My Books of 2018: Carpenter on Tolkien

Humphrey Carpenter met with J.R.R. Tolkien once before the Professor’s death. He made an appointment, showed up promptly, and was ushered into the man’s cluttered study, which was in a converted garage separate from the main house. It is some time before he is able to state his business, as Tolkien seemed to treat a new pair of attentive ears much the same as he would a blank page: as an opportunity to talk at length about things that interested him.

“He says that he has to clear up an apparent contradiction in a passage of The Lord of the Rings that has been pointed out in a letter by a reader… He explains it all in great detail, talking about his book not as a work of fiction but as a chronicle of actual events; he seems to see himself not as an author who has made a slight error that must now be corrected or explained away, but as a historian who must cast light on an obscurity in a historical document.

Disconcertingly, he seems to think that I know the book as well as he does. I have read it many times, but…” (Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, 4-5)

…but The Lord of the Rings and its multifaceted legendarium is vast enough for even the most ardent explorer to get lost in from time to time. Such was my thought when I read that passage in Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, the only such biography authorized by Tolkien’s family. I’ve lived with Tolkien’s works for so long, and read through many other books about his world produced by other authors, that I think I know it all fairly well. But I fear if I too were face-to-face with the Professor himself, listening to him ramble delightfully to the air around me about all sorts of minute details of the world of Arda, I too would soon be lost. Happy and fascinated, but at least a bit lost!

But part of what makes Carpenter’s biography so excellent, is that it at least never loses sight of the real, human man behind the legends. Here was an excellent man, a good man, but not a perfect one. He could be overly stubborn and picky, and seems to have gotten moreso as he aged. His marriage was imperfect, though loving. His friendship with C.S. Lewis became strained in later years, and it seems to have mostly been Tolkien’s own fault (though his grief at Lewis’ death is a very moving thing to read about). But he was generous, often very patient, and devoted to his friends. While he treated Faerie seriously, he had quite a roguish streak in him as well—in college he acted a crossdressing role in a comic play that apparently got rave reviews as the most hilarious performance of the evening!

Many other studies have been published about Tolkien’s life, which I hope to delve into before too long. The Authorized Biography, however, remains an essential and warm-hearted starting point. Each page of Carpenter’s book gave me a better understanding of the man whose writings have shaped so much of my own life. He is less a pristine statue in my mind, and more a real human whom I cannot wait to meet in heaven.

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7 thoughts on “My Books of 2018: Carpenter on Tolkien

  1. I agree! This is really a wonderful book. I loved the insights into Tolkien’s life, though I admit I always want to know more about Edith. It seems we don’t know much about her, but what was her life like? Did she, too, get a little bit lost when Tolkien delved into the details of Middle-earth?! 😀

    1. My thoughts exactly. She seem to have sacrificed a lot to her marriage. She had to abandon her thoughts about a career as a musician, she had to become a Catholic – and she basically lost her family, pretty much the same way as Mabel Tolkien did, only that Mabel was a convinced Catholic, while Edith did it more because John asked her (insisted on it, actually). She didn’t hve many friends in Oxford either…

        1. I did feel sad for her throughout the book, and wished to know more of her. The lady immortalized as Luthien on her gravestone apparently didn’t feel much like a beloved elven princess in her married life. I’m glad Carpenter was honest about that aspect of their marriage, and that he was careful to emphasize how devoted they remained to each other despite many disappointments. It’s a lesson in love.

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