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Turning Over a New Leaf

October 22, 2016

Williams College, where Wayne is the Chapin Librarian – that is, concerned with the Chapin Library of rare books and manuscripts – has produced a short video of Wayne performing one of his duties: turning a leaf in the original ‘double elephant folio’ edition of The Birds of America by John James Audubon. The very large dimensions of this book (originally issued as separate prints) allowed Audubon to depict the birds of North America at life size and in their natural habitat, if not without some contortion for very large birds such as the Great Blue Heron. Double elephant is a term for the size of the paper. (Contrary to the text at the beginning of the video, a new plate is displayed every two or three weeks.)


Beren and Lúthien

October 19, 2016

Beren and Luthien coverHarperCollins will announce today the latest Tolkien title edited by Christopher Tolkien, Beren and Lúthien, to be illustrated with drawings and paintings by Alan Lee and published on 4 May 2017. An American edition will be published simultaneously by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. As we write this on the 18th, Amazon UK list only a Kindle edition. Price and physical details have not been announced, but the upper dust-jacket is pictured at left; nor is there word yet of a deluxe edition.

To quote HarperCollins’ press release (thanks to David Brawn at HarperCollins for sending this and the cover art), Christopher Tolkien ‘has attemped to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.’

‘Original form’ presumably means the earliest surviving version, written in ink over, and obliterating, the first version which Tolkien had written out in pencil, in The Book of Lost Tales, as The Tale of Tinúviel. This evolved as Tolkien’s legendarium grew, as related in several volumes of The History of Middle-earth and described at length in our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

Update later this morning: A hardcover edition of 304 pages is now listed on Amazon UK at £20.00, and a simultaneous deluxe edition at £75.00.

Tolkien Companion and Guide 2nd Ed.

October 4, 2016

Companion and Guide boxTen years after its publication in autumn 2006, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide is out of print in both the U.K. and the U.S. The decade has passed as if in the blink of an eye. During that time, our book has been praised as essential and authoritative, but also criticized on several counts, some of them legitimate. Kind readers have sent us corrections and suggestions, many of which may be found in our addenda and corrigenda. It’s gratifying to have so many readers that stocks of the Companion and Guide have sold out: it has not always been clear that our book was being noticed, let alone read, as when a question was asked on an online Tolkien site and no one thought to find the answer in ‘Scull and Hammond’.

We were honoured to learn this past spring that HarperCollins want to continue to publish the Companion and Guide, not simply as a reprint of the existing text but in a new edition, corrected, revised, and enlarged. When we were commissioned to write a general book about Tolkien’s life and works, our first model was C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide by Walter Hooper, a thick volume of nearly a thousand pages; but we gathered so much material that our Chronology alone reached that length. Fortunately, HarperCollins agreed to give us two volumes, though we had to cut the text of the Reader’s Guide to fit the maximum number of pages the binding process would allow. Readers of our addenda and corrigenda know that we have continued to gather information about Tolkien, and in the ten years since the Companion and Guide appeared more works by Tolkien have been published, as well as a considerable amount of Tolkien scholarship and criticism. With so much additional material at hand, and so much more ground to cover, HarperCollins suggested that the Companion and Guide now expand from two volumes to three.

The first edition of our book was published both as a boxed set in a slipcase and separately as the Chronology and Reader’s Guide; and because the two volumes could be bought separately, our Preface, bibliography of Works Consulted, and Index were included in each. For the new edition, which will be published only as a hardback set, the Preface will appear only in the first volume and the bibliography of sources only in the third, but for convenience of use each volume will include a comprehensive, improved index. The Chronology will remain a distinct volume, while the encyclopaedic Reader’s Guide will now have two volumes, the first of which will include a list of topics covered, a feature more than one reader has requested. Further, running heads for easier navigation, which had to be omitted in 2006 for reasons discussed on our website, will be included in the new edition of the Reader’s Guide, as well as a greater number of cross-references.

