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Tolkien Biographies Continued, Part Two

December 10, 2015

Wayne writes: Following on Christina’s discussion of Tolkien biographies, I too will deal with two recent books, beginning with The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. The Zaleskis teach religion at Smith College and have written a number of works on Christianity and faith.

The ‘Fellowship’ of the title is nominally all of the Inklings, but concentrates on four: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. ‘Why these four,’ the Zaleskis ask, ‘and not that graceful flower Lord David Cecil, or the lovable, ogreish Hugo Dyson? Why not Lewis’s sidekick, his admirable alcoholic brother Warnie? Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams are the best-known of the group. . . . They are also the most original, as writers and as thinkers, and thus most likely to be read and studied by future generations. They make a perfect compass rose of faith: Tolkien the Catholic, Lewis the “mere Christian,” Williams the Anglican (and magus), Barfield the esotericist’ (p. 12).

These words are near the beginning of the text, in a ‘prologue’, and already I took issue with the Zaleskis’ style of writing. Calling Lord David Cecil an ‘admirable flower’ rides a thin edge between clever and pretentious, while the authors cross a line of discourtesy by calling Warnie Lewis – never ‘Warren’ in this book, always ‘Warnie’, except in the index – his brother’s ‘sidekick’ and labelling him ‘alcoholic’. In regard to this point, David Bratman spoke my mind when commenting on the Mythopoeic Society listserv: ‘As a description of Warnie, “admirable alcoholic” is actively nauseating. First because there’s no such thing as an admirable alcoholic; they probably mean that he was admirable albeit an alcoholic. And secondly because the (Walter Hooper-inspired) elevation of Warnie’s alcoholism to the central defining feature of his character is cruel, defaming, unfair, and grossly misleading. In the context of the Inklings he was the host – and extremely effective in that role – and a historian of 17th century France, whose books . . . are as good of their kind as Barfield’s are of theirs.’

Another early problem in The Fellowship occurs on the first two pages of the book, where the Zaleskis refer to the moment when ‘the last Inkling passed away on the eve of the twenty-first century’. Apart from stretching the meaning of eve, they mean Owen Barfield, who died in 1997. The actual last man to have been an Inkling is Christopher Tolkien, still with us at age ninety-one. The Zaleskis even mention Christopher in a list of the Inklings on the same page where they make their ‘last Inkling’ remark. I suppose they were thinking of the ‘last’ of their four featured Inklings, but the misstep gave me pause. Then, while reading the advance review copy sent me by their publisher (not in time to suggest revisions), I saw that the Zaleskis referred more than once to Cecil Harwood as an Inkling, though he never was. The Harwood references were deleted in the final published book (also given me for review), but Barfield remains ‘the last Inkling’.

Both the dust-jacket of The Fellowship and its title-page give equal visual and typographic weight to Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams, in that order. These four may be the best known among the Inkings, but Tolkien and Lewis are more popular than Barfield and Williams, as well as the most significant of the group, and the Zaleskis naturally find more to say about them. Technically, The Fellowship aims to weave the lives of the four together, with the other Inklings appearing here and there; but the result is awkward, because they were individuals, and although their lives touched each other they were still separate and distinct. Also, between Tolkien and Lewis, the Zaleskis are clearly more interested in Lewis. They admire him, as a Christian who learned the errors of his ways when he left the faith and then returned to be its champion, and as a writer and scholar who produced a substantial body of published work, which the Zaleskis admire in turn. In their treatment, he is almost without fault. Tolkien, on the other hand, is charged with ‘crimes of omission’, with ‘a long trail of starts, stumbles, and stops that typified his dilatoriness in academic labors’, which the Zaleskis attribute to his heart being instead ‘in the development of the legendarium and its offspring’ (p. 214) – though they note the importance of works such as the Beowulf lecture. Tolkien is criticized also for having ‘difficulty moving on to another full-length tale’ (p. 240) after The Hobbit, and then for being slow to finish The Lord of the Rings; ironically, the Zaleskis say that this was because ‘academic obligations kept interfering’ (p. 241), thus chastising Tolkien both for setting aside his scholarship in favour of Middle-earth and for failing to hurry up his storytelling while fulfilling academic responsibilities.

