Why I didn’t read Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography long ago is a mystery. I owned the book when I was a teen (and stupidly gave it away in my 20’s). But maybe the long wait was inevitable. Back then I wanted more hobbits and sweeping saga, not biography. Luckily, that’s not the case today.
Folks, this is a marvelous read. I’m sure part of the reason I have not read a biography with more interest is because I love The Lord of the Rings so much. But I think there much more to it than that.
Tolkien had a story life as a child and young man. Not story as in wonderful and easy, but as in hard. He was orphaned early, forbidden to see his love when he found her. So Tolkien’s life is compelling on its own, not just because he’s famous.
Furthermore, Carpenter writes, not a dry list of facts, but a narrative full of particular and interesting details, transporting you back to the very times and places Tolkien lived in. He also transports you, if only lightly, into the mind of the man and some of his opinions. You’ll learn why Mordor is not Nazi Germany. How the batmen of WW1 found their way into his work. And that Frodo was originally named Bingo (can you imagine?). Carpenter also attempts to point out cause and effect as he sees it, to sum up key factors in Tolkien’s life, but without being glib. Carpenter writes all this with such clarity and grace I found myself carried along.
If you’re a fan of Tolkien’s work, don’t miss this book. Get a copy. Find a favorite tree, if you can. And then read.