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Book Review: J. R. R. Tolkien, A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

For Christmas, I got Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. I never would have thought that an academics life could be so interesting. Of course, I love Tolkien’s works, and appreciate what he did in almost singlehandedly creating an enrire genre of fiction. But the man himself lived a life that was just as, if not more, interesting that his books. Carpenter is readable and lacks the ponderosity so characteristic of many biographies by academics. Paul West, of the Washington Post praised Carpenter, saying, “Carpenter has an eye for the magic in what’s pedestrian, and in his charge a ‘quiet life’ such as Tolkien’s, becomes an in-depth act of relish.”

This book is for those who want to know the man behind The Lord of the Rings . Carpenter writes about Tolkien the boy, Tolkien the philologist, and Tolkien the mythmaker in a way that makes it hard to put down. I especially appreciated the honest treatment of his topsy-turvy marriage, and the significant portion given over the Tolkien the academic. His philology work was as great in its sphere as Rings trilogy was in the sphere of fiction.

Tolkien was a man given over to perfectionism, his greatest strength and his greatest downfall, the aspect of his nature that made the Silmarillion and LOTR possible, but also the very reason so little was published and why so much is unfinished.

Although Tolkien himself did not approve of biography, he cannot be discovered any other way. Carpenter does an excellent job at telling us about Tolkien the man, his influences and motivations, without trying to match every detail of LOTR to some aspect of his life. Tolkiens life an worldview informed upon LOTR put LOTR is not Tolkien, nor an allegory, nor anything but a mythology in its own right.

Read this to understand Tolkien the man, a great Christian, writer, teacher and philologist.

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