Despite the length of their book, some 645 pages, and probably in part because of its attempted scope with nominally four subjects – five if one counts the Inklings as a whole – the Zaleskis provide more breadth than depth. For the most part, they rely on secondary sources, mainly excepting previously unpublished papers in the Bodleian Library’s Barfield archive. Their biographical treatment of Tolkien is particularly superficial, and although much of it concerns Oxford, it conveys very little sense of the academic environment in which many of the Inklings lived. I wonder, as one always has to wonder when a book has more than one author, how, or if, the labour of writing was divided, and in this case whether one author wrote most of the text about Tolkien, and the other most of the text about Lewis. Especially in the early chapters, before the Inklings come together, Tolkien and Lewis are discussed separately, in distinctively different prose styles. In those portions devoted to Tolkien, the writing often tends toward the melodramatic, with the author (or authors) delighting in turns of phrase, such as that ‘with Tolkien the Inklings constellation began its ascent into the English literary firmament’ (p. 13), or that Father Francis Morgan ‘descended like a fairy godfather upon Mabel [Tolkien] and the boys, filling their straitened lives with hope and joy’ (p. 19), or that Tolkien had a ‘rapturous romance with words’ (p. 25). For the most part, the Zaleskis simplify previous biographies, especially Carpenter’s, but at times they exaggerate Tolkien’s talents. His literary ambitions, they say, ‘soared to dizzying heights’ (p. 125), reading far too much into Tolkien’s statement that he wished to create ‘a mythology for England’ and failing sufficiently to put it in context.

In contrast, the portions of text about Lewis are more restrained and more sophisticated. Is this evidence of work by one author, where there has been no attempt to find a unified ‘voice’, or did the Zaleskis feel that Lewis’s life called for a more sober and serious tone, while Tolkien’s did not? Nor is it clear who the audience for this book is supposed to be: one who may be attracted (though I would hope not) by flowerly, ‘creative’ language? If so, that reader will be out to sea with interludes of philosophical discussion and very casual references to Kant and Kierkegaard.

In any case, it’s a bold claim for the authors, or their publisher, to say that this is ‘the first group biography of the Inklings’, or ‘the first complete rendering of the Inklings’ lives and works’. The Zaleskis know about Carpenter’s Inklings: they find it ‘entertaining’ (p. 196), and note that Carpenter’s reconstruction of an Inklings meeting has been both praised (by Barfield) and panned (by Havard). But they pay little attention to The Inklings, and more to Carpenter’s Tolkien biography. They are also aware of Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep, calling it a “valuable study” (p. 586), and about several of Colin Duriez’s works. On the Mythopoeic Society’s listserv, David Bratman called the Zaleskis’ book (on the basis only of what he had heard; he had not yet read it) ‘a granfalloon approach to greatness in the Inklings’. The word granfalloon comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, and means ‘a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless’. ‘It’s already bad enough to treat Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams as a kind of Three Musketeers of fantasy’, Bratman wrote; ‘to add Barfield and call it a “compass rose” is even worse: imposing a pattern out of one’s own desires as a pattern-seeking animal rather than out of interest in what was actually there.’ But the book has had wide publicity, and may be found of value for its particularly Christian view of the Inklings.


J.R.R. Tolkien: Codemaker, Spy-master, Hero (self-published, 2015) by ‘Elansea’ also claims to be a biography, if an unauthorized one ‘which only sources information publicly available or previously published’, and yet is said to be ‘simply ground-breaking’, a ‘game-changer’, after which ‘nothing can be the same again’ (all quoted from the cover blurb). This would be true if its authors’ claims could be proved, or even if they could be thought likely on the balance of evidence. The authors can safely say, as they do, only that Tolkien’s writings have been ‘analysed in a way never applied to them before’.

‘Elansea’ is a pseudonym for Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie (Ruth Lacon), made from their initials (L and C). Lewis and Currie are named in the book as ‘executive consultants’, apparently from the thought that consultants, as opposed to authors, can’t be held liable for breach of copyright, or trademark, or propriety – or there was a desire to pull legs. Since Lewis and Currie have openly referred to themselves online as the authors of the book, there is no point in attempting to ‘disguise’ their function. Moreover, they argue that there can be no libel or slander against a deceased person: ‘to put it bluntly’, they write, ‘we can say what we like about [Tolkien] and there is nothing that anyone can do about it’ (p. iv). But they take care to suggest that their ‘contentious theories and hypotheses’ (which however are more often presented as fact) ‘do not reduce Tolkien’s reputation’ but ‘enhance it’, for in their view he was a ‘hero’ (p. iv).