When HarperCollins commissioned this new work, they asked us not to discuss it until they could arrange publicity to be released at an optimal time. But partial information about the book slipped out to Amazon UK and was soon noticed by fans. We asked for permission to announce the new edition formally in this space, and received it this morning. The publication date of 7 September 2017 mentioned in the Amazon listing is probably correct, but the number of pages given, 2,400, is just an early estimate.

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.

Lord of the Rings Comparison 3

June 23, 2016

Hello again, and apologies for being out of touch for six months. We’ll fill in the gap as we’re able, but for now would like to catch up on a topic we’ve raised twice before: textual variations between editions of The Lord of the Rings. Since we recently acquired a second boxed set of the three-volume HarperCollins U.K. edition of 2014, labelled A11 in our previous post on the subject, we can report on further corrections, a correction still to be made, and a new error introduced in the correction process.

The HarperCollins three-volume trade hardback of 2014, with dust-jackets reproducing Tolkien’s designs, was meant to include further corrections to the 50th anniversary edition of 2004, but missed some of these and added at least two new errors:

On pp. xvi–xix, our note on the 50th anniversary edition was reprinted from 2004, though we submitted a slightly amended version. This is in error in our earlier copy, the 6th printing, but was corrected by the 8th printing in our new set.

On p. 169, l. 7 from bottom, ‘Dear Frodo,’ (the opening of Gandalf’s letter) was still indented, though it should be flush with the left margin. This was corrected by the 8th printing, but the comma after ‘Frodo’ was mistakenly deleted.

On p. 170, l. 9, we had noted, in regard to the original 50th anniversary setting, that the first line of the poem (‘All that is gold does not glitter,’) should be indented, that is, brought to the left measure of the poem rather than set (with a standard paragraph indent) at the left measure of the larger text block. The typesetter failed to see that this point had been corrected already in this edition, and indented the line still further, too far to the right. It is still in error in the 8th printing.

For p. 1041, n. 1 (etc.), we had discussed issues with footnotes or parts of footnotes in Appendix A which needed to be within quotation marks, to indicate ‘extracts’ from annals or tales. The typesetter has misread this in regard to n. 1 on p. 1043: here, instead of an ‘extract’, followed by a comment not within quotation marks, followed by another extract, the comment has been enclosed in quotation marks, within a larger not in quotation marks. The note should correctly read, with all quotation marks as they should be printed: ‘The sceptre was the chief mark . . . with a silver fillet’ (p. 146; pp. 848, 861, 967). In speaking of a crown . . . Aragorn’s line. ‘The sceptre of Númenor . . . crowning of Aragorn.’ This is an error in the 6th printing of The Return of the King, but was corrected in the 7th printing.

On p. 1100, the death date of Bingo Baggins should not be ‘1363’ but rather ‘1360’. The date is incorrect in the 6th printing, but correct in the 7th.

On p. 1136, l. 7, the name hámfœst (with an oe digraph) was not corrected to hámfæst (with an ae digraph). The digraph is incorrect in the 6th printing, but correct in the 7th.

On p. 1137, l. 29, ‘butterflies to the falcon’ was not corrected to ‘butterflies to the swift falcon’. The phrase is incorrect in the 6th printing, but correct in the 7th.

On p. 1173, index col. 2, entry for ‘Spiders’, the see also note should read ‘Shelob; Ungoliant’, with a semi-colon, but was set instead with a comma. This is incorrect in the 6th printing, but correct in the 7th.

From this, we can say that the corrections in The Return of the King were made in the 7th printing, following on immediately after the 6th, both being in our possession, but we do not yet know if the corrections (and new error) in The Fellowship of the Ring were made in the 7th printing of that volume, which we have not seen, or the 8th, which we have. We would be grateful to hear from anyone with a 7th printing of this edition of the Fellowship who can check the two points in question. We would also like to hear from anyone with a Fellowship later than the 8th printing, if the remaining point, still in error through the 8th, has been corrected.

Tolkien Notes 13

December 25, 2015

Indents, and Odovacar

Tolkien’s publisher Rayner Unwin once suggested, not entirely with tongue in cheek, that it could take centuries to achieve a printing of The Lord of the Rings with ‘typographical perfection’. One could predict just as well that there will never be an edition of The Lord of the Rings wholly without error, or if there were, it would not last for long, as errors seem to enter of their own will with every new typesetting or substantial revision. This is not to say that one should not strive to be correct, only that complete textual accuracy, and faithfulness to an author’s intentions, may be a quality that one may approach but can never quite reach.

