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Tolkien Biographies Continued, Part Three

July 8, 2016

Wayne writes: Last December, I commented on J.R.R. Tolkien: Codemaker, Spy-master, Hero by ‘Elansea’ (Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie), which argues that Tolkien was an Intelligence operative for Great Britain, and that this hidden career explains inconsistencies or errors in published biographies. I was not convinced of either the premise or the conclusion of the book, and felt that the authors’ points were unsupported – Lewis and Currie admit to a lack of direct evidence for their position – or that there are simpler or more rational interpretations for events than ‘Elansea’ provide.

The same authors, again as ‘editors’ and with Currie given pride of place, have now published On the Perilous Road: An Unauthorised Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is intended ‘to tell the story of Tolkien’s life in a concise, clear and easily readable way’, but is built on the same assumptions about Tolkien and Intelligence Lewis and Currie made in their earlier book. They describe their approach in On the Perilous Road as similar to that taken by Humphrey Carpenter in his authorized biography of Tolkien, but with new evidence which has appeared subsequently. The use of new evidence is to be applauded, though at this date one has a right to expect it: many later Tolkien biographies have been no more than variations on Carpenter’s. I would also give Currie and Lewis credit for their efforts to put Tolkien’s life in the context of history, though these tend to be excessive and sometimes act as digressions.

As for Codemaker, Currie and Lewis draw almost exclusively on published sources, the chief exception being good if not exhaustive research done for them ‘by our researcher S.M. Wood’ in online records concerned with Edith Bratt’s parents. Often they criticize other writers on Tolkien (including ourselves) for not having fully explored some avenue of Tolkien biography, such as correspondence between Tolkien and the publisher Collins about The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

To this we might reply: Why did Currie and Lewis not do so themselves? As we know from experience, no researcher can afford to pursue every lead as far as it will go, nor does every approach seem worthwhile for a given purpose, nor does every possible avenue come to mind until after the fact, nor are all archives open to be explored. But at least we did a great deal of work in this regard, rather than complain that others had not done it for us.

Currie and Lewis also frequently complain that material they might use, such as letters by Tolkien, has not been published or has been heavily edited. This is sometimes true, although the degree of editing is often due to lack of space or a need, say, to appeal to a wide readership. But a scholar may deal with this in various ways: for example, by seeking out original material in libraries and archives. We too wish there were more published Tolkien letters, and in lieu of a new edition of Letters included many previously unpublished letters or extracts in our Companion and Guide.

At the same time, Currie and Lewis have not used published sources comprehensively, and have overlooked some which could have been useful. As a consequence, they make not a few erroneous, or at least remarkable, statements.

On p. 22 they repeat the old error that in 1904 Tolkien was sent to stay with ‘Jane Neave and her husband Edwin’. But Jane and Edwin were not yet married at that time. We made the same mistake in the Companion and Guide, but corrected it in our online addenda and corrigenda when new evidence came to light.

On p. 24, Currie and Lewis state that, other than the boys in the T.C.B.S., ‘who else Tolkien knew at [King Edward’s School] is unknown’. By ‘unknown’ I suppose they mean that Tolkien’s biographers do not include class lists or membership rosters of, say, the school debating club or football team. Some information of course is too tangential for a particular purpose, and space in a book or essay may be limited. But the names are known nevertheless, for example in the King Edward’s School Chronicle and C.H. Heath’s Service Record of King Edward’s School, Birmingham.

Similarly, on p. 32 Currie and Lewis state that ‘we know nothing about [Tolkien’s] friends at university’. But we do, as reported in our Companion and Guide and addenda, in John Garth’s booklet Tolkien at Exeter College, and elsewhere. Perhaps Currie and Lewis mean that Carpenter, and others who have produced formal biographies of Tolkien (distinct, say, from our Chronology and Reader’s Guide), have not discussed his university friends, or have not done so to any great degree. And yet, the information is available, and if there were a great lack, could Currie and Lewis not fill the gap themselves?

On pp. 109–10, in an argument carried over from their earlier book, Currie and Lewis dispute Tolkien’s need to mark examination papers to pay doctor’s bills. They cite a letter he wrote to R.W. Chambers on 7 August 1925, in which he says that he has recently finished marking examinations, ‘yet there is no mention [in our Chronology] of any illness in the family in the preceding months. It is hard to identify any reason for such bills’ existence just then.’ Presumably it did not occur to Currie and Lewis that our Chronology does not cover Tolkien’s life for every minute of every day, nor do we have direct evidence for every day, especially for Tolkien’s early career, and unlike Currie and Lewis we have preferred not to speculate, at least not wildly. One could reasonably speculate, however, that if Tolkien needed to pay doctor’s bills, then he or family members had seen the doctor, for some reason we do not know and, frankly, do not need to know. Currie and Lewis want to make the point that Tolkien did not need the money, and was not in fact marking examinations, but working for British Intelligence from time to time – but this is supposition based on more supposition.

