Carpenter chronicles Tolkien’s early life with a special sensitivity; after losing both parents, Tolkien and his brother Hilary were taken from their idyllic life in the English countryside to a poverty-ridden existence in dark and sooty Birmingham. There were bright points, however. A social and cheerful lad, Tolkien enjoyed rugby and was proud of his gift for languages. It was also at this time that he met Edith Bratt, who would later become his wife. Academic life–both as a student and professor–is where this biography shines. Friendship with other men played a huge part in Tolkien’s life, and Carpenter deftly reveals the importance these relationships–his complex friendship with C.S. Lewis, membership in the Inklings and the T.C.B.S.–had on the development of his writing.