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Tolkien Biographies Continued, Part One

December 7, 2015

Christina writes: In the Reader’s Guide volume of our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide Wayne and I devoted nearly seven pages to a review of biographies of Tolkien which had appeared to date (2006). Carpenter’s of course was, and remains, the standard life, and the source upon which most subsequent biographers of Tolkien have relied to a great extent. The major exceptions, in terms of new research, are John Garth in Tolkien and the Great War and ourselves in the Companion and Guide, but a few others have made notable contributions to the literature. Diana Pavlac Glyer in The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (2007) has a worthwhile discussion of the importance of the Inklings to Tolkien. Andrew H. Morton has produced two studies (the first in association with John Hayes) centred on Tolkien’s Aunt Jane Neave: Tolkien’s Gedling 1914: The Birth of a Legend (2008) and Tolkien’s Bag End: Threshold to Adventure (2009). Phil Mathison has filled in some details about Tolkien’s life during the First World War in Tolkien in East Yorkshire 1917–1918 (2012). And Arne Zettersten in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Double Worlds and Creative Process: Language and Life by Arne Zettersten (2011, previously published in Swedish in 2008) recalls his meetings and conversations with Tolkien in the latter’s final years (although Zettersten refers to correspondence, no quotations are given) and usefully discusses Tolkien’s academic work on the ‘AB language’.

More biographies intended for younger readers have also appeared, though we cannot recommend any of them due to their many factual errors and serious omissions. These include J.R.R. Tolkien by Vic Parker (2006), J.R.R. Tolkien by Jill C. Wheeler (2009), J.R.R. Tolkien by Mark Horne (2011), and J.R.R. Tolkien by Alexandra Wallner, the latter an unpleasant picture book in which Tolkien’s life is treated like a board game. Another, J.R.R. Tolkien by David R. Collins, was published in 2005, while we were still writing the Companion and Guide, but when we discussed biographies in the Reader’s Guide we omitted mention of it, thinking that it was only another iteration of Collins’ J.R.R. Tolkien: Master of Fantasy (1992), when in fact his 2005 text was significantly shortened and simplified, cluttered with inane sidebars (‘It’s a Fact!’), and injected with references to the Jackson films.

There are two other books, for adult readers, I would like to discuss in more detail. (Wayne will write about two more in a later post.) The first is J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend by Colin Duriez (2012). Most of Duriez’s six earlier, sometimes repetitive books on Tolkien or C.S. Lewis are handbooks with alphabetical entries that I have found of limited use. While working on the Companion and Guide I skimmed Duriez’s one narrative work, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (2003 – we should have mentioned it in our ‘Biographies’ article), but the content offered nothing new, and Duriez’s habit of suggesting Tolkien and Lewis’s thoughts does not appeal to me. I did not therefore expect a great deal from his more recent book, though I wondered how much it would take from our own work, as the first book-length life of Tolkien written since we included so much new biographical material in the Companion and Guide.

I had, however, apart from the question of the quality of the actual text, expected something of greater length. The book is considerably shorter than Carpenter’s biography both in page count and in the amount of text on the page. It is based to a large extent on Carpenter and supplemented by information from more recent publications, to which Duriez acknowledges debt both in his foreword and in endnotes. In contrast to Carpenter’s clear narrative from knowledge based on unrestricted access to primary materials and memories of Tolkien’s family and friends, Duriez provides a second- or third-hand view, incorporating many quotations and providing a choppy read. I see no evidence of original research, nor is there much original supplemental commentary, with one curious exception. Unless he found the information in a source unknown to us (and we have done a general search), Duriez did look into Edith Bratt’s background. We recorded in the Reader’s Guide that she was the illegitimate child of Alfred Frederick Warrilow and of Frances Bratt, governess in the Warrilow family. To this, Duriez adds the name of Warrilow’s legitimate daughter, Nellie, born in 1875, that when the scandal erupted Warrilow’s wife, Charlotte, petitioned for divorce, and that Warrilow named Frances Bratt sole executrix of his estate in the will proved on his death in 1891.

