Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tolkien: A Biography

Humphrey Carpenter
Completed 6/27/2015, Reviewed 7/42015
5 stars

I first acquired this book as part of my introductory offer from the Book of the Month Club, so I’ve had it since about the time it was published.  I’ve started it many times, but I often have to be in the mood for non-fiction, and for some reason, I couldn’t get past the first chapter.  Now, while still immersed in my Tolkien challenge, having read more than just the Lord of the Rings, I think I was ready, finding it an engrossing account of an obsessive academic who studied words, drank a lot a beer, and wrote one of the greatest books of all time. 

Tolkien was a very unassuming man.  He never really looked for fame.  He simply wanted to do what he loved, create a mythology complete with its own languages.  From early in his childhood, he realized he loved words.  He studied Latin, Greek, old and middle English, including of its many dialects, Germanic, and Norse.  He invented his first language before college, which eventually became one of the languages used in his masterpiece.  He went to Oxford for philology, the study of language.  He loved old literature and the epic poems.  Soon he was writing stories and poems that would become the foundation for the mythology of Middle Earth.

Of course the chapters detailing Tolkien’s writing of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are engaging, with his obsession about details, procrastination, and perfectionism, but so is the beginning of his life.  His father died when he was three, and his mother when he was twelve.  He lived with relatives, and eventually went to Oxford to study philology.  He married the only woman he ever loved.  He eventually returned to Oxford as a teacher of philology and Middle English.  It doesn’t sound very interesting, but Carpenter tells the story as well as any narrative of fictional character study.  The amount of detail is astounding, from his rapid-fire mumbled way of speaking to his procrastination and inability to complete much of his work.

Tolkien was a lonely man, craving the friendship of other men.  This is evidenced by the clubs of which he was a founding member.  The most well-known was the Inklings, the club he started at Oxford.  It included C.S. Lewis and author writers.  But this was just the last in a series of such clubs which he created, the first of which began in high school.  The main point of all of them was to discuss ancient literature or read the work they were currently writing, providing each other with complements and critiques.   But besides this, it also provided Tolkien with the companionship of other men, complete with beer and pipe-smoking. 

Despite his devotion to his wife, these groups were part of the cause of domestic uneasiness, as well as his procrastination.  He desperately loved her, often referring to her as the Luthien to his Beren, the main characters from his epic tragic love story.  But his groups were a different part of his life.  In a way, it was a double life, one academic and social, and the other domestic.  It wasn’t until the near the end of their lives that they lived in what we would consider a “normal” marriage. 

Tolkien despised biography.  He didn’t believe that biographical information was necessary to understand the work of an author.  He also didn’t like allegory, refusing to admit any influence of his Catholic upbringing or either World War on his work.  Still, I think when we find an author we like, whose works we love, we want to know something about him or her.  It’s the nature of fame and fandom.  If you follow Tolkien’s premise and divorce yourself from the search for meaning and influence from his life experience, this book is still captivating.  If nothing else, Carpenter satisfied my own craving to know a little more about the person who wrote my favorite book of all time.  And a well-written biography such as this beats the dryness you’ll find on Wikipedia any day.  Five out of five stars.

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