since being a little boy. The author has written a graceful book worthy of his subject. As I read about Tolkien's death at the end: tears rolled down my cheeks as if I was reading about a friend. To write a biography that so immerses you is an outstanding achievement. Humphrey Carpenter is a great author in his own right. One of my favourite books - in a way it reminded me of Laurie Lee's beautiful Cider with Rosie, both are documents about the end of an Age.
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on 18 February 2013
First off this is the only book about Tolkien I have read (as in biography) and I'm not saying its the best because I can't without reading the others first, but I am saying that I really enjoyed learning about the man and the myths and to that end this book has been brilliant I also can quit honestly say that I never really knew middle earth took so much time to create, what Tolkein did was well above and beyond anything I could do, and so I salute this great man and this book for letting me see into the life of JRR Tolkein.

In Summary I feel that JRR Tolkeins life was covered very well by the Auther and done in a fair review more over it is well written and great to read.
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