Duriez’s biography is considerably better than Michael White’s inventive treatment of 2001, but not a life of Tolkien to supplant Carpenter’s – as Duriez himself admits, describing Carpenter as ‘still indispensible, even now that so many more of Tolkien’s writings are available, not least because of his access to private documents and his ability to make sense of a universe of unfinished writings, diaries in code, and contradictory opinions’ (p. 9). Duriez explains that his book ‘is not intended for scholars but for ordinary readers wishing to explore the life of Tolkien and how it relates to his stories of Middle-earth’ (p. 9).

Although Duriez indeed drew upon our Companion and Guide and other recent works, he overlooked a few significant pieces of new biographical information and made some biographical errors. Either Andrew Morton’s Tolkien’s Gedling or my and Wayne’s online addenda and corrigenda would have informed him that when Tolkien stayed in Hove in 1904 it was with Edwin Neave, not with his Aunt Jane and Edwin, who were not yet married. Duriez sometimes writes confusingly, and I am not sure whether he really means, as implied on p. 21, that Mabel stayed in Rednal both before and after Tolkien’s time in Hove. On pp. 147–8 he seems to imply that Tolkien made one unfinished verse translation of Beowulf and two prose translations. On p. 151 he implies, probably unintentionally, that Melian was an Elf. On p. 185 he suggests that some of the Inklings gatherings attended by Charles Williams were held in Tolkien’s college rooms, but such meetings did not happen until Tolkien’s move to Merton in autumn 1945, some months after Williams’ death.

Surprisingly, given Duriez’s experience, there are several errors concerning Tolkien’s writings. Duriez states on p. 110 that Christopher Tolkien believes that the story of Túrin was in existence by mid-1917: we know of no such statement, and in The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two Christopher deals with The Tale of Tinúviel first, and says that the earliest versions of it and of Turambar and the Foalókë were erased when overwritten, and on p. 69 that there is evidence that the rewritten form of Turambar preceded the rewritten form of Tinúviel and was in existence by the middle of 1919. Perhaps Duriez’s reference to ‘1917’ is a typo for ‘1919’. Both Wayne and I and John Garth hold that there is no evidence providing a date for the first version – we suggest 1918, John suggests late 1917. Duriez says on p. 163 that Tolkien published the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil in a ‘poetry collection’ in 1934 – actually it was published in the Oxford Magazine on 15 February 1934, and only years later included in a collection, i.e. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book in 1962. On p. 164 Duriez implies that Farmer Giles of Ham was a new story when it was read to the Lovelace Society in 1938, rather than a much enlarged version of a story for Tolkien’s children, told and written some years earlier, and Duriez gives the wrong date for its first publication, 1950 instead of 1949. On p. 206 he refers to Rivendell as an Elven ‘kingdom’.

On p. 148 he ascribes to Austin Olney, on a Houghton Mifflin webpage, an important quote I recognized at once as from Carpenter’s biography preparatory to his account of The Hobbit: it begins: ‘So it was that during the nineteen-twenties and thirties Tolkien’s imagination was running along two distinct courses that did not meet. . . . Something was lacking, something that would bind the two sides of his imagination together and produce a story that was at once heroic and mythical and at the same time tuned to the popular imagination’ (1977 edition, p. 172). Elsewhere, Duriez buys into the idea of two towers in Birmingham being an influence on The Two Towers, a title chosen for the second volume of The Lord of the Rings only just before publication and possibly suggested by Rayner Unwin, while neither of the Birmingham towers resembles any of the towers dealt with in that book.

Duriez deals quickly with Tolkien’s final years: the years after Tolkien’s retirement in 1959 are covered in just over six pages. The book contains four leaves of small but good colour photographs of places associated with Tolkien, including both of the Birmingham towers, but the only photograph of Tolkien is one by Pamela Chandler on the cover. There is a ‘Select Bibliography’, weak on Tolkien himself, mentioning only Unfinished Tales and The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Much more is included in the serviceable index.


