What I'm Reading (No. 30): Tolkien, master of language
Note: I originally had two books to write about in this week's newsletter. I ended up writing too much about Tolkien. That's how much I love the dude.
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
I've long wanted to read a biography of JRR Tolkien. Father of nerds everywhere, Tolkien created a world unlike any other in literature. And that's not hyperbole; the Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is a universe unmatched in the annals of bookdom. I've read both of them multiple times, and I in fact read LOTR every five years. I'm due for another reading here in 2018, so I set out to finally find a Tolkien bio.
After a bit of research, I was surprised and disappointed to find that there just weren't many out there. I assumed there would be multiple door-stopping tomes awaiting me. Alas, that's just not the case. The consensus out there seemed to point to Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 treatment of the great writer. Carpenter was an acclaimed literary biographer, and did an excellent, if abbreviated job of his task.
At only 260 pages, my primary complaint is that it's just too damn short. There were numerous places that I was practically begging for Carpenter to give me more information. A figure like Tolkien deserves far more than a measly 260 pages.
Moving on to the content of the book: The writing style was quite interesting. Carpenter inserts his own voice a bit more into the text and we see the first-person "I" more than in your standard biography. Tolkien, though, was such a quiet, suburban, normal guy that Carpenter almost had to argue that he was indeed far more interesting and complicated than it may have appeared on the outside.
It's an easy case to make. From an early age, Tolkien displayed a love and special aptitude for languages — the way they sounded, looked, evolved over time. He couldn't get enough, and came to especially love Old English. That was his course of study as a student at Oxford (called philology — the study of language), and he ultimately became a professor there, turning into a brilliant scholar.
In his spare time, he invented languages (super nerd alert), and then found he wanted to create a mythology around them. And that's how his legendary stories came to be. Languages came first, then worlds were built around them. Isn't that just fascinating? It was to me. (And again, super nerdy.)
It wasn't until his retirement in his mid-sixties that he turned to writing full-time (though LOTR had been published a few years earlier), and even then, he was easily distractible and didn't finish many of his projects — which have now been published posthumously. And while he certainly wasn't perfect, there's a lot about the man's life that can and should be emulated.
I could write about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for days, but I'll spare you. They are two of the most beloved books in the English language, and in my own personal library. This biography provided excellent insight into the man behind those tales. As Carpenter opined near the end, to know those books is to know Tolkien himself (who even once self-described as a hobbit).
If you're an LOTR fan, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography is truly a must-read. And even though it's really just an introduction to the man's life, it's quite good. I can only hope that something more full-scale will emerge in the years to come, but until then, this is the best option.
A few related titles that I've either read or are on my shelf:
C. S. Lewis: A Biography by A. N. Wilson. I read this book last year and really enjoyed it. Lewis and Tolkien were good friends, and so any work on either of those individuals inevitably includes the other. Lewis was arguably the more complex character, so there are a number of good biographies about him available. Wilson's analysis was good, but I've wondered if it's perhaps too harsh. I'd also like to read Alister McGrath's C. S. Lewis.
A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte. This has been on my list (and nearly as long on my shelf) since we had Loconte on the Art of Manliness podcast. Both Tolkien and Lewis were WWI soldiers, and those experiences deeply affected their writing. When you know that, it's not a stretch to say that the entirety of The Lord of the Rings reads differently. Truly. I've not actually read this book yet, but after reading the Tolkien bio it's moved up quite a few slots on my list.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. This volume was actually edited by Humphrey Carpenter, and traces the evolution of Tolkien's ideas and writings through the letters he wrote to C. S. Lewis, his children, his editors, and plenty others. It's supposed to be very good, and someday I'll get around to reading it.
That's it for me this week; I apologize for the Tolkien overload. Have you read anything about the man that should be on my list?
Please also let me know what else you've read and enjoyed this week. I quite enjoy hearing from you all.