Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tolkien Biography: The Carpenter Benchmark

The following was first published on this date in 2016 on the now-defunct It is reproduced here for posterity. 

George Allen & Unwin 1977 (Fair Use)
Tolkien: The Authorized Biography

JRR Tolkien, the author of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," expected to live beyond the 81 years he was given. His ancestors had lived much longer. But, although death surprised him in September of 1973, he had long since prepared to hand over his literary legacy to his son. Christopher, who had long collaborated with his father about his mythology, spent the next few years editing "The Silmarillion" for publication.

It is also evident that Tolkien knew that a biography would be forthcoming, and he prepared “a few pages of recollections” and made notations on a number of old letters. Humphrey Carpenter, a friend of Tolkien’s children, was given access to the family’s private papers, and interviewed family, friends, and Tolkien himself. 

This biography has been the standard since it was published in 1977, and has been the basis for virtually every Tolkien biography that was written in the twentieth century. Not until John Garth’s "Tolkien and the Great War" (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history.

Tolkien himself did not think that much could be learned about an author’s writing by looking at his life. But it is evident that his life and interests had an influence upon his imagination. Three details in the book show how Tolkien's imagination was influenced by his personal life: Tolkien’s faith, his affection, and his perfectionism. Each of these affected how he wrote.

While Tolkien’s works are not overtly Christian, they are framed with the Christian worldview, and based on Christian morality and ethics. The God behind Middle-earth is clouded from our view in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," but is a little more obvious in "The Silmarillion." Middle-earth is not about his faith, but his faith certainly is ingrained within it.

Tolkien had a genuine affection for people. Companionship is a recurring theme in Middle-earth. A major theme in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" is the camaraderie of friends and companions. And his deep love for his wife is seen in "The Silmarillion"’s story about Beren and Lúthien.

Tolkien’s perfectionism helped create what he would call the verisimilitude of the story. The painstaking detail he went through to make sure the details have continuity is extraordinary, and much of the reason it took almost two decades from the time he began writing "The Lord of the Rings" until it was published. This desire to get every bit of minutia just right was many times a hindrance to completing the task, but we who read are blessed with the “suspension of disbelief.”
And we are blessed that Humphrey Carpenter was able to take up the task of writing about Tolkien’s life. There is something for everyone in this volume. The Tolkien novice will find the text easy to follow, while experienced aficionados will find an opulence of detail, including background on some of Tolkien’s more obscure works. There are also helpful appendices with a genealogical table, chronology of events, and bibliography of Tolkien’s published works.

The "Authorized Biography" is a valuable resource that every Tolkien fan should have in their personal library.

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