The other book I would like to discuss is Tolkien by Raymond Edwards, published at the end of September 2014. It is actually Edwards’ second Tolkien biography, following the 64-page J.R.R. Tolkien: His Life, Work & Faith published in November 2012 by the Catholic Truth Society. Edwards’ second book on Tolkien has a shorter title but a much longer text, a little longer than Carpenter’s and considerably longer than Duriez’s. Although Edwards also depends a great deal on Carpenter, his book does not give the same impression of an updated Carpenter that I received from Duriez’s. This is partly because Edwards’ biography flows at different speeds. In some places, he deals with events more quickly, e.g. there is no mention of Tolkien’s stay in Hove when dealing with Mabel’s illness (but he does knows Andrew Morton’s book), and in others more slowly, when Edwards adds background material and useful commentary both on aspects of Tolkien’s life and on his writings. This makes the book worthwhile supplemental reading to Carpenter, and both Wayne and I strongly recommend it.

The blurb on the back cover claims wrongly that it is the first Tolkien biography since Carpenter in 1977 ‘to deal with a wealth of posthumously published material’, since the same could be said of Duriez’s, but Edwards does it more thoroughly, especially in matters not covered by Carpenter. The blurb continues: ‘[Edwards’ work] 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. . . . 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.’ The biographical note on Edwards on the back flap gives his qualifications: ‘He worked for some years as researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary whilst completing doctoral research into medieval manuscripts. Before this he followed the Oxford undergraduate course originally devised by Tolkien.’ That he is also Roman Catholic is implied by a list of his publications.

The book is at its weakest in the early parts, where less new material has appeared in recent publications and Edwards had to rely mainly on Carpenter. He spends less time on the Birmingham towers than Duriez, notes that Tolkien never mentioned them, but still thinks they may have had an influence. In a survey of Tolkien’s early reading, Edwards discusses at length Francis Thompson (whom he thinks was a bad influence), Lord Dunsany, Lord Macaulay, and John Buchan. Once he reaches the time when Tolkien began to work seriously on The Book of Lost Tales and associated poems, Edwards grasps the opportunity offered by The History of Middle-earth and Parma Eldalamberon to follow the development of Tolkien’s legendarium and associated languages. When he discusses possible sources, he aims for the wider view, for example noting the various published works where Tolkien might have encountered the story of Alexander and the trees of the sun and the moon.

On several occasions, Edwards supports Tolkien against Kenneth Sisam. When Sisam asked for the glossary for the ‘Clarendon Chaucer’ to be cut, suggesting that Tolkien ‘drop references to the text, and all “easy” words’, Edwards comments: ‘the very things, in fact, that made it useful as a tool for a student to learn Middle English rather than mug up a text for an examination’ (p. 123, emphasis his). And he provides an interesting discussion of which of the six electors to the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair in 1925 probably voted for Tolkien and which for Sisam, suggesting that Joseph Wells, the Vice-chancellor, may have cast the deciding vote for Tolkien as a result of personally having had difficulties with Sisam as an editor at Oxford University Press.

Not surprisingly given his background, Edwards devotes considerable space throughout the book to topics such as philology and the English School at Oxford as it was when Tolkien was an undergraduate. He contrasts the greater freedom George Gordon and Tolkien had to shape the English department at Leeds, a new foundation, with the situation in Oxford, a hidebound establishment where much of the power resided in the colleges and English became a separate faculty only in 1926. He notes the struggles of the Oxford English Faculty Board, on which Tolkien was a permanent member, to replace Hon. Moderations or Pass Moderations with a First Public Examination specifically for those studying English – not achieved until 1948 – and to reach agreement on a more appropriate syllabus. He explains that because most of the teaching staff were employees of the colleges and chosen to suit the colleges’ needs, there was a chronic shortage of teaching staff, and university employees like Tolkien tried to fill the gap by giving many more lectures and classes than were required by statute.