One case in point arose from a question we received last year from our friend Andrew Ferguson. He asked if the space (indent) before ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ on p. 1089 of our edition of The Lord of the Rings (the citation is to the standard typesetting) could be an error, as it was not present in the first edition. The indented line begins a second paragraph in the entry for Third Age 2951 in the Tale of Years (Appendix B). We went to our shelves and determined that the indent was introduced in the reset edition of 1994. But the question remained: Is the indent an error, or is it wrong not to have the indent? Or even, would it be wrong in either case, if the text were meant to run on? 2951 is the only entry we can find in the Tale of Years which has a physical (line) break in the text. We felt that the entry for 3009 (p. 1090) could have a break, between ‘was captured by Sauron’ and ‘Elrond sends for Arwen’. Earlier this year, we were able to check these points on a visit to the Marquette University Tolkien papers, and made the following discoveries.

1. In Tolkien’s typescript of The Lord of the Rings (Marquette Series 3/9/6), ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ begins a new entry, under the date heading 2952. Also in the typescript, there is an entry for 3016, beginning ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’ i.e. this part of the entry for 3009, as currently printed, was originally a separate entry dated seven years later.

2. In one galley proof (3/9/20) the shoulder date heading ‘2952’ is marked for deletion, but ‘Elrond reveals . . .’, beginning a new line, is not marked to run on with the text of the entry for 2951. The entry for 3016 is present, as in the typescript.

3. In another galley proof (3/9/21) ‘2952’ is not deleted. Appendix B ends erroneously with the entry for 3009, lacking ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’ (i.e. the entry for 3016).

4. In still a third galley proof (3/9/22), both ‘2952’ and the entry for 3016 are present.

5. As published, in all editions, there has never been a Tale of Years entry under the date heading 2952, but ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ has always begun on a new line. Someone at HarperCollins evidently noticed the latter break in text when resetting for the edition of 1994, and felt that ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ needed to be indented as a new paragraph. Also, in all printings of the first edition, there is an entry for 3016, ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’

6. With the revised and reset Appendices in the Ballantine Books edition of 1965, there was no separate entry for 3016, the text beginning ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’ being conjoined with the entry for 3009. This carried over into the Allen & Unwin second edition, in which the Appendices were reset following the Ballantine printing (Tolkien’s original notes for revisions as sent to Houghton Mifflin having been lost), and is the text for all subsequent printings.

Since ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ has always begun a new line, and despite the associated date having been deleted from the one galley proof and from the printed text, we are inclined to think, following the evidence of the typescript, that Tolkien intended to begin a new entry, dated 2952. He also seems to have meant ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’ to begin an entry for 3016, as in the first edition, rather than run on as part of the entry for 3009, as in the flawed Ballantine setting. Christopher Tolkien agrees that these points should be submitted to HarperCollins as further corrections.

Another question of long standing came to us from Larry Kuenning, as to whether the birth date of Odovacar Bolger, in the Bolger family tree, should be 1336, as printed in our edition of The Lord of the Rings, or 1335, as in The Peoples of Middle-earth. At Marquette, we found that Tolkien had written ‘1335’ in two holograph copies of the family tree (Marquette Series 3/9/8 and 3/9/9), but emended this to ‘1336’ in one galley proof of the printed family tree (3/9/10). In two other galley proofs, however, the date is not emended. With no final version, the Bolger family tree having been omitted from editions during Tolkien’s lifetime, Christopher Tolkien agrees with us that we cannot be sure which date his father intended, and therefore we must leave the point open to question.