Lewis and Currie’s thesis begins with what they refer to as a theme running through Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien: ‘how could someone who was so dull and provincial write such incredible books that have inspired and moved millions?’ Indeed, Carpenter writes of Tolkien’s ‘ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen’, and to his ‘ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden’, while wondering ‘at the fact that a mind of such brilliance and imagination should be happy to be contained in the petty routine of academic and domestic life’ (1977 edition, p. 111). ‘What do we make of that?’ he asks, but the question is rhetorical, no more than an introduction to the second half of the biography. Lewis and Currie feel that Carpenter came to no satisfactory answer, and that ‘many others have found the same insoluble dilemma’ (p. 1). They do not say who these ‘many others’ may be, and I have no idea, but neither do I think that there’s a question to be asked, or that Tolkien’s life was dull. Maybe it’s that I’ve spent most of my own life as a scholar and academic, and have never felt it to be a ‘petty routine’, in fact just the opposite.

But Lewis and Currie pursue their thought. ‘How’, they ask, ‘could a man who Sir Stanley Unwin once described as one of the few true geniuses he had ever met have lived his life in such an ordinary fashion, have accepted a very mundane existence and done so little else of real note apart from his fictional writing?’ (p. 2). I would reply, in regard to ‘little else of real note apart from his fictional writing’: what about his lecture on Beowulf, and editions of Sir Gawain and the Ancrene Wisse? What about his successful and (to his students) influential career as a teacher at Leeds and Oxford? Lewis and Currie also ask how ‘such an apparently boring ordinary person [was] able to write such gripping and imaginative stuff’ (p. 3). They say that Tolkien’s biographers, even the ‘untiring’ Scull and Hammond, have not answered this question. These other scholars don’t have the perception of ‘Elansea’ (says ‘Elansea’), aided by his or her highly experienced ‘consultants’; but also, most of the information on which earlier biographies were based is (they say) not to be trusted: it may have been deliberately falsified, while other, potentially valuable sources have been withheld from researchers, such as the greater part of Tolkien’s letters.

Lewis and Currie enumerate ‘facts’ which, for them, do not add up. Tolkien’s First World War record states that he had trench fever, but according to Lewis and Currie’s research, the described course of his ‘illness’ (one must put that word in quotation marks) does not match the disease, nor was the weather on the Somme right for its outbreak. Also, Tolkien’s convalescence, from which he never returned to the fighting in France, was (Lewis and Currie decide) much too long to be truly needed for recovery. From this, they conclude that the claim of ‘trench fever’ was false, in fact deliberately so.

Then there’s the matter of Tolkien’s statements, made through much of his life, that money was tight. On the contrary, Lewis and Currie say, Tolkien’s academic salary was ‘more than generous by middle class standards’, ‘certainly good enough to raise a family of four children with ease. He was a full Professor at one of the most ancient colleges in Oxford, let us not forget!’ (p. 18). Medical and education costs, they argue, would have been manageable. And if Tolkien was hard up for money, why did he exhibit ‘no drive to provide publishable material [to Allen & Unwin] to earn royalties from’ (p. 17)? Why did he not accept the job offered him by Cape Town University, which would have paid well? Why did he turn down a job during World War Two at the Government Code and Cipher School, which would have given him substantial remuneration? Lewis and Currie reject the idea, first put forward by Carpenter, that Tolkien was invited to apply for chairs at both Cape Town and Liverpool: it seems unlikely, they say, at this stage in Tolkien’s career, which Christina and I have dated to autumn 1920. ‘How could Cape Town especially have ever heard of Tolkien?’ they ask (p. 210). Still later, why was Tolkien given the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair at Oxford when (Lewis and Currie feel) he was the least qualified candidate? And why was he given the Merton chair when, by their estimate, he had such a dismal record of publication?

When considering the Middle-earth stories, especially The Lord of the Rings, Lewis and Currie question how Tolkien, whose biographers record for him relatively little travel, and that unadventurous, could have written about such vast landscapes. And how could he have written so vividly about Frodo being wounded by a Ringwraith when – so the medical records say – he was never wounded himself? According to Lewis and Currie, writers write about what they know, and when they write about what they don’t know, they get into trouble. Lewis and Currie give the example of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who did all right with Westerns, as he had visited the West, but not with the Tarzan stories, which include animals that have no business being in Africa, which Burroughs had not visited. In Lewis and Currie’s reasoning, Tolkien must have been wounded, he must have travelled widely, he must have had experiences not documented in order to write about them so successfully.