‘None of Tolkien’s biographers so far have taken [Tolkien’s pupils] seriously’, Currie and Lewis write (p. 111). They say much the same also about his colleagues at Leeds and Oxford, complaining that some were ‘unknown to Carpenter and the “tradition” of Tolkien biography that follows him’ (p. 112). They mention Lascelles Abercrombie, whom Tolkien knew at Leeds: ‘Did he have any influence on Tolkien – or did Tolkien influence him? We don’t know’ (p. 112). Why should it be up to others to find out? Yes, life is short, and yet Abercrombie is the subject of the first entry in our Companion and Guide, which includes his statement: ‘I have gained at least as much from the keen artistic sensibility as from the science of his scholarship’. For accounts of Tolkien’s students and colleagues, one can read the Companion and Guide, or essays such as Douglas Anderson’s ‘“An Industrious Little Devil”: E.V. Gordon as Friend and Collaborator with Tolkien’ in the collection Tolkien the Medievalist (2003).

Is it any different for the Inklings, who have had Carpenter’s 1978 book and Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep from 2007, among others? No: ‘Despite the fame of three of them, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, little is known about most of the others in the group’ (p. 229). Here, at least, Currie and Lewis make some effort to discuss ‘the others’: Barfield, Dyson, and Wrenn, Havard, Dundas-Grant, and Hardie – but not Warnie Lewis. Their source was perhaps our Reader’s Guide, where each known Inkling has an entry, or Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide.

They suggest that biographers’ focus on the Inklings (which, in contradiction, is said to give little notice to most of them) ‘has inadvertently but most effectively wiped everyone else out of the picture’ (p. 235), ‘everyone else’ being friends of C.S. Lewis who may have had ‘a secondhand but important impact on the Inklings’, such as John David Mabbott and Hilary Hinsley (née Brett-Smith). I would hazard a guess that these ‘secondhand’ figures are not mentioned in accounts of the Inklings, or of Tolkien, and indeed they are not, because there is no evidence to connect them, beyond their association with Lewis or others Tolkien knew. One can play ‘six degrees of separation’, but researchers, and their books, and reason, do have their limits.

The most remarkable part of On the Perilous Road comes late in the book, where Currie and Lewis discuss the publication of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s concern to publish The Silmarillion. They are puzzled why Tolkien should have wanted to publish The Silmarillion at the same time as The Lord of the Rings, ‘when the two books as [finally] published have almost nothing to do with each other’ (p. 239) – an amazing statement, given that the two works are parts of a larger legendarium – as Currie and Lewis surely know. I imagine that they were trying to make the point that this was insane behaviour for an author, for whom getting just one of his long and unusual works published was difficult enough, and of course Tolkien himself came to see this. But it does not need an outlandish explanation, having to do with Intelligence and censorship, to understand Tolkien’s way of thinking about his great tale of ‘the jewels and the rings’.

Nor is it hard to understand the behaviour of his publishers, why they should treat Tolkien with such respect even when he was being difficult, or in the case of Milton Waldman at Collins, why he should have bothered to read Tolkien’s extremely long letter explaining the connection between The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. One needn’t even say that publishers were different in those days, because I can attest that Christina and I are always treated with respect by our publishers, and I do not doubt that they would read carefully any long memo sent them by an author of Tolkien’s stature (regardless of what publishing realities might dictate about the final result).

Currie and Lewis are astonished at Tolkien’s famous letter to Milton Waldman. ‘Only a very small part of it has been published. The complete text apparently runs to around ten thousand words. . . . This massive missive seemingly outlined Tolkien’s entire personal mythology in which must have been considerable detail, so whilst its partial publication is understandable, it is also a great pity. . . This letter as published has been hugely edited . . .’ (pp. 255–6). The word count is given by Humphrey Carpenter in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 143 – just before nearly the entire letter appears in print, excepting only the long portion which describes The Lord of the Rings.

Since The Lord of the Rings could be assumed to be well known to readers of Letters, the description was omitted there, but it is included as an appendix in our Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, and had been published earlier, with a French translation, by Michaël Devaux. The whole letter therefore is, and for a long while has been, available to read; it has not been ‘hugely edited’, and in no way suppressed. And if ten thousand words seems incredible – ‘bachelor’s degree thesis length in Britain, or about one-eighth of a novel’ (p. 255) – in fact by my count it is closer to thirteen thousand words. Its length suggests both the complexity of the two works it describes and the importance those inter-related writings held for Tolkien.

Currie and Lewis provide a list of ‘further reading’, in which books on war and intelligence predominate. There they describe the Companion and Guide as ‘enormous, expensive and hard to use’, and John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War as ‘the only detailed study’ of Tolkien and the First World War but ‘not without flaws’. Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien is listed first, following Currie and Lewis’s opinion that he was ‘Tolkien’s only real biographer’ (p. 306), whatever that may mean; at any rate, it’s insulting to ourselves, and to John Garth and Raymond Edwards, who also wrote Tolkien biography and did original research.

The book concludes with an index which is too selective to be used with confidence.

One Comment
  1. July 27, 2016 10:01 am

    Dear Wayne and Christina,

    You deserve praise for your willingness to wade deeply into publications of this sort.

    It’s hard to believe that this Alex Lewis is the same person responsible for the valuable “The Lost Heart of the Little Kingdom” found in Leaves from the Tree: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shorter Fiction (1991), an article which merits mention in both your Companion and Guide, Vol. II, and Tom Shippey’s Author of the Century.


    Bart Mazzetti

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