The Map of Middle-earth

Like many other Tolkien enthusiasts, we were surprised when Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford offered for sale a proof of the original printed Lord of the Rings general map, annotated by both Tolkien and Pauline Baynes to assist Baynes in making the 1969 poster-map, A Map of Middle-earth. We wish we had known of its existence in Pauline’s collection; if we had, we could have examined it closely on one of our visits to her, and it may have helped inform our comments in The Art of The Lord of the Rings. Much has been written about it online, not always accurately. The best transcription of the annotations accompanies an article in French, ‘Découverte d’une carte de la Terre du Milieu annotée par Tolkien pour Pauline Baynes’, on the Tolkiendil site. Both Tolkien and Baynes had difficult handwriting from time to time, and there are still some points in question.


The Art of The Lord of the Rings

Art of Lord of the Rings trial bindingOur latest book appears to be selling very well. Now and then it has been listed on or as no. 1 in one category or another – the Amazons have many categories, such as Science Fiction and Fantasy criticism, and ‘Catalogs, Collections & Exhibitions’ in graphic arts. The Art of The Hobbit also continues to do well. We hope that those of our readers to whom Father Christmas brought one or another (or even many) of our books this year will enjoy them, and that you will all have a happy holiday season and new year.

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?

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).

Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

November 15, 2015

Oxford Companion to Childrens LiteratureWayne writes: In the July/August number of the Children’s Books History Society (CBHS) Newsletter, Peter Hunt reviewed the second edition (2015) of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, edited by Daniel Hahn. The first edition of this work, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard, was published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 1984, with corrections made in its second printing that same year. In my review of the first edition in Beyond Bree for June 1987, I called it ‘an indispensable guide to its subject’, though I noted errors, ‘inevitably in a book of this length’ (xiv + 588 pp.), and that the authors injected personal opinion – this struck me (at the time) as unusual in a reference book – and had ‘a pronounced leaning toward British children’s literature to the reduction or exclusion, especially, of much American material’. Peter Hunt, a noted authority on children’s literature, dearly hoped to find (as he writes) the second edition ‘a worthy successor’ to the original, as did I; but while ‘for the non-expert reader, this is a perfectly adequate product’, Hunt concludes that those seriously interested in the subject would find better value in a second-hand copy of the first edition, if they did not already have it, supplemented by other reference works, thus avoiding ‘the need for anti-apoplexy tablets’.

Brian Alderson is even more critical of the new edition in his CBHS Newsletter editorial, in which he questions ‘the usefulness of the whole gigantic exercise’. One could be cynical and say that it’s useful to OUP to keep the book ‘fresh’, to encourage new buyers, but Alderson’s point is well taken. Even though, as Daniel Hahn notes, there has been ‘dramatic change’ in the field of children’s literature in the past thirty years, the coverage in the new edition is still disappointingly limited and no less idiosyncratic than it was in 1984. There are ‘more than 900 new headwords’, i.e. new entries, said to be in the new edition, of which ‘the most substantial’ is that for ‘Harry Potter’. Well and good: but the new edition, built on the foundation of the old, adds only 75 pages, while the font is now comparatively larger and the number of lines per column is smaller, and older entries are often abridged to make room for the new – for example, those for Madeleine L’Engle (which, however, now more properly describes her sequels to A Wrinkle in Time) and C.S. Lewis (which still, unaccountably, includes no mention of Pauline Baynes, whose illustrations account for a good share of the success of the Narnia books; on the other hand, the entry for Diana Wynne Jones is now double its old length, and does her more justice, though it is not correct to say that Jones’s work achieved ‘a global audience’ only when Studio Ghibli adapted to film Howl’s Moving Castle in 2004). Hahn admits that ‘half a million words might seem like a generous amount of space, but given the book’s scope it feels barely adequate’; in fact, it is not even barely adequate. Perhaps more has been done, or will be done, in the electronic, subscription-access version of the work, which I have not seen. An adequate edition in print would run to several volumes.

Although Hahn claims that ‘errors in the old volume have been corrected’, he must mean some errors, because there are many which remain – or, if not errors, at least arguable points. Upon purchasing the new edition I looked first at three entries on which I can speak with authority.

