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J.R.R. Tolkien has arguably had a greater influence on contemporary culture and reading habits than any other 20th century writer. Successful film versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have only increased interest in his work. What sort of man was he, who so profoundly changed the sort of things we read and write? When The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien was in his early sixties; until then, he had led the outwardly unremarkable life of an Oxford don. Yet beneath the surface conventionality, his astonishing imaginative life, nourished by the rich sources of his professional interests, grew luxuriantly. This is the first Tolkien biography since Humphrey Carpenter's authorized life of 1977 to deal with the wealth of posthumously published material; it sets Tolkien's imaginative writing firmly in the context of his academic life, shows the great personal and professional difficulties he overcame to complete The Lord of the Rings, and charts his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to complete the great cycle of legends that appeared, after his death, as The Silmarillion. It also deals with Tolkien's role in the precipitous decline of his academic discipline, philology, as a university subject; and shows how, in one sense, his imaginative achievement is itself a triumphant vindication of his academic career.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published September 30, 2014

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Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,535 followers
February 15, 2020
Raymond Edwards' Tolkien is a great biography of one of the 20th c's most popular authors, JRR Tolkien. Written in 2014 (so about when the last of Peter Jackson's LOTR-based films was being released), it does a good job of covering the somewhat eventless life that Tolkien led while creating his legendarium from which was birthed Middle Earth and The Hobbit, or There and Back Again and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King). I don't understand why this excellent biography only has 25 reviews (and an average 4.38 rating) whereas the Michael White one has thousands of reviews, strange.

Tolkien was born in South Africa in the Orange Free State between Boer Wars in 1892. His mother returned to England in 1895 with JRR and his brother in tow, his father passing away a few months in the colonies later from illnesses in 1896. He lost his mother just a few years later in 1904. She had converted to Catholicism in 1902 and this had a deep influence on Tolkein (eventually leading to a definitive break with CS Lewis over 50 years later).

Tolkien went on to be a professor at Oxford in philology (the holistic study of the creation of language and its relation to culture), eventually revamping the curriculum and chairing the department there). It is this interest in languages that forms the foundation for his vast work on Old and Middle English and various Norsemen-related languages such as Icelandic. His firm belief was that the Norman invasions of the British Isles had a catastrophic impact in destroying an existing mythology and iconography that he found traces of in Beowolf and other Old and Middle English texts. It is this lost mythology, unique to the British, that Tolkien dedicated his life's work and which became his infamous tales of Middle Earth. The Elves were a prototype for the English people, the Dwarves were Danish/Icelandic, etc. I had not realized this connection before reading this biography. This all sounds quite academic, and indeed it would have been nearly indecipherable and inaccessible to the public had Tolkien not come upon the idea of using the hobbits as guides to this world: The hobbits provide a focus for the narrative that mediates our normal reactions to events and the high style appropriate to an earlier literary age, which Tolkien, boldly, wanted to revive. (p. 227)

The Ring books were just one example of work that came out of the famous Inklings group at Oxford which CS Lewis, Tolkien, Robert Graves (I, Claudius) and others were working on. There was also a Tolkien translation of Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and Ronald Knox's biblical translation which reads as if written by Yoda (p. 241) showing that we are truly lucky that Tolkien was able to adapt the book to a more accessible language.

The other thing that I found fascinating about Tolkien was that, aside from the four books that everyone knows about, his completely precious little other texts due to his teaching and administrative responsibilities at Oxford and various life catastrophes and events. In a sense, he is similar to Leonardo da Vinci (except that rather than venturing into dozens of directions, he just launches 100s of stories and obscure language studies never finishing them.)

For fans of The Hobbit and LOTR, I recommend this Tolkien biography. Note that he does make mention of the Peter Jackson movies (not quite approvingly).

As a footnote, I am re-reading Lord of the Rings and now the Prologue at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring makes a LOT more sense!

Highlight from comment thread below about LoTR and Tolkien's life:
The Elves are more the Celts before the arrival of xtians from the continent and, of course, the cataclysmic Norman invasions. The dwarves represent the ancient Scandinavian sagas with their glorious kings and so forth.

Perhaps we can also think about the Scouring of the Shire in the context of the Battle of Britain where shire life was permanently interrupted and transformed by falling bombs - Oxford was spared (Hitler allegedly wanted his capital there once he bagged the British Isles) but all of the surrounding villages and towns were destroyed. Tolkien was saddened to see the flames of Coventry on the horizon. Not to mention his WWI service and the many friends he lost to that inane conflict. So, even if he always wanted to project backwards, I suspect that his disillusionment with current events also colored the narrative.

