TOLKIEN: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
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TOLKIEN: A Biography

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The Tolkien industry continues unabated; Humphrey Carpenter's gentle authorized biography is one of the few recent contributions to deviate into sense. Carpenter concisely narrates a placid life that began in 1892 in--of all places--Bloemfontein, South Africa. Tolkien was raised in an idyllic Warwickshire village and later in dreary Birmingham; early manifested a precocious passion for the history and structure of languages; was orphaned at twelve by his mother's death; married his first love just before going off to the Great War; brought up four children with her during a long Oxford career as one of the most distinguished philologists of his (or any other) day. These are the bare facts. In the inner life that Carpenter suggests beneath them, we ultimately discern a curious and moving loyalty. Loyalty to his mother's Catholicism and to her West Midland ancestry; hence to the countryside and the ancient speech of that once-beautiful region. Loyalty to the two beloved friends killed in the Great Wax and to the idealistic fellowship broken by their deaths. Deep loyalty to the wife whom he never permitted real access to his own intellectual concerns; obsessive loyalty to the intricate networks of detail involved in his professional researches. Carpenter's account of the evolution of Middle-Earth makes extraordinary sense in this emotional pattern. The Quenya (High-Elven) language came first, and at once implied the history and mythology of a people who spoke it, together with the languages of other peoples bound up in their destiny. It is not surprising that Tolkien soon envisioned the accumulating body of lore as something he was virtually discovering, not inventing. Nor that he had the greatest difficulty getting a subsidiary branch of it into finite shape as The Lord of the Rings (part of the often-revised parent material is to be published this fall). For Carpenter succeeds in implying the man's deepest imaginative impulse: faithfully to preserve beautiful and ancient things, in all their complexity and all their wonder, against ever-imminent loss. In the end he did it as much as anyone can. This book--modest, reticent, and penetrating--deserves to be read by all who honor his achievement.

Pub Date: June 29th, 1977
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin