Tolkien Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

Review

There is always a trepidation that goes with attempting to find out more about the people behind things that you love. You can love a painting without knowing about the artist. We rarely know about the people that make our favourite TV shows. Chances are if you do take the time to look behind that curtain you might find something you don’t like. Mostly because art is made by people and people are eminently fallible.

So why would you do it?

My motive is additional insight. There is a perfectly good argument that an artist will put any part of themselves that they wish to be seen and picked over, into their art. It doesn’t need to be studied, the messages and inferences, if planted and executed well by the creator speak for themselves. But context can lend clarity. The stems and leaves may be seen in the art, but there are always people that want to dig for the roots.

So I’m grubbing in the mud. Doing so is an acceptance that I might encounter dirt. With some creators you might find enough that it can alter your perception of their work. The separation between art and artist has become increasingly difficult, especially now art is more commercial and the creator has become part of the marketing. Personality is a commodity, the artistic product an extension of a personal brand. Considering Tolkien in this manner is an altogether different subject, and interesting in itself. Tolkien is a global brand, controlled and protected by his estate and selectively applied to a number industries. He has become a global entity posthumously and after reading the biography, I’m somewhat glad as I’m not certain he’d be pleased with everything his work has spawned.

The beginning of the book filled me with doubt. It is excellent, but it is highly personal, full of observational insight and opinion. Mr Carpenter recounts the few occasions he met Tolkien in person, and he paints a lovely character study. I was worried that the rest of the book would be coloured by personal feelings on the authors part. Don’t get me wrong, a biography should in some ways reflect the writers impressions of a person, but there should be a certain disconnect too. A biographer should collect anecdotes, reports, documentation etc and compile them to give an account of a life from many sources, not solely the opinion of the writer.

Thankfully these early concerns were totally unfounded. Mr Carpenter is an exemplary biographer. His writing style taut enough to give credence to his research but informal enough to make the prose flow easily. This book isn’t interesting because it is cleverly written, it is interesting because of the information it imparts. It is only able to do so because it is written solidly. Basically the biographer hasn’t gotten in the way of the subject, something that always worries me.

There were a few moments where I felt the writer lapsed into pointed signposting. Especially linking certain childhood anecdotes to events that happened to Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. They could have simply been included baldly, allowing the reader to join the dots. However, this is a small complaint. As the book progressed these instances lessened.

This is a clear document of a life that in many respects is not extraordinary for it’s time. Tolkien’s early life was filled with tragedy and drama. Between being orphaned, finding forbidden love, being enveloped into The Great War, all the while forging an academic career and beginning his creative work.

There comes a point in his life where things settle down into a pattern and it becomes rather boring, except for his writing, and the worlds he created. I felt Carpenter did particularly well with this juxtaposition.

Another very successful representation was the importance of faith and fellowship in Tolkien’s life. This helped me to understand his views on some vital parts of his mindset that constitutes a solid bedrock for his world.

It’s a lengthy enough book, but I felt it was virtually a sketch of Tolkien’s life. It gave me everything pertinent but didn’t dive deeply into anything in particular. In short a perfect primer to read further.


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