Monday, September 12, 2005

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

Humphrey Carpenter's J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography is a great look at the life of the creator of Middle-Earth. I had previously read Carpenter's group biography of The Inklings, so I was looking forward to getting a better glimpse at Tolkien. I was not disappointed.

In the preface, Carpenter notes with irony that Tolkien would have frowned upon a biography of himself, as the Professor believed that an author's life is best examined not through historical data but through his work. Granted, the Tolkien family made a tremendous amount of personal papers and correspondence, as well as numerous interviews, available to the biographer to chronicle J.R.R. Tolkien's history. However, as Carpenter frequently notes (perhaps too often), the fantastic and imaginative worlds that Tolkien created stand in stark contrast to the relatively uneventful and routine life that he lived.

Not that the details of Tolkien's life are inconsequential, though. His early years appear to have had a tremendous influence in shaping the course of his entire life. Losing his father at an early age, John Ronald (as he was called) was raised largely by his mother, Mabel, and sadly, she died within ten years of her husband. Carpenter notes that Tolkien's strong attachment to his mother profoundly influenced his entire life. Her family origins in the West Midlands of England sparked her son's lifelong interest in the history and ancient language of the region. Mabel's conversion to Roman Catholicism resulted in Tolkien remaining a devout Catholic until his death. Finally, his mother's tutoring influenced John Ronald to excel at language studies, even delighting in creating his own languages and alphabets. Other facets of Tolkien's life are fairly interesting, as well: his teenage romance (prohibited by his guardian) with the girl whom he would later wed; his less-than-exceptional scholastic performance, despite his bright mind and immense talent; and his WWI experiences, which included the Battle of the Somme and a lengthy recovery from trench fever. After the war, he served in various academic roles, ending up as a professor at Oxford.

Carpenter notes that Tolkien's decades at Oxford would hardly be considered exciting by most people, especially those enthralled by his tales of elves, magic rings and forgotten civilizations. He was an exceptionally gifted philologist and a talented lecturer, although his life was not notably different from an average Oxford don. He rarely travelled, eschewed automobiles and newspapers (and later television), and preferred ancient literature to more "modern" works, such as Shakespeare. However, Tolkien lived a fulfilled life. He loved the subjects he taught and researched, and enjoyed spending time in the company of friends. At Oxford, Tolkien belonged to "The Inklings," a group of friends and colleagues who shared a common love of literature, and which was primarily comprised of conservative academics from the university. The most significant among the group were Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who would remain close friends for years to come.

Carpenter does a great job of exploring the link between Tolkien's devout Catholicism and his creative endeavors. Of prime importance is Tolkien's idea of "sub-creation" -- that is, man's having been created in God's image manifests itself in man's own desire to create. In Tolkien's case, his love of ancient language led him to create his own languages. However, mere languages were not enough, because languages come from societies having their own unique culture and history. Therefore, Tolkien began creating his own world by tapping into his deep-rooted interest in his West Midland origins and his love for ancient tongues. As Carpenter shows, Tolkien viewed this creative impulse, in himself and in others, as a result of God's own act of creation. His frequent discussions of this subject with Jack Lewis had a direct impact on the latter converting to Christianity (to Anglicanism instead of Catholicism, much to Tolkien's dismay!).

The book also gives a fair amount of attention to the saga of Tolkien's writing and publishing of The Lord of the Rings. I was especially interested to see how little of his work Tolkien actually finished. It is true that he spent decades creating Middle-Earth and then telling the stories set within it, but his perfectionist tendencies often prevented him from actually completing the many ambitious projects he had undertaken. For example, on more than one occasion, Tolkien's publisher returned a manuscript to him for final proofing before it hit the presses, only to have him begin massive rewrites of portions (or the entirety!) of the work. Although Tolkien fans are understandably disappointed that he never finished The Silmarillion or many of the Lost Tales (which were later edited and released by his son Christopher), after reading his biography, I'm impressed that he even finished The Lord of the Rings.

Overall, Carpenter treats Tolkien very even-handedly, portraying his faults alongside his finer qualities. Anyone who enjoys Tolkien's work will appreciate this look at his life.

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