For ‘Elansea’, there can be only one answer which fits all of their questions: Tolkien was an Intelligence operative for the British government. And not merely an operative, working in different capacities, but one of the best England ever produced. In The Hobbit, Bilbo is secretive, and less ordinary than he appears; therefore, Tolkien must have been, too. So, Lewis and Currie speculate, was Tolkien’s father Arthur, and they find his death at a young age suspicious. Tolkien’s gift for language, and for creating languages, and his use of coded diaries, reflect his ‘true work’ in espionage. His under-production of both fiction and non-fiction, much less than for similar academics, in Lewis and Currie’s view must have been due to Tolkien performing espionage work instead.

His tutor at Oxford, Joseph Wright, was probably the one who chose him while an undergraduate as a good recruit for Intelligence, Lewis and Currie argue, and they believe that it was Wright who persuaded Tolkien not to enlist immediately on the outbreak of war in 1914, but rather to complete his studies, not so that he might find a good job to support his family, but to be more useful to King and country. They believe that his return from the Somme with ‘trench fever’ was merely a cover story so that he could do Intelligence work back home. They also argue that Tolkien was named to the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair not because he was the best qualified, but so that he could take over from Joseph Wright as a talent-spotter for Intelligence agents. In this capacity and others, notably as someone who performed ‘mentally taxing code making work’ (p. 586), Tolkien had a ‘shadow career’ which accounts for his remarkable lack of writings – not because he was slow, or a perfectionist, or so poor that he had to spend his time marking examination papers. When he was given the prestigious Merton chair in 1945, there was no call for applicants, and – Lewis and Currie believe – C.S. Lewis was brought in as an elector to secure the deal; this makes no sense professionally, ‘yet for someone involved with Intelligence, it would do so as a “thank you”’ for his long service (p. 589).

It’s hard to know how to respond fairly to J.R.R. Tolkien: Codemaker, Spy-master, Hero. It’s another long book, more than 600 pages, so that a complete analysis or rebuttal, point by point – and there are many points one could rebut – would need yet another book, at least half as long. Here it will have to suffice to say that although I read their book in its entirety, and did so as far as possible with an open mind, I was not convinced by Lewis and Currie, and do not believe for a moment that Tolkien was a secret agent. I have seen and read too much to the contrary, about his activities and travels (or lack of travel), and cannot bring myself to believe that there has been a conspiracy to keep us all from the truth, necessarily involving a great many people over the years, as well as forged documents and the destruction of evidence. Nor – granting that I am one of the biographers whom Lewis and Currie feel have been misled to wrong conclusions – do I think that there is any reason to accept their thesis as the only answer to questions which seem to me not worth asking.

But let me attempt a few brief responses nevertheless. Tolkien did write ‘gripping and imaginative stuff’, but he was neither ordinary nor boring; even if he had been, I cannot accept the argument that someone outwardly boring and ordinary could not write imaginative fiction. That Tolkien contracted trench fever on the Somme, and that this required hospitalization and a long recuperation, seems to be settled fact; Lewis and Currie’s objection, based on an interpretation of a Red Cross report, is at odds with other, readily available information about the illness. Tolkien was indeed ‘a full Professor at one of the most ancient colleges in Oxford’, but such a position did not produce a substantial income, and Tolkien’s need for supplemental income, as from marking examination papers, by all evidence was genuine – and it would be remarkable indeed if all of the evidence Christina and I have seen in this regard were falsified for the sake of ‘cover’.

Why did Tolkien not accept the job offered him by Cape Town? His wife and baby Michael were not fit to travel, and Tolkien did not want to be separated from his family. Why did he turn down a job at the Government Code and Cipher School? According to Tolkien’s own testimony, he was never offered one; and in any event it would not ‘have given him substantial remuneration’ – not a government job, in wartime. Why would Cape Town and Liverpool not have invited him to apply for posts? Word travels in academic circles, and one might have heard about Tolkien’s work on the Oxford English Dictionary, or on the glossary for Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, then still in progress, or even that Tolkien had been appointed earlier in the year to the readership at Leeds. Who are Lewis and Currie to judge that Tolkien was the least qualified candidate for the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair, or not qualified for the Merton chair when he had published so little? Could it have been that there are other qualities a university may want in their professors? Or that Tolkien’s genius, his talents, his enthusiasm for teaching were readily apparent, and his recommendations sterling?

One Comment
  1. tphillman permalink
    December 11, 2015 11:03 am

    The Elansea book sounds like a parody of the arguments against Shakespeare being Shakespeare, if indeed a parody of such arguments were possible.

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