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

It’s not a secret to anyone that I’m a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I have 3 versions of this book. A translated version (pt-BR), the original version in English, and the audiobook. It’s no news that it would be a 5 star book to me.

I just listened to the Inklings book by Humphrey Carpenter, so it was the best time to also listen to this one (yes, I went for the Audiobook).

Tolkien was a genius and a real nerd IMO. Reading this biography is also finding the human part of Tolkien. He had his own flaws and lived a simple life as a professor in Oxford. When he started making real money from his creations, he was already 60+ years old.

It was great to see that The Silmarillion was Tolkien’s life work. Everything else he did was creating more content on top of the Silmarillion.

The attention to details Tolkien had is out of this world. Thinking about where the moon should be in the story to make things coherent is something that very few authors take into account. It took more than a decade to write the LotR.

Well, if you like the man and/or his work, I definitely recommend you read/listen to this one. Humphrey Carpenter did a great job capturing who Tolkien was and what he did.

Here are my rough notes for this book:

  • Tolkien had a situation with a poisonous spider when he was a kid. He often said it did not cause any dislikes on him about spiders but often used them in his books
  • The only memory of his father was him painting “AR Tolkien” (Arthur Reuel) on the lead of a trunk
  • Tolkien’s mother knew Latin, French, and German
  • Tolkien liked to draw trees and be with trees. He didn’t care about botanical details, he liked the shape of trees. He even talked to trees when he was a kid.
  • Tolkien’s mother corrected grammatical errors in his stories when he was a kid. Example: “a great green dragon” instead of “a green great dragon”
  • Many times Ms. Tolkien removed her children from school because she could educate them better
  • Tolkien disliked Shakespeare
  • Tolkien was 13 when his mother died
  • Anglo saxon == old english
  • Both Tolkien and Edith were orphans
  • Tolkien did not know about homosexuality until he was 19. At the age of boys are discovering romance he was forced to be distant from Edith and be around people of the same sex. He associated male company with most of its good in life
  • The painting of “the mountain spirit” is the origin of Gandalf
  • Tolkien did not come from a rich family and the distinction was clear among groups at the University. He found some catholic friends there, which made things easier – It’s interesting how religion plays a social role in many contexts
  • Tolkien was fascinated by the Welsh language
  • Tolkien had a different style of handwriting for each of his friends
  • Tolkien and Edith spent 3 years apart from each other and they grew differently. Both had to do concessions if they want to stay together. Tolkien had to tolerate Edith’s absorption in the daily things of life, as trivial as it looks for him. Edith had to tolerate Ronald’s invented languages and academic papers, as selfish as it looks for her
  • Tolkien considered himself as a sentimental one but that’s not what he shows to his male friends
  • If Tolkien had shown Edith his “bookish face” she would be more tolerant when those topics appear in their marriage, but he kept the two sides of his life firmly apart
  • Tolkien didn’t see him as an inventor of stories but a discover of legends
  • “You can’t have a language without people to speak it”. Tolkien was creating the story to support his made-up languages
  • His language would come from the land that Earendel saw in his strange voyage
  • Sam Gangi is a reflection of the English soldier taking care of their superior
  • Unfinished tales should be “The book of lost tales” if it was completed
  • “I never knew a man of this age that is, in this respect, his equal” – his boss from the oxford English dictionary
  • Tolkien and Gordon formed a “Viking Club” which consisted of them drinking large quantities of beer and reciting Norse sagas
  • Tolkien did not finish the Silmarillion and he would probably never finish it. Sometimes because of his perfectionism and others because he doesn’t want his mythology to die when finished
  • Tolkien lived in Leeds for years and was a professor at Leeds university
  • At the age of 32, Tolkien was a professor at Leeds, had many languages developed (Sindarin, Quenya, etc.), have written most of Silmarillion, and had three children
  • Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon for 20 years, then elected Merton professor of English and literature, lived the first part of his retirement in Oxford, moved, came back to Oxford after Edith died, and had a peaceful death at the age of 81. It was the ordinary remarkable life lived by scholars. A life of academic brilliance for sure, but only in a very narrow academic field.
  • Between these years where “nothing happens” Tolkien wrote two books that because best sellers and kept the imagination and thinking of several million readers
  • “It’s a strange paradox the fact that The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are the work of an obscure Oxford professor who specialized in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden.”
  • Edith and Ronald had their own rooms and did not disturb one another. Edith finds Ronald’s snoring tiresome.