For those who will be in Paris before the end of February, I highly recommend the Tolkien exposition at the BNF Mitterand as it is thorough and extremely interesting!

Fino's Tolkien Reviews:
The Hobbit
The Fellowship of the Ring (LOTR 1)
The Two Towers (LOTR 2)
The Return of the King (LOTR 3)
Raymond Edward's Tolkien biography
Profile Image for Dr. Andrew Higgins .
168 reviews35 followers
March 12, 2016
I usually approach the reading of Tolkien biographies with some caution. This particular one got on my radar by a good Facebook mention by the legendary Tolkien scholar David Doughan whose work I very much admire and respect. So I thought if David likes the book it is worth a read. I am very glad I did! I would say this book succeeds in two basic areas and is worth reading by all students and scholars of Tolkien's works. First, Edwards (himself a one time researcher, like Tolkien was, at the OED) spends a considerable amount of time exploring the philological background and approach Tolkien took to his work and brings to life some of the key philologists and writers that influenced Tolkien and with whom he worked (such as Bradley, Sisam, Onions and R.W. Chambers). Secondly, Edwards does a really good job at going through Tolkien's legendarium and placing the writing of the different phases of it within the biographical context of Tolkien's life (something the authorised biography by Humphrey Carpenter only hints at). While there are certainly no new startling revelations about Tolkien's life (as certain other recent biographies of Tolkien have attempted to shock readers with!) Edwards measured approach helps the student and scholar see some interesting parallels with what was occurring in Tolkien's life while he was writing several key parts of the legendarium. The last chapters also illustrate Tolkien's attempt to 'finish' the Silmarillion ('his tree') which became disrupted by personal matters, several moves and the side line questions from readers that resulted in more work on specific matters of Middle-earth. There are some interesting concluding chapters on 'Adaptation/Films', 'Tolkien as Catholic', and 'Posthumous Publications' which I thought were informative, but all seemed a bit rushed. Overall, highly recommend this work and in terms of Tolkien biography would put it up there with Carpenter's and John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War
Profile Image for Tom.
136 reviews2 followers
August 24, 2019
This biography is much better on Tolkien's scholarship than Carpenter's. Edwards is perceptive, often witty, and definitely not shy about sharing his opinions. On Charles Williams, for example, he is quite scathing (p. 186):

"Williams was given to ... overuse of abstract nouns and to prolonged flirtations with impressionable young women. Williams clothed these flirtations, which in a couple of cases were prolonged over years and involved hundreds of letters, with a pseudo-mystical flummery borrowed from Dante, Swinburne and the whole overripe Blavatskian-Hermeticist tradition; but to all but dedicated fans, this stuff reads like transparent special pleading for what has aptly been called 'moral adultery'."

Now, really, who does not know that the young and impressionable must avoid the overripeness of the Blavatskian-Hermetecist tradition? I should think it goes without saying, but what does not go without saying is the source of borrowed judgements. By whom these 'prolonged flirtations' -- as as Edwards points out twice in so many words in two sentences -- were called 'moral adultery', we are never told. Not that I necessarily dispute the aptness of the opinion.

Nor is his lack of a citation here an isolated incident. For example, at one point Edwards cites Tom Shippey but gives no source (p. 303 n. 23 -- the nearest previous reference to Shippey is 15 footnotes earlier). At another (p. 83) he says that Robert Graves made a statement 'somewhere', and leaves it at that, but Google was able to locate that 'somewhere' in well under a second. Playing fast and loose like this with details undermines my confidence in the author. God and the Devil both lie in the details.

Despite faults like these, I enjoyed this book. I will consult it and find it useful. It does represent an advance beyond the hagiographic biography of Carpenter, and has profited by the research of the last 4o years. What we really need, however, is a new authorized biography based on much fuller access to Tolkien's letters, diaries, and papers.

As of this writing, the page count listed in Goodreads for this book is inaccurate. This edition has 336 pages, not 256.
Profile Image for Elsbeth Kwant.
338 reviews21 followers
March 15, 2022
Very much enjoyed reading this. It does not contain a lot of new material as compared to Carpenters biography, but it is well-presented and sensitively argued. The story of his youth - losing his father young, the countryside and then his mother - how he found his wife of whom he lovingly and sadly wrote that they found each other broken and had not always been succesful in healing each other. His academic work is discussed with enjoyment - the changing of curricula and the choosing of fellowships took quite some time. The eternal marking of schoolboy exams in his free time, taking time from his creative work, with hindsight seems sad. The friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, grand and human at the same time. All in all - it presents Tolkien in a human way, not belittling his grand achievements, whilst looking with compassion on what didn't come to pass.

