Books about Tolkien - Tolkien biographies (14.07.10 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

It happens to every person who falls in love with Middle-earth. You read about the adventures of Hobbits, wander with them through the land of Middle-earth, smell the mountains, watch the stars, see the awakening of Elves, feel the pain of men, march through the forests with the Ents, win and loose battles, feel the power of nature and breath the air of long forgotten realms, hear the songs of histories long ago... it does not take you long before you start wondering who is the person who created it all. You can feel the long history, speak the languages, cross oceans and time. Middle-earth could well have existed, but you know it was invented by one man only, the author J.R.R. Tolkien.

It is therefore no surprise that there are many people who want to find out more about the man behind it all. In the decades since his death in September 1973, millions have read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion and many have become fascinated about the very private man, the creator, behind these books.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa, Bloemfontein, on the 3th of January 1892. He was orphaned as a child and brought up in near-poverty as a catholic.

He served in the first World War, surviving the Battle of the Somme, where he lost almost all of his closest friends an event that Tolkien must have carried with him for the rest of his life.

Already during the war Tolkien returned to the academic life, eventually achieving high repute as a scholar and university teacher, eventually becoming Merton Professor of English at Oxford where he was a close friend of C.S. Lewis and the other writers known as The Inklings.

One day while grading essay papers he found himself writing 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' - and this sentence changed his and our lives for good.

Now let us have a look at some Tolkien biographies out there, some good, some better,...

Books about Tolkien - Tolkien biographies

J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

Humphrey Carpenter was given unrestricted access to all tolkien's papers, and interviewed his friends and family. From these sources he follows the long and painful process of creation that produced The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and offers a wealth of information about the life and work of the twentieth century's most cherished author.

While this biography was first released in May 1977 it is still seen as the standard Tolkien biography. It follows the author J.R.R. Tolkien from his early life, though his student years, academic and family life, through two world wars, offering a well-rounded portrayal of this quiet, bookish man who always saw himself first and foremost as a philologist, uncovering rather than creating the peoples, languages, and adventures of Middle-Earth.

Some of tolkien's private correspondence, shared by his family, is published only in this book, and it reveals how profoundly the man was affected by the people with whom he became close. He was literally robbed of an entire generation of friends by the First World War, and the experience resonated throughout the remainder of his life. But we will see there has been written another Tolkien biography that covers that topic very well.

Since 1977 there have been written many books about Tolkien and some have shown us that Carpenter was not always correct. It would be a good idea to have someone edit the Humphrey Carpenter biography, since it is still being used as standard reference by many people who want to learn more about the author. Still this book reads incredible well and I can only recommend it to any person interested in the man behind Middle-earth!

Title: J.R.R. Tolkien: A biography
Humprey Carpenter


Publication Date: New edition, 2 Jan 2002

hardcover, 400 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0007132843

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter

In 1981, after the success of tolkien's biography, there was released another book by Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. A completely different approach, but probably one of the best ways to learn more about the man Tolkien. This book contains a selection of 354 letters, excerpts from letters, drafts and endnotes, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of tolkien's son Christopher Tolkien.

In most of the letters Tolkien discusses his work and books, another large part is a conversation between Tolkien and his future wife Edith Brath (in the period they were not married yet). These letters show tolkien's genius and give insight in the man behind the books.

Scholars and fans of the great mythologist will find a rich vein of information in Humphrey Carpenter's The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a prolific letter writer all his life; the sheer mass of his correspondence would give pause to even the most stalwart archivist (one shudders to think what he would have done with e-mail). But with the able assistance of tolkien's son Christopher and a healthy dose of determination, Carpenter manages find the cream of the crop - the letters that shed light on tolkien's thoughts about his academic and literary work, as well as those that show his more private side, revealing a loving husband, a playful friend, and a doting father. The most fascinating letters are, of course, those in which he discusses Middle-Earth, and Carpenter offers plenty of those to choose from. Tolkien discussed the minutia of his legend - sometimes at great length - with friends, publishers, and even fans who wrote to him with questions. These letters offer significant insights into how he went about creating the peoples and languages of Middle-Earth.

Since I started collecting Tolkien books and got fascinated by the author, maybe even more than what he has written, I must have read hundreds if not thousand of his unpublished letters. It would be a dream, and I believe of many people, to see a second volume of Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien appear, first because there are more then enough letters available and secondly because it is in tolkien's letters that we can find most about the authors ideas, believes, ideologies and way of living.

Title: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Humprey Carpenter

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Date:
Reissue edition,
2 May 2006

paperback, 480 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0261102651
letters by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Tolkien Family Album by John & Priscilla Tolkien

Here we look at some nice photographs assembled by the children of J.R.R. Tolkien, that give us a wonderful insight into his life from his family’s point of view. This biography looks at the family details of J.R.R. tolkien's life. It tells of his love affair with Edith Bratt, and the dramatic circumstances of their relationship and eventual marriage; of tolkien's experiences in World War I; of the birth of his children; his academic career, and of the writing of the books that made him a household name all over the world. The book also takes a look at the often strange fan mail that he received, and the honours bestowed upon him before and after his death.