  • Ronald was not a big fan of railways because it brings noise and dirty to the countryside
  • Tolkien was not a big fan of news (as well as his friend Lewis) because journalists are usually not masters of the topics they write about it things and opinions change very fast
  • Tolkien did not give much care to his clothes. Everything he used was common and not much thought
  • Tolkien was an old fashion conservative. He liked monarchy and did not believe in the rule if the people
  • Tolkien’s perfectionism didn’t help him to publish articles, he edits too much.
  • Edith noticed that one part of Tolkien only came alive when being with other men of his kind
  • At some point, Edith opposed to Tolkien taking kids to the mass and she showed some anti-catholic behaviors.
  • Tolkien usually worked until late times because it was only when Edith went to bed that he had time without interruptions at his desk. It was mostly domestic matters or Edith requiring attention, which was quite normal. It was often irritant to him but he took it patiently
  • Tolkien was never shy of kissing his sons in public, even when they grew up
  • Tolkien realized he could use all the complexity and creativity he used for Silmarillion to also create simple stories for his children
  • Tom Bombadil was based on a Dutch doll that belongs to Michael
  • “In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit” was the first sentence of the hobbits ever written
  • Gandalf was called Bladolfin and Gandalf was the leader of the dwarfs. The name Gandalf was taken from the Icelandic and means sorcerer elf
  • The hobbit was abandoned right after the death of Smaug. It was only resurrected after a graduating student asked for the manuscript, read it, and told the publishers about it.
  • The Shire was everything Tolkien liked about England.
  • The first name of Frodo was Bingo
  • The lord of the rings is the realization of the Silmarillion, which only became viable because of the Hobbit
  • “Germans virtues (and they are virtues!) in obedience and patriotism are greater than ours”. He curses Adolf Hitler for perverting these virtues.
  • Tolkien was very perfectionist. Christopher helped by drawing a map, but he had to calculate distances, make names consistent, calculating moon phases, and even the direction of the wind sometimes
  • Tolkien was 51 and scared that he would never finish his stories because of the huge amount of work it requires to make everything consistent. He was already known for his procrastination on his philological work
  • Leaf by niggle was written while Tolkien was concerned about the progress of his mythological world, in the middle of the writing of LotR
  • Tolkien didn’t have the same way of thinking as Charles Williams but they were friends.
  • It’s hard to say why the friendship with CS Lewis started to cool down. Maybe because Tolkien disliked the Narnia stories by Lewis or the fact that the whole Narnia chronicles were written 3x faster than then LotR, or maybe because Tolkien was seeing a fan of his mythology become a successful writer by himself. There was also the fact that Lewis went to Cambridge after some time, which made it harder to keep in touch.
  • It took 12 years to write LotR
  • Silmarillion was Tolkien’s life work. Rejecting it was almost an insult to him
  • Tolkien just had one manuscript of LotR – seeing that today feels very frightening
  • The publisher had an agreement with Tolkien to do split sharing. After the book paid its costs, the author and the publisher will share the profits. This model was usually used for non-conventional books as it reduces risks for the publisher and better rewards the author in case the book sells.
  • It took more than 16 years since the beginning of the writing of LotR until its publication
  • They initially printed 3500 copies of the fellowship of the ring
  • Tolkien hated combustion engines and the problems they bring to society
  • The first check Tolkien received from the publisher was considerably more than his annual salary at the University
  • Tolkien replying to letters from fans played an important part in fixing the pirating problem he had in America
  • Tolkien was too kind to reject interviews but he decided to select just a few of them to accept because there were too many. He usually likes people when he meets them but got annoyed soon after. He usually starts an alarm clock when a visitor comes in and tell the visitor he has other things to do when
  • Edith became friends with Joy (wife of CSL) and Tolkien and Lewis had part of their friendship back
  • Tolkien used to reply to almost all letters, especially the ones coming from children or elderly people. Sometimes he wrote the same letter more than once until he was satisfied with the final version. It took much of his time.
  • After the death of CS Lewis, Tolkien wrote: “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age - like an old tree that is losing all its leave one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots”.

Thoughts when reading the book (the ones I take note while reading):

  • It’s interesting that most of the work Tolkien was famous for writing was not his main job. Many parts of his main job were contributors to give him knowledge for it, but the work itself is totally related to his passion for literature, languages, and old tales