For Pauline Baynes, the revised entry adds her date of death, truncates her biography, and alters the rest, though much remains of the original text by Carpenter and Prichard (both still credited, along with Hahn, on the title-page of the new edition). It is still said that the first book illustrated by Baynes was Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien (1949); Carpenter and Prichard, and now Hahn, were evidently unaware of her art, starting in 1942, for several of the Perry Colour Books (for which series there is no entry; the similar and more famous Puffin Picture Books is still only briefly mentioned, under ‘Puffin books’). Nor had they heard, apparently, of mainstream publishers such as Country Life and Blackie who commissioned Baynes years before she worked with Tolkien – though Farmer Giles of Ham was, certainly, her breakthrough achievement. It is also still claimed that ‘as a result of Tolkien’s recommendation she was taken on by C.S. Lewis and his publisher to illustrate the Narnia books’, but there is no evidence that Tolkien recommended her. Lewis told her that she was recommended by a bookshop assistant as the best children’s book illustrator, or the best artist of children and animals (accounts vary), while Baynes always believed that he chose her simply because she had illustrated Farmer Giles for his friend Tolkien. In regard to another surviving statement, ‘the maps and other ephemera that [Baynes] produced as adjuncts to The Lord of the Rings, at the height of popular enthusiasm for that book’, her work for The Lord of the Rings consists of a tiny drawing for a newspaper advertisement, one poster-map (another was for The Hobbit), and a ‘triptych’ illustration for the slipcase of a deluxe edition, later adapted for paperback covers, so is more limited than the entry suggests; and The Lord of the Rings has been popular since it was published, so there is no sense in trying to pin down any ‘height of enthusiasm’, which in any case has reached probably greater levels in later years than in the late sixties and early seventies, the period to which the Companion refers.

The entry for Arthur Ransome has been seriously truncated, omitting mention of many of his activities and interests that informed his writing for children – reading, acquaintances, the Lord Alfred Douglas lawsuit, fishing. Peel Island was, in fact, only one ‘original of Wild Cat Island in Swallows and Amazons’. On Ransome’s ‘escape’ to Russia, ‘for little reason other than that it was far away’, both editions pass over his hope to tell stories – his desire ‘to learn enough Russian to be able to read Russian folklore in the original and to tell those stories in the simple language that they seemed to need’, as Ransome states in his Autobiography.

In the new entry for J.R.R. Tolkien, the description of his life has been only lightly truncated, perhaps out of deference to Carpenter’s authority as the author of the standard biography of Tolkien. Even so, it would have been good to have revised some points. As in the original edition, it is said that ‘by the time [Tolkien] graduated from Oxford with a First Class in 1915, he was . . . the possessor of at least two complete languages of his own, supposedly spoken by elves’; in fact, although Tolkien began to develop Quenya and Sindarin early on, neither should be referred to as ‘complete’, particularly at that early a date, as much later scholarship into Tolkien’s linguistic creation has shown.

In regard to the phrase ‘“Middle-Earth” (supposedly the planet Earth at an earlier age)’, Carpenter knew better: Middle-earth (correct spelling) is only one part of the planet, which Tolkien called Arda (which is indeed supposed to be the Earth). The original statement ‘it was apparently the death of two school friends during the Battle of the Somme that directly inspired him to begin work in earnest on The Silmarillion’ has subsequently been argued (post-Carpenter and Prichard) by biographer John Garth, but remains arguable as a matter of degree. Having begun to develop his ‘legendarium’ early on, there is no reason to think that Tolkien would not have continued with it in any case. It is also arguable whether his experience in the trenches ‘drove him even further into his imaginative creation’ rather than ‘turn his attention to “real life”’. He was able to ‘begin work in earnest’ mainly because he was invalided home with trench fever. It is said that ‘he made no attempt to publish [The Silmarillion]’ and later, reference is made to ‘The Silmarillion, which he now [after The Lord of the Rings] wished to publish’, discounting or overlooking Tolkien’s submission of elements of ‘The Silmarillion’ to Allen & Unwin as a successor to The Hobbit and his strong desire in the 1950s that The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings be published together as one great ‘Saga of the Three Jewels and the Rings of Power’.