Edwards shows far more understanding than some other recent commentators of the demands this made on Tolkien’s time, and believes that there was a significant effect on his scholarly productivity. He admits that the legendarium took up much of Tolkien’s time and energy, but thinks the tide was running against him, and even if he had produced a great study of medieval language and literature, it would not have stemmed the decline of philology. Yet, Edwards points out, ‘outside the narrow compass of university English faculties, Tolkien’s success has been remarkable’, and ‘what marks him off from his hordes of imitators, is precisely philology: the fact that his imaginary world is deeply rooted in language, and names, and words with their own inner consistency, meaning and resonance, which have in fact arguably given rise to that world, is in the best and broadest sense a philological one, and is (I would suggest) the key to his success’ (pp. 249–50).

The book has a few of its own errors, omissions, and assumptions. Edwards repeats a short section on Hilary Tolkien (pp. 47, 89); he follows The Tolkien Family Album in saying that the trench map illustrated in Judith Priestman’s Tolkien: Life and Legend (p. 32) was drawn by Tolkien, though we, John Garth, and others reject this; he does not explain that Tolkien himself did not use the phrase ‘mythology for England’; on p. 97 he states categorically that The Cottage of Lost Play was written after The Fall of Gondolin, though the evidence is not clear-cut – Tolkien years later described The Fall of Gondolin as the first tale written, but may not have counted The Cottage of Lost Play as a ‘tale’; in note 16 to p. 270, p. 318, Edwards wrongly ascribes the 1994 ‘Note on the Text’ in The Lord of the Rings to Wayne G. Hammond rather than to Douglas A. Anderson; and on p. 275, possibly due to an elision, a list of late, dated writings erroneously includes ‘“Nomenclature” published as The Rivers and Beacon-hills of Gondor (July 1969)’.

Edwards ends with an epilogue followed by an appendix, as Tolkien had originally planned for The Lord of the Rings. In the epilogue he says of Tolkien’s achievement that ‘in one sense, like Niggle, he died with his great picture unfinished – the Silmarillion. . . . Perhaps, if Tolkien had been more focused and disciplined, less “dilatory and unmethodical”, less susceptible to despondency, inertia and sloth, he might have been able to finish the legendarium to his own satisfaction. . . . But if he had done so, he would have been a different man’ and by implication would not have written in the same way. And yet he did finish The Lord of the Rings – “aside from the incalculable delight it has brought to generations of readers, it has also unsealed a whole vast area of the human imagination (Niggle’s Parish, if you like . . . )’ (p. 289).

In the main text, Edwards says only what is necessary about religion in Tolkien’s life, and deals with other aspects in the appendix, entitled ‘Tolkien the Catholic’. The first section, ‘Life’, concerns Tolkien’s practice of his Catholic faith, finding that ‘primarily, religion consisted for him of the sacraments and private prayer; he did not, like C.S. Lewis, feel under a duty to engage in public evangelism or intellectual justification of belief’ (p. 292). Among other comments, Edwards notes that Tolkien disliked the English-language Mass, but suggests that this may have been partly dislike of the style of the translation; he made no fuss about its validity and was not one of those who signed a petition to Pope Paul VI to allow celebrations of the unreformed rite.

The second part of the appendix deals with the presence of Catholicism in Tolkien’s writings. Edwards begins by saying that its presence is ‘so structural, so basic to his imagination, that analysis of it risks . . . pushing over the tower to see where he got his building material. In one strong sense, Tolkien is not a professedly Catholic writer in the consciously assertive tradition of Belloc or Chesterton, and he seems deliberately to have avoided identifying himself in this way. . . . Efforts to recruit him posthumously as a member of such an “English Catholic tradition” should be resisted’ (p. 293). Although Tolkien wrote that The Lord of the Rings is ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work’, Edwards cautions against making too much of some superficial connections as Joseph Pearce has. ‘These may, in Tolkien’s terms, be legitimate applications of the story, but to suggest they are its whole meaning . . . is to reduce it to a facile allegory. . . . Insofar as any of these parallels are valid, it is only because the moral pattern of Christianity (with regard to, say, suffering and its value) is a universally valid one. . . . What makes Tolkien a specifically Christian writer, and his books specifically Christian books, is his absolute conviction of the power and validity, under God, of our capacity to tell stories’ (p. 294–5).

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