While for one or another reason the publisher HarperCollins never reprinted this book it is most of the time hard to find, since it is now long out of print and only available through the second hand book market, it is still a very nice book to have. Not only are the pictures very interesting, but the tale written by tolkien's children is certainly very interesting. Since this book was released in 1992 around the centenary celebrations of J.R.R. Tolkien I expect to see this book reprinted in the future on another 'special' occasion; who knows: maybe it will even get an update?!

Title: The Tolkien Family Album
John & Priscilla Tolkien

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Date:
January 6, 1992

hardcover, 96 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0261102392
tolkien family album

J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator by Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull

This book, written by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, explores tolkien's art at length, from his childhood paintings and drawings to his final sketches. Inside the book are 200 reproductions, many in colour. Most of these are Middle-earth related or are pictures Tolkien made for his children, calligraphy, decorations and nice examples of typography. Though Tolkien often remarked that he had no talent for drawing, this book proves exactly that Tolkien was a very good artist and illustrator.

Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull's text is a full book's worth even without the artwork. It represents a significant contribution, perhaps the most significant since tolkien's death, to our understanding of the life and art of J.R.R. Tolkien. "J.R.R Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator" is a book which is meant to engage and even to ensnare the reader. This is because of the brilliant manner that Wayne and Christiania, who are librarians and lifelong Tolkien scholars (who also made "J.R.R. Tolkien A Descriptive Bibliography" in 1993, the fiftieth anniversary edition of "Farmer Giles of Ham", and in 1998 the first publication of Tolkien’s long children’s story, Roverandom), have chosen to write it. The approach to their task is, naturally, a chronological one; they take us on a journey through the immense amount of material, much of it appearing in published form for the first time, from tolkien's earliest drawings as a child to the splendid late drawing, "The Hills of the Morning," which they understandably see as a fitting climax and epilogue to his life's work as an artist, and which most appropriately takes its place as the frontispiece to this book.

The book is divided into six main chapters covering over 60 years of Tolkien life and is one of the standard works to be read by anyone trying to find out more about Tolkien and his life. J.R.R. Tolkien was an artist in pictures as well as in words. Still hoping this book will be released in a coffee table edition... how lovely a present would that be?

Title: J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator
Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Date:
second edition (Reissue),
16 Feb 2004

hardcover, 208 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0261103221

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

This dense but informative study addresses the long-standing controversy over how J.R.R. tolkien's WWI experience influenced his literary creations. A London journalist, Garth is a student of both Tolkien and the Great War. Since his school-days, Tolkien had been a member of the the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS) along with his three closest friends, and Garth describes how the club developed literary ambitions as war was breaking out in Europe. Finishing his degree before joining up, Tolkien served as a signal officer in the nightmarish Battle of the Somme in 1916, where two of those friends were killed. The ordeal on the Somme led to trench fever, which sent him home for the rest of the war and probably saved his life. It also influenced a body of Northern European-flavoured mythology he had been inventing and exploring in both prose and verse before the war, toward its evolution into The Book of Lost Tales and in due course Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

This book could not pretend to be aimed at other than the serious student of Tolkien, and readers will benefit from a broad knowledge of his work (as well as a more than casual knowledge of WWI). But it also argues persuasively that Tolkien did not create his mythos to escape from or romanticize the war. Rather, the war gave dimensions to a mythos he was already industriously exploring. Garth's fine study should have a major audience among serious students of Tolkien, modern fantasy and the influence of war on literary creation.

Title: Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth
John Garth

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication Date:
New edition, 5 July 2004

paperback, 416 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0007119530

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond

Now, if you really want to learn everything about J.R.R. Tolkien then I recommend the following 2300 pages thick book, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide - the most comprehensive, in-depth reference on J.R.R. Tolkien ever published. While it is largely unknown by most Tolkien fans, this is the book you want to own, study, use and read... it is the crown jewel in Tolkien study and once you own a copy you will never part with it again!

In this massive work, tolkien's progress is traced from his birth in South Africa in 1892, to the battlefields of France and the lecture-halls of Leeds and Oxford, to his success as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, until his death in 1973. His many academic and literary achievements, his public reception, and his enduring fame are examined in detail.

The first volume in this set is a Chronology of tolkien's life and works, the most extensive biographical resource about him ever published. Thousands of details have been drawn from letters, contemporary documents in libraries and archives, and a wide variety of other published and unpublished sources. Assembled together, they form a portrait of Tolkien in all his aspects: the distinguished scholar of Old and Middle English, the capable teacher and administrator, the devoted husband and father, the brilliant creator of Middle-earth.

The second volume, the Reader's Guide, is an indispensable introduction to tolkien's life, writings, and art. It includes histories and discussions of his works; analyses of the components of his vast 'Silmarillion' mythology; brief biographies of persons important in his life; accounts of places he knew; essays on topics such as tolkien's interests and attitudes towards contemporary issues, ideas found in his works, adaptations, and invented languages; and checklists of his published works, his poetry, his pictorial art, and translations of his writing.

The only sad point about the books I think, maybe there should be made a deluxe edition with pictures!

Title: The J.R.R.Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology AND Reader's Guide
Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Date:
2 Nov 2006

hardcover, 1999 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0007169726


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