The Best (and Worst) Books for Tolkien Biography

I have seen several news stories along the lines of “books to read before seeing Tolkien” around the internet recently. While I applaud news outlets for encouraging reading tied to movies, several of these posts, though certainly not all, recommend reading Tolkien’s fantasy works instead of reading works about Tolkien. In my experience, biographical material is far more interesting to read before a biopic, so I have compiled a list of recommended (and not recommended) readings that appeal more to that aspect. Enjoy!


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

Put simply, this book is regarded as the essential Tolkien biography by many scholars and fans.

The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends by Humphrey Carpenter

This book focuses more specifically on the group that came together to share readings and community in Oxford that included Tolkien and Lewis.

Winner of the 1982 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by Diana Pavlac Glyer

This is another well-respected and informative book looking at the creative group in Oxford!

I believe this is somehow related to her other text The Company They Keep, but as I have not read it I can provide no commentary. (Winner of the 2008 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies.)

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

This excellent book looks at Tolkien’s war experience during World War I and how his friendships and experience could have shaped his life and literature.

Winner of the 2004 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez

This is an even closer portrait of the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, as the title implies.

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

This is an invaluable resource for readers who want a little insight into Tolkien’s exchanges with friends, family, publishers, and fans.

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan

Even though this is a collection of essays rather than a book-length investigation, it is absolutely worth mentioning because it is perhaps the best resource available discussing the way that Tolkien worked with and supported women in his life.

Tolkien, Race and Cultural History by Dimitra Fimi

While not a biography, per se, this volume contains an insightful cultural history of Tolkien which is helpful when trying to understand how Tolkien’s views and opinions compared to the culture in which he lived.

Winner of the 2010 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Boxed Set

I added this after Jason Fisher and others pointed out that the Chronology is a fantastic insight into Tolkien’s biography.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by Catherine McIlwaine

Released in conjunction with the recent (2018) Tolkien exhibition in Oxford, this serves as both the catalogue for that exhibition and a remarkable text full of insight into the life of Tolkien.

Have Not Read

For each of these, I welcome comments from other readers!

Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams

Winner of the 2017 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Tolkien by Raymond Edwards

  A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte

Not Recommended

The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth by Daniel Grotta

Grotta has been exposed for, shall we say, taking liberties?

J.R.R. Tolkien (Just the Facts Biographies or Learner Biographies) by David R. Collins

Not well circulated, this book is intended as an introduction to the author for children. Unfortunately it suffers from two faults: it contextualizes the author using the movies, and at times it seems to take facts from Grotta.

Honorable Mentions

I have not included these in the list because I did not think them either bibliographic enough, or far-ranging enough in their bibliographic content. However, I wanted to mention some other works of great scholarship that touch on bibliography:

The several volumes produced by Hammond and Scull about Tolkien’s artistic output!

Shippey’s first and second books on Tolkien have less biography, but demonstrate overlap between biography and his creative output (credit to commenters for convincing me to add this).

Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver et al.

Tolkien in East Yorkshire 1917-1918: An Illustrated Tour by Phil Mathison

Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity by Carl Phelpstead

There are several works by authors like Richard Purtill, Joseph Pearce, or Bradley Birzer which focus specifically on the religious aspects of Tolkien’s life and elevate it above all others. I have not included such works in this list, but a couple are worth hunting down if these are of interest to you.

What other books would you recommend for biographical information? Do you agree or disagree with anything on this list? Let me know!

27 thoughts on “The Best (and Worst) Books for Tolkien Biography

  1. I read the Edwards book. It is especially good for understanding Tolkien’s scholarly life. Carpenter has a ‘day in the life’ section in his biography, but Edwards really gave me an idea of the enormous amount of time Tolkien gave to his profession: not only teaching (he gave many more lectures than was strictly required), but preparing for lectures, working with his students, sitting exams, grading exams, and working on developing curricula. [This last was especially true for his first job in Leeds, where he and George Gorden were essentially responsible for creating the English Language course from scratch]. Both Glyer books are excellent, as is the Zaleski. John Rateliff’s article in ‘Perilous and Fair’ focuses on Tolkien’s professional relationships with women.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry if you’ve mentioned it and I’ve overlooked it, but there’s Michael White’s biography. It’s been a decade and a half since I’ve read it, but I think it’s less thorough than the Humphries.
        There’s also ‘J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend’ by Colin Durietz. Not sure how that one stacks up, as I haven’t read it.


