Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

April Books 33-34) Two biographies of Tolkien

33) J. R. R. Tolkien: a biography, by Humphrey Carpenter

My bookblogging has been in part inspired by my father, who logged every book he read from his late teens until his death in 1990 in a series of small notebooks. From the mid-60s he got into the habit of putting most of his comments, if he had any, on index cards inside the actual books, and only rarely jotting down his thoughts in more permanent form. In the case of Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, which he read in January 1980 during the year we lived in the Netherlands, he wrote this:
I read this primarily because the children are currently so interested in Tolkien, & William had given Nicholas this book as an Xmas present. But I found it an unusually interesting & perceptive biography. I'll note more or less at random some of the points that struck me: -
    1./ The account of the relationship between Tolkien & his wife. Begins romantically, in their waiting 3 years for each other. Yet she wasn't really suited to be a don's wife. She disliked his friendship w CS Lewis, & he evidently told her to lump it. She was happy only at the v. end, when they lived in Bournemouth. Yet through it all he was fond of her - & presumably she of him, tho' the author doesn't offer evidence on this.
    2./ What T's Catholicism meant to him. One wdn't have guessed this from his books. But it comes through here. Author reasonably suggests that it was reinforced by the sacrifices T's mother made for the Faith.
    3./ Security of tenure for academics can pay off in unexpected ways. T got an Oxford chair at age of 32, on strength of promising work. He completed v. little more of an academic nature, & must have been the despair of editors & publishers. Yet he was working, at something much more original than he cd have done if his livelihood had depended on production. The outcome was what many people consider a masterpiece - The Lord of the Rings.
    4./ The tenacity with which he kept to the central purpose of his life - the construction of an entire mythology. The author implies that this had formed in his mind as early as about 1917, when he was 25. He was still at it when he died, aged 81. It didn't take quite the form he envisaged, for The Lord of the Rings was an offshoot, & the Silmarillion, which he started first, was still uncompleted when he died. But the area of concern remained remarkably steady through his life. He was 62 when the first part of The Lord of the Rings was published, so he waited a long time for achievement, but it came in the end.
    This pattern, of a man finding a theme early in life, & then spending a lifetime playing it out, is a common one. I think of de Gaulle, Lenin, Marx, Darwin.
I don't know what happened to the copy wwhyte bought me 28 years ago - most likely still in our mother's house (probably, indeed, in his room!) - but I decided to get myself a replacement on a birthday bookshop browse yesterday. All the things my father said about it are still true; although I have got a lot more explanation of Tolkien's thought from Shippey and Garth, this must surely still be the best single source for the general details of his life - born in South Africa, brought up in Birmingham as a bright but impoverished middle-class orphan, invalided out of the first world war while his friends were killed, early promise not really realised in an obscure corner of academe, fame and fortune at the end of the life when he was almost too old to enjoy it. It was a good read that Christmas in 1979, and it is a good read now.

34) J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth, by Daniel Grotta

While I was at it I bought this Tolkien biography at the same bookshop in order to do a compare and contrast. It is two-thirds the length of Carpenter's book, and one third the quality. Grotta admits rather grumpily (indeed, perhaps even peevishly!) that he was not given much access by the Tolkien family, but is gracious enough to recommend that the interested reader should get Carpenter's book as well - I doubt if Carpenter would have or indeed should have returned the compliment! For the non-British reader he offers perhaps a bit more external perspective on what England was like in the early twentieth century, and he has more of the detail on the Ace vs Ballantyne affair, but he makes several annoying errors of detail which make it difficult to really trust the rest of his findings. Also the book is irritatingly repetitive in places. I would hesitate even to recommend it for the completist.
Tags: bookblog 2008, writer: tolkien

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