Reading in Richard Armitage’s wake: Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien biography

51AE77T-4gL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_At some point in the last round of Hobbit publicity, when asked how he had prepared for the role of Thorin Oakenshield, Richard Armitage mentioned that he had read the Humphrey Carter biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. I thought, “that’s interesting” and put myself in the queue for a copy of the book in a swap arrangement I participate in (and added myself to the queue for Carpenter’s edition of Tolkien’s letters, as well) and then forgot about it. My copy duly arrived this week, and has been my mealtime reading since Rosh Hashanah. At 260 pp., despite its problems, it’s a well-written, manageable, interesting read, especially for someone who, like me, didn’t become a Tolkien fan as a consequence of Armitage’s participating in the Hobbit films.

Humphrey Carpenter, the author, grew up in the same milieu as Tolkien’s sons (the social circles of the university and church elite and their families in Oxford) a generation later, and began his career as a BBC trainee. He ended his life well-known as a biographer, and this biography of Tolkien was apparently his breakthrough work in that genre. Carpenter met Tolkien in 1967, when he started this project (the book was published in 1977, several years after Tolkien’s death) and enjoyed extensive access to materials held by family members, so in that sense it is not only the first Tolkien biography, but the only authorized one. Seen from that perspective, it is largely uncritical of its subject, taking on, for instance, Tolkien’s opinion that an author’s biography has little to do in providing insights into his written work, and thus avoiding any discussion at all of the contents of Tolkien’s most important fictional works, and mostly avoiding discussions of the contents of his scholarly (philological) works as well. Similarly, it is largely silent about the cooling off of Tolkien’s relationship with C.S. Lewis and in general about his relationships with other scholars in Oxford. Intriguing things are mentioned (Tolkien was often depressed, indeed on occasional so depressed that he felt unable to go to confession) and then left unexplored. The result is a very friendly text, and I appreciated not having to know the names of the entire dramatis personae of Middle Earth to understand the work. Still, I would have appreciated a little more insight into Tolkien’s emotional life and more discussion of exactly why Tolkien was still considered such an important scholarly influence in the field of English philology. More damagingly, however,, the book makes little effort to hid the author’s own class prejudices. These come to the fore on the first page when he defends Tolkien’s house against W.H. Auden’s charge that it was “hideous” (a remark, that after it had been printed, served along with Tolkien’s conviction that Auden did not understand his works, to reject Auden as a possible early biographer). Indeed, the whole introductory sketch, designed to enhance the author’s ethos by offering the reader his own impression of the famous author, is slightly off-putting. The Tolkiens’ house is not “hideous,” it is only “ordinary and suburban”; the room in which Tolkien receives him is “not very comfortable”; Carpenter describes Tolkien as “slightly embarrassed” about this; and in the end, notes that despite Tolkien’s age, “there is only a suggestion of tubbiness beneath the buttons of his coloured waistcoat.” What a relief that a 76-year-old man isn’t fat.

After an awkward start to its unsurprising picture of Tolkien as an elderly, absent-minded professor, however, the book improves substantially when the author gets out of the way of his story and just tells it. The book sketches the background of his parents’ lives (father, aspiring banker, child of an insolvent Birmingham businessman; mother, daughter of a suburban family of merchants whose father had turned to sales), the beginnings of their married life in South Africa, and Tolkien’s life after first his father, then his mother, died. Carpenter justly lays a great deal of emphasis on the role that inventing languages played in Tolkien’s childhood and adolescent development without giving much detail about it, then turns to Tolkien’s struggle with his guardian over his love to Edith Pratt, a young woman he met his lodgings, whom he would eventually marry. A fair amount of time is given to his undergraduate years in Oxford, his (to me surprisingly limited) military service in the Great War, and his first academic position in Leeds. At the point at which Tolkien is appointed professor in Oxford, the book changes its narrative style to proceed more thematically, on Tolkien’s family life, then on his academic and scholarly life, and finally on the creation of The Hobbit, first published in 1937, and the The Lord of the Rings. Oddly, the next chapter (on the events in Tolkien’s life in the fifteen years after LOTR was published) is labeled “Success,” as if someone who had published pathbreaking works of philology and held a named professorship at Oxford since 1925 had only been scraping along until then. This division makes understanding what happened easier for the novice, but it nonetheless contradicts Carpenter’s general point that Tolkien did not see his linguistic research and his mythological world-building as separate activities, and did not really aspire to be the best-selling author he became, but rather simply to document the world he was creating and see that documentation published. The biography ends with Tolkien’s last years, in which he first retired from his professorship and then moved to Bournemouth to please his wife, who had never cared for Oxford society and its prejudices (another thing that Carpenter seems to think he has to defend Tolkien for — which made me even more sympathetic to Mrs. Tolkien than I was during the episode of his life where Tolkien forced her to convert to Catholicism, abandon all her parish friends, and then encouraged her to follow him from pillar to post during all his military postings).

So, yeah. I found the book paradoxically condescending to its subject, oddly over-focused on the problem of bourgeois taste in describing a subject who lived much of his emotional life in an alternate universe, very condescending to his wife, and at points generally misogynistic, especially for a book written in the 1970s. Part of the problem may be that, born after the war and growing up after the English economy had begun to recover, Carpenter simply lacks much empathy for the sort of practical problems that plagued people, especially people in the social circumstances of the Tolkiens, in the period from 1914 to 1945. Although he acknowledges that Tolkien loved his wife and wanted to please her, still he seems to regard the marriage as a sort of spiritual and intellectual mésalliance in a way that the generation that came of age in the 60s looked down on the emotional affairs of their parents.

That said, since I had never read anything extensive about Tolkien’s biography before, I found it a worthwhile read. One thing that surprised me: although one reads everywhere that Tolkien’s war experiences made a substantial impact on his work, he spent only four months in the trenches. Certainly, that could have been a decisive four months, but based on what I read in Carpenter’s book, I concluded that the war itself was probably less of an influence than the fact that all of his best friends from school were killed in it. It turns out that there’s another work focused on just this topic, in case I ever get more interested in that question. It looks like there’s also a more recent Tolkien biography with more literary discussion in it and deeper consideration of the Catholic elements of his work, but it doesn’t look like it’s any more detailed, really.

~ by Servetus on September 21, 2015.

4 Responses to “Reading in Richard Armitage’s wake: Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien biography”

  1. The book has been standing on my to-read shelf for years, I guess I should finally read it (considering I first read the Lord of the Rings when I was 12 years old) 😉 I’ll check out that newer biography, too.

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    • no rush … not look the book has been running away from you until now 🙂 but I do think it’s worthwhile. Which reminds, I finally read one of the books you suggested!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read that book earlier this year. Didn’t realize RA had read it in The Hobbit. I got confused at first because your blog said the author was Humphrey Carter. I really liked it, especially about his family and background. Although I agree with you on his attitude toward Edith. No matter if she was not Tolkien’s intellectual equal, they obviously loved each other deeply and were very committed to each other. No one really knows what goes on in a marriage, not even the children. (When I and my siblings talk about our parents you’d think we all grew up in different families.)

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    • I apologize for misstating the name of the author once and confusing you.

      Carpenter seems very concerned with defending the essential homosociality of Tolkien and friends — sort of implying that if Edith was lonely it was her fault or that she shouldn’t have expected anything different from her marriage. And in fact Carpenter quotes Tolkien essentially saying to his son — (paraphrasing) the fact that we were sweethearts in our early relationship made up for many things.

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