  2. Dominic Vieira

    Joseph Pearce’s “Tolkien: Man and Myth” is probably the best biography available. Pearce rationally critiques several other biographies and essays on Tolkien, including Humphrey’s works.


    1. I am not a fan of Pearce’s biography. I felt it was too derivative of Tolkien’s letters and that it ignored certain aspects of Tolkien’s life because of the narrative frame/focus. I think that Pearce’s intent was to describe Tolkien’s life through a religious framework, which I understand but I don’t believe is necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Luke, I second the recommendation on the Raymond Edwards biography. It gives a lot of insight into the fellowship (and competition) among Tolkien’s professors and colleagues, as well as Tolkien’s many scholarly projects.
    One author that’s glaringly missing from your list is Tom Shippey – his “JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century,” while more about Tolkien’s writing the Middle Earth material and less about Tolkien’s life, certainly deserves an honorable mention. Especially as a prelude to the film, which seems to connect the author’s life with his written speculative fiction work rather directly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Pepper, thanks for commenting! The only reason I have him as an honorable mention instead of recommended is that, though his scholarship is fantastic, it is not my go-to recommendation fro someone wanting biographical information. He is certainly one of the first that I recommend for literary or linguistic analysis, though!


  4. Janet Brennan Croft

    Thanks for the plug for Perilous and Fair — the Rateliff paper is the one to read for biography. I don’t recommend Loconte either — the information is actually NOT sound. Garth’s book is far better (and you might take a look at mine too, she said immodestly). If you are interested in Edith (and a challenge to the Carpenter portrait of her!) there’s a great article by Nicole du Plessis coming out in the spring Mythlore in April.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Janet Brennan Croft

    Oh, and a comment on Bandersnatch — The Company They Keep is the earlier, more detailed and scholarly version. Both are excellent and highly recommended. I don’t know if the movie will go beyond the WWI years, but if it does, the consideration of Tolkien as a writer within a community is important. If it doesn’t go beyond WWI, still, Glyer’s books show how his adult friendships were rooted in the young adult friendships shown in the movie.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. And of course for *more* information, I would highly recommend Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull’s 3-volume _The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide_. Far more comprehensive than most people will need, and more encyclopedic than biographical, it is meticulously researched and beautifully written. If there’s a piece of information about Tolkien that isn’t in this work, then we probably don’t really know it!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Robert

    In the first paragraph oh the honorable mention section does the author mean to write “biographical” rather than “bibliographical”?


  8. I agree that Garth’s work is far superior to Loconte’s, which tends to discuss historical trends and then tack on how Tolkien’s and Lewis’s works must exemplify those trends. Loconte also seems to assume at times that characters necessarily speak for the author. Finally, Loconte’s work cites Garth so often, it really only makes sense to read Garth instead.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing this.
    I have quite a few of the books in the first section, though I’ve only read Carpenter so far. The letters and Tolkien and the Great War are what I plan to read next. Do you recommend to read the book about WWI before seeing the film? (I mean, I will read it, but should I do it before watching the film?) I’m interested in WWI beyond Tolkien, so this book is particularly fascinating for me.
    Didn’t know abtou Brennan Croft’s book, but I need to get that! I went to a conference about Tolkien’s women just last Sunday and greatly enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would definitely recommend Garth’s book before the film because it looks like the group the film focuses on is the TCBS, not the Inklings. This is the group that Garth traces through WWI, so it would tie-in very well!

      I am glad you like the list, and I can not recommend Croft’s book enough!


  10. Josh

    One other GREAT book is Verlyn Flieger’s _Splintered Light_–which is primarily about _The Silmarillion_–but since _The Silmarillion_ was at the heart of what mattered most to Tolkien and who he was as a writer–it might fit the bill. Definitely one of the best books out there about Tolkien’s fiction.

    A couple other books I’d mention that contain excellent biographical material but are unfortunately rather expensive: _J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment_ edited by Michael D.C. Drout and _A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien_ edited by Stuart D. Lee–the latter includes “A Brief Biography” by John Garth, author of _Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth_.

    For those interested in exploring some of the parallels between Tolkien’s life and his fiction, see Diana Glyer’s article (which I co-wrote with her)–“Biography as Source: Niggles and Notions” in _Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays_ edited by Jason Fisher.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I highly recommend The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by the Zaleskis. The research and storytelling of the four interwoven biographies is absolutely exquisite and immersive, and puts Tolkien’s life in context with his friends and contemporaries.

    Liked by 1 person

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