A few quotes: 'For Tolkien, keeping his intellectual curiosity and expenditure of intellectual effort, confined to approved channels was to be a constant and not wholly successful struggle for most of his life.'
'Running through his work is a profound and often heartbreaking medidation on the ruinous perversion of goodness and civilization, on the coterminous arising of aching beauty and unblinking malevolence from the same God-given faculty of subcreation'.
'He clearly needed a collaborator to prompt and cajole and help with the spadework; but he did not find them easily.
Profile Image for Ruth Paszkiewicz.
166 reviews4 followers
February 29, 2016
An eloquent and engagingly written account of Tolkien's academic works which explores the possible influences throughout his life on his literature and studies. The author has created an intricate and engaging web of Tolkien's influences, interests, struggles and achievements, focusing on his deep love of Philology and language as the foundation stone upon which his famous mythology was painstakingly constructed. Clear and exceptionally well written in a narrative which, although often crosses paths with itself, never becomes tangled. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Tolkien, his works and relationships.
Profile Image for David McGrogan.
Author 7 books30 followers
August 19, 2017
I ended up enjoying this book immensely, but it is a slightly frustrating read. Edwards has a distinctive, insightful and quite entertainingly waspish voice, and a lot of interesting things to say about not just Tolkien and his legendarium but also about broader topics such as education, friendship and faith - not to mention life in England in the first half of the 20th century. But there isn't nearly enough of all of that, to my eye; instead the interesting stuff tends to get drowned out by an overwhelming tendency to try to chronicle all the events of Tolkien's life - where he went on holiday in such and such a year, what his daughter studied at school, etc. The result is that you get glimpses of deep and important subjects but never quite the long, hard examination that they merit. Still, well worth a read.
Profile Image for Rhomboid Goatcabin.
125 reviews4 followers
May 15, 2017
Edwards' book is a riveting read and the first notable comprehensive study of Tolkien's life since Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography. Whereas the pioneer Carpenter was tasked with painting a concise portrait of Tolkien the man, Edwards takes a more detailled and critical view and engages with Tolkien and our (and Carpenter's!) picture of him, giving particular space to Tolkien's profession, education and philology. Edwards doesn't shy from controversy and states quite a couple hypotheses of his own, but does so in an informed and subtle manner, greatly adding to the study's vigor. A few minor repetitions and odd oversights in continuity (which a competent publisher should have been able to correct) do nothing to tarnish Edwards' accomplishment.
March 12, 2018
Very thorough, scholarly account of Tolkien's life and work. Lots of detail especially about his writing, both academic and fiction. Rather conservative in tone, for example his remarks on the Battle of the Somme as a worthwhile if costly offensive. Very interesting appendix on Tolkien's Christian faith.
17 reviews
June 27, 2021
Good insight into his life (with some incidental and sometimes surprising insights into the life of CS Lewis too). Shows a lot of what lay behind his famous works, and gives a bit of an idea as to why he left so much unfinished! Well worth reading.
Profile Image for Sonstepaul.
223 reviews
February 19, 2022
Hard to believe this is the first true biography of Tolkien since Humphrey Carpenter’s sparse book. Of course, that’s because the man was an academic who led a relatively quiet life (despite going across two Word Wars).

But the man was his work.
Profile Image for Marco Freccero.
Author 20 books58 followers
December 10, 2021
Perché leggere una biografia? Sì, certo: per conoscere meglio la vita di un autore, e gli episodi, i fatti magari poco noti che però possono avere avuto un impatto notevole sulle scelte compiute in seguito.
È per esempio la madre Mabel, morta giovanissima per diabete, a educarlo all’amore per il disegno, la natura, e il latino.

E di certo in questo libro di quasi 400 pagine c’è parecchio, l’autore ha evitato di scrivere semplicemente una copia dell’altra biografia.
Ha invece puntato la sua attenzione sul grande, anzi sul grandissimo amore di Tolkien per la filologia.

Come forse si sa, Tolkien sin da bambino aveva una radicata inclinazione per le lingue e già giovanissimo inventa una sua lingua. E questa abitudine, chiamiamola pure così, sarà la grande passione che lo accompagnerà per tutta la vita. Diventando non solo il suo lavoro; ma sfociando in alcune delle opere più lette e apprezzate del Novecento.

Una passione che lo condurrà a creare il legendarium, vale a dire l’immensa opera del Silmarillion (mai conclusa), che racchiude tutti i miti della Terra di Mezzo, e dal quale sono sgorgati Lo Hobbit e il Signore degli Anelli. Che sono appunto solo una frazione, forse la più conosciuta, di quel corpo di miti che Tolkien mise su carta.

Senza mai riuscire a terminarlo, e lasciandolo di fatto incompiuto, con delle contraddizioni che alla fine non sono mai state completamente risolte.

Se Lo hobbit fu un successo in fondo inatteso, e nato per raccontare delle storie un po’ originali ai bambini, ai figli di Tolkien, il secondo hobbit, vale a dire il Signore degli anelli, impiegò circa 12 anni per essere finalmente scritto. E qui emerge un aspetto forse poco considerato.

All’uscita del Signore degli Anelli alcuni colleghi dell’università di Oxford si sentirono offesi. Ma come: un professore di Oxford che invece di pubblicare studi accademici rigorosi e corposi sull’inglese medievale, pubblicava un libro con orchi, nani, elfi, e via discorrendo?

L’obiezione è meno campata in aria di quanto appaia. Perché la produzione accademica di Tolkien, comunque di grande qualità, fu piuttosto risicata. E quei 12 anni impiegati a scrivere il Signore degli Anelli, potevano effettivamente essere usati proprio per pubblicare opere dedicate alla filologia. A difenderla meglio.

In effetti già negli anni 50 inizia l’offensiva, da parte degli studenti e dei professori, contro la filologia. Una materia difficile, che richiede anni di studio e applicazione, per poi ottenere che cosa?

Una materia insomma poco seducente per quel mondo,e per il nostro mondo, che preferisce sollecitare i giovani verso materie più utili, più indirizzate al mondo del lavoro.

Se Tolkien avesse prodotto più studi accademici forse (forse), le sue opere avrebbero rallentato il declino della filologia; forse lo avrebbero persino arrestato.
Anche se non si può dire.

Il punto è qui. Tolkien era un uomo pignolo, ma anche pieno di dubbi, e amava molto indugiare. Di sicuro la sua scelta di dedicarsi al Signore degli Anelli, e poi al legendarium, è stata forse fatale per la filologia. Che anche a Oxford non gode di grande seguito, a quanto mi risulta.

Ma forse il professore si era reso conto prima degli altri che combattere contro un nemico che voleva appunto far sparire la filologia dall’orizzonte delle materie da insegnare, era inutile.

E che poteva essere una soluzione quella di creare un’opera più popolare ma anche rigorosa (Il Signore degli Anelli e Lo Hobbit), dove l’amore per la lingua è ben evidente e soprattutto alla portata di tutti.

Insomma. Se il professore ha speso così tante ore a scrivere queste storie (invece di saggi accademici) lo ha fatto soprattutto perché gli permettevano di dare alla lingua degli elfi una storia. E di dimostrare a tutti noi che l’amore per la lingua, non è un passatempo di dubbia o di nessuna utilità.

Bensì rappresenta un tassello importante nella costruzione dell’identità di un popolo.
Profile Image for Edoardo Albert.
Author 52 books130 followers
June 6, 2015
Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 biography of Tolkien remains deservedly the definitive biography of the Good Professor, in part because, alone of the writers mining Middle-earth, he was given access to Tolkien's private papers, yet in the half century since then a huge amount of material has come to light, particularly relating to JRRT's professional life. Raymond Edwards' new biography pays particular attention to this and, since Edwards' own background is Oxford philology, he makes the struggles, intrigues and battles of academic departments quite fascinating. There is also an engaging strain of waspishness to his judgements - always enjoyable in a biography which, let's be honest, is really gossip writ literary style - so I'd recommend this to anyone who has read Carpenter and wants some more detail about Tolkien's life.
Profile Image for JD Shaffer.
174 reviews3 followers
June 1, 2016
Perhaps the Best Biography of Tolkien

I very much enjoyed this biography of talking. It's obvious the writer has a deep knowledge of all the necessary subjects, such as Catholicism, ancient languages, and Tolkien himself.

I found it much more informative than Humphrey Carpenter's original biography. And I quite enjoyed that aspect. I wanted to know more of the technical details of his life he, his research, and his interest. All of my Curiosities and hopes were answered in his biography.

The author did a very masterful job of a very complex subject. And I wish to give him my personal thanks!
Profile Image for Kate.
25 reviews3 followers
April 16, 2016
Tolkien famously said that his entire creation grew out of his philological interests. Edwards takes that seriously. This is a valuable addition to the bookshelf of any Tolkien fan, because it adds to our understanding of Tolkien the scholar. Carpenter's biography is excellent, and reflects his access to Tolkien's family and papers; John Garth's World War I story fills in what life was for Tolkien as a young man; this one is more attuned to his life as a philologist and Oxford don.
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