To say that ‘the process of composition [of The Lord of the Rings] was long and difficult and was only sustained because of the encouragement of C.S. Lewis’ places too much emphasis on Lewis: the work was sustained as much by the interest of Tolkien’s son Christopher, to whom Tolkien sent parts of the work in progress while Christopher was on active service in World War Two, and ultimately by Tolkien’s personal investment in his creation.

‘Pauline Baynes also illustrated [in addition to Farmer Giles of Ham] Tolkien’s 1962 collection of verse, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil]’ omits her art for Smith of Wootton Major as well as her binding designs and posters for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. ‘The Lord of the Rings was eventually finished in 1949’: yes, finished in draft, but not yet revised or completed, especially in regard to the Appendices. (In a sense, Tolkien never completed The Lord of the Rings, but revised and corrected its text while he lived; but this is quibbling.) ‘The spectacular popularity of The Lord of the Rings, which began in the mid-1960s and kept it on the best-seller lists in Britain, America, and many other countries’: the work was popular from its first publication in 1954–55, and did not need its paperback editions in the 1960s to keep sales at respectable levels (though the paperbacks served to increase sales substantially).

Peter Hunt concludes his review by stating that ‘producing a second edition [of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature] by comprehensively revising it would have been an impossible task (and anyway, one suspects that the attempt might have been at least partly hamstrung by OUP’s series directives).’ Not impossible, surely; difficult, definitely, and perhaps OUP would not have allowed the number of pages needed – or perhaps they would have done, as HarperCollins allowed Christina and me to have two volumes, rather than just one, for our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (a near thing, using thin but opaque paper to reduce the bulk, and it could have been three volumes easily). I would have given it a try, though there’s no reason to expect I would have been asked.

Tolkien Notes 12

October 7, 2015

The Art of The Lord of the Rings

Art of Lord of the Rings trial bindingTomorrow, October 8th, is publication day in the U.K. for The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins). We hope it will please and inform. The American edition, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), will be published next week, on the 13th. As expected, the HMH edition will be available in a dust-jacket but not a slipcase, while the HarperCollins edition is in a slipcase but not a dust-jacket. An early review of The Art of The Lord of the Rings is being written by Ethan Gilsdorf for We hear that our new book has also just been published in Finnish by WSOY.

The final product still has 240 pages, as we reported earlier, with 192 numbered figures (including 10 details), around 100 of which were not previously published. In the last stages of production, we located further small instances of art in the Lord of the Rings papers at Marquette and had to revise how the pictures were presented.


Tolkien on Record

For the completist collector, or anyone interested in spoken word recordings, Tolkien’s performance of the ‘troll song’ from The Lord of the Rings, first issued on the 1975 Caedmon album J.R.R. Tolkien Reads and Sings His The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, was also included as a sample track on the 1977 Caedmon anniversary double album Caedmon: Speaking of the Best for 25 Years (SP25). We discovered this on eBay.


The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

A new edition of Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, presented in English and Serbian on facing pages and with extensive commentary, has been privately published by the translator, Aleksandar Mikić ( We asked Aleksandar to hold a copy for us when he announced it, but once it became available we found it difficult to send money by wire transfer from our rural location. Fortunately, Aleksandar was able to set up payment by PayPal through a friend of his in Wales.


Tolkien’s Letters to Sterling Lanier

‘Between the Covers’ of Gloucester City, New Jersey are offering an archive of six typed letters signed by J.R.R. Tolkien, and one autograph letter signed by Edith Tolkien, to Sterling E. Lanier, author, sculptor, and the editor who convinced Chilton Books to publish Dune. These are concerned with small bronze figures based on characters in The Lord of the Rings, which Lanier made and hoped to market with Tolkien’s permission. Tolkien was amenable, but United Artists held the rights at that time. The correspondence also touches on the Ace Books affair, with Tolkien reporting on an initial overture from Ace, ‘very specious and slightly glutinous’, and later commenting on ‘very reasonable terms’ from the publisher. A small portion of one letter was published in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, on p. 422. The entry in Between the Covers’ web catalogue includes a full description but only a very small picture, which does not seem able to be enlarged. The seller’s printed catalogue (Archives & Manuscripts no. 19) includes more and larger photos. The asking price for the